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FaithInvest at COP28: Dr Lorna Gold assesses the highs and lows of the climate conference

FaithInvest CEO Dr Lorna Gold attended COP28 and delivered the Opening Address at the Faith Pavilion on December 4 – Finance Day. In this personal blog about what it was like to be at UN Climate Conference, she assesses the controversies and contradictions, the highs and the lows of this year's climate conference, and looks back at how faith communities made their presence felt.



The Faith Pavilion at COP28. Photo: UNFCCC

After COP28, words must become action: Redoubling our resolve

By FaithInvest CEO Dr Lorna Gold 

Dr Lorna Gold

I had thought twice about going to COP28 in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates this year. I have attended many COPs over the years but there was something about this COP in a petrostate, headed up by an oil company, that really jarred. I could not see much point in being present at what felt like a charade. 

 

Reflecting further, however, I realised that perhaps the quagmire of COP is precisely where people of faith need to be. This year, moreover, the national context in UAE meant that very few climate activists were welcome at COP. Every aspect of civil society is highly regulated. Faith groups, however, were granted a special status and welcomed in. There was even a pre-COP meeting on faith and climate.

 

This enabled the creation of a special ‘Faith Pavilion in the Blue Zone of the COP where negotiations take place. Under the circumstances of a highly controversial COP, the role of faiths as the most significant block in civil society able to be present, emerged as more important than ever.  


Dr Lorna Gold meets Pope Francis
Dr Lorna Gold meets Pope Francis

In my role as Board President of the Laudato Si’ Movement, I had a chance to meet Pope Francis about his letters on the climate, Laudato Sí' and Laudate Deum, on November 6. When we met he confirmed he was planning to go to COP28. 


We discussed the importance of faiths being present and aligning our statements and actions to the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable countries. Seeing the Pope’s determination not to give up on the only multilateral process we currently have to tackle climate change – the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – I decided I too would go.


The contradictions of COP

My experience of COP was full of contradictions right from the start. On arrival at the sprawling COP campus, where UAE had previously hosted the World Expo in 2020, the scale of the operation was evident. The COP site was packed with buildings hosting all manner of pavilions showcasing different efforts to tackle the climate crisis.

 

There were serious displays, but also a lot of fancy light installations, and remarkable futuristic architecture. I tweeted that if ‘fancy light displays could save the world we would be sorted’. There were broad walkways where people could stroll in the warm sunshine. You could even buy vegan ice-lollies from cute ice-cream stalls that looked like something straight out of the Barbie movie.

 

The whole place felt slightly surreal – like a kind of cross between a holiday camp and the Truman show. A kind of Disneyland for climate geeks.





No mention of the 'f' words

After a day of COP pavilion tourism – checking out some of the climate actions of random countries such as Saudi Arabia, China and UAE – I started to feel a bit sick to my stomach. There was even a pavilion for OPEC – the association of oil exporting nations! All of this showcasing, as well as what was happening in the negotiations, seemed to be taking ‘greenwashing’ to a whole new level. It felt like gaslighting. Amidst the frenetic activity and constant talking, it struck me that nobody seemed to be mentioning the main causes of rising emissions: the ‘f’ words – fossil fuels.

 

Moreover, it became clear that the very same countries who were touting all sorts of efforts to go green, were actually planning to increase their oil and gas exploration in the coming years, including UAE. They had no intentions of addressing the principal root cause of the crisis.  


The fossil fuel genie comes out of the bottle

The absence of any mention of phasing out fossil fuels in a key petrostate started to really disturb me and I was hoping that someone – perhaps a faith leader or a head of state – would pierce the silence. The absence of Pope Francis was really felt – he could not be there due to illness. I was relieved, therefore, when his message in the Global Stocktake, read by the Vatican Secretary of State, called for the ‘elimination of fossil fuels’. Someone at a high level had used the 'f' words nobody wanted to say.

 

Following his speech it felt like the fossil fuel genie was out of the bottle. There was no way it was going back in. Momentum on fossil fuels started to gather pace. A testy exchange between former Irish President Mary Robinson and the COP President where he denies the science was released by the Guardian newspaper and caused a storm.  


Demonstrators call for a fossil fuel phase out at COP28
Demonstrators call for a fossil fuel phase out at COP28. Photo: UNFCCC

A significant moment at COP reflecting momentum on fossil fuel elimination was a crucial event on the proposal for a ‘Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty’. This campaign calls for a new treaty that would fall under the UNFCCC and address the means for an orderly phase out of fossil fuels, something that the Paris Agreement failed to do.


Through not mentioning fossil fuels, the Paris Agreement allowed massive loopholes to develop, which have allowed countries to continue to expand fossil fuel production and exploration – claiming it will be ‘abated’ in the future by carbon trading or carbon capture or other technologies yet to be proven.


At COP28 Colombia became the 10th country – and the first oil producer – to declare its support for this bold initiative to end fossil fuels. The atmosphere in the room where they announced was electric. Faith leaders from the Pacific spoke at the event and declared the commitment of faiths to this important new process.  


The Faith Pavilion

In the midst of the frenetic COP negotiations, the Faith Pavilion was a valuable space on many levels. The space was a welcome oasis where people of faith and secular civil society could discuss important initiatives that align to an integral, faith-based approach and reflect together on the shared values and vision we hold in caring for God’s earth.


Dr Lorna Gold gives her keynote address at the Faith Pavilion at COP28

There were many great debates and discussions (65 sessions, 325 speakers) on issues from grassroots approaches to climate education, efforts to support agriculture, energy transition in the developing world, and the role of youth. I spoke on Finance Day on the need to reform the financial system and for faiths to step up and align their own $4 trillion+ in investments to climate solutions.


At the start of COP there had been concerns that the UAE Presidency might use its patronage of the Pavilion as a kind of ‘faith-wash’ – a shield to cover up its lack of ambition to real change. But that did not materialise in the end, helped greatly by the fact the Pope could not attend. Without a global faith celebrity, the pavilion did not make a lot of headlines.


Instead, the space was used by many hundreds of faith groups as a wonderful, vibrant meeting point and place to deepen practical collaboration – a very valuable addition to COP which we hope will continue to thrive into the future. 


The final verdict on COP28

The final text of COP, which was agreed in a dramatic and controversial fashion, signals the need to ‘transition out of fossil fuels’. The effort of faiths and civil society made a difference for sure. The mere mention of the 'f' words has been seen as a success in many quarters.


However, the next steps in the global negotiations look very shaky indeed. In the final plenary, the role of the chair in ‘gavelling’ the outcome before any comments were heard (and the small island states – most urgently affected – were not even in the room) has left much bad blood. Getting fossil fuels in a text is significant but it should have happened 20 years ago. What is there now remains full of loopholes and weak language open to interpretation.  



Left: Simon Stiell, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC (L), H.E. Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, COP28 President (R) at COP28's closing plenary. Right: Devastation felt by Tina Stege, Climate Envoy for the Marshall Islands, one of the Small Island States (low-lying island nations hit hard by rising seas and damaging floods and storms) after the failure to include a phase-out of fossil fuels in the final agreed text.

 

However, this COP more than any other has forced countries to come clean on their ambitions for the phase out of fossil fuels. Those who have refused to move have been exposed and had nowhere to hide. By the end of the COP28, however, more than 100 countries had agreed to phase out fossil fuels.

 

This division is stark and deeply disturbing. It reveals the power of the fossil fuel industry to overturn the will of the majority. Regardless of what side a country is on, however, it makes the rationale for a new treaty on the means to transition away from fossil fuels more essential than ever. The next stage in the journey will involve civil society and ambitious governments moving fast to develop a treaty proposal with those countries and to win over the others. 


Going forward – and the role of faiths

Climate activists demonstrate COP28. Photo: UNFCCC

As momentum behind a binding fossil fuel treaty builds in the coming months, the resistance from OPEC and other major blocks will only grow stronger. Faith organisations will have a critical role to play in building broad-based support and sustained momentum for action. The Vatican is a full party at COP now and could play a key role.


With courageous leadership, and convening power, faiths may well play a critical role. Faith groups are already at the forefront of climate action, working at all levels to reduce emissions and influencing the grass-tops and the grassroots. Now, with the focus on eliminating fossil fuels, their role in this important work may prove central. 



 

Read the statement about the final agreement by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)










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