The Three Circles of COP

Tim Carter
President, Second Nature

Inevitably, the first question I’m asked after attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) and a 12 hour flight back to Boston from Dubai is “How’d it go!?” 

It’s actually a tough one to answer, not only because of the jetlag and exhaustion that comes along with the long days and international travel, but because the conference actually isn’t a singular thing (you can check out our resource page to learn more about what COP formally is). 

This is my fifth COP and I’ve found the best way to answer the “how’d it go?” question is to think of it as three concentric circles, and how our small delegation of higher education leaders engages with these different experiences of the largest climate conference in the world.   

The Inner Circle: The Formal Negotiations 

The smallest circle represents the formal negotiations. These are driven by climate diplomats from every country working year-round to hammer out the technical details of the policy and implementation of this complex international climate agreement. Our delegation doesn’t spend much time in the formal negotiations as our access to the inner circle of the COP is as “Observers,” meaning that we can sit in on some negotiation sessions, but we’re just listening, not offering input. And, honestly, unless you are the wonkiest of the climate wonks, since these sessions are so technical, it’s hard to get excited about attending them even as they are very important. In the end, the Parties (the countries participating in COP) agreed in the “UAE Consensus” that we needed to begin “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.” 

My inner circle takeaways:

  • First time transitioning away from fossil fuels in a COP decision text = good!
  • Taking 28 years to get to this point = not great!
  • Not including phase out or phase down language for all fossil fuels + many other loopholes (e.g. “transition fuels”, funding questions, accountability) = still lots of work to do!

The Second Circle: Side Events, Pavilions, and Hoopla

The second circle of the COP is the side events — some are more like side shows — in large and small pavilions hosted by countries, NGOs, and private businesses. As a small delegation of higher education leaders, this is where we spent most of our time. We were able to host and facilitate numerous panels with our presidents from Truckee Meadows Community College and Stony Brook University, and other senior higher education leaders discussing how our sector can continue to support global climate solutions on and off campus. 

We co-hosted a higher education pavilion — the first of its kind, as far as I can remember — and participated in receptions of our peers and colleagues from the international higher education community. This is always a great time to build and strengthen relationships that last far beyond the event itself. There is no way these partnerships, and ultimately the program activities resulting from them, could happen without face-to-face engagement. There is a ubiquitous critique that we burn fossil fuels to make these relationships happen, and that’s true. But, the outcomes resulting from these in-person meetings are a tradeoff, and one that is vital to the work we do.

The remarkable thing about this year’s “second circle” was the sheer magnitude of it. There were double the number of pavilions from 2022, which itself was a record. While COP has always been the center of the climate world for these two weeks, the second circle now has become a planet unto itself

My second circle takeaways:

  • Platform opportunities for our delegation on the international stage = success!
  • New relationships formed and existing relationships strengthened = absolutely!
  • Contributing and supporting the global industrial climate trade show complex = disorienting?

The Third Circle: Marches, Protests, and Activism

This one I can keep very short: unlike in past years, this circle was basically non-existent. All the attendees knew protesting was a non-starter in the UAE, as large-scale civil society demonstrations are not allowed; that is just not something that happens there. There were a few highly curated chants of 10-15 people within a designated area of the badged zone, but nothing like what we saw in Glasgow or other previous COPs.

My third circle takeaways:

  • Nothing to see here!

So that’s my reflection from the “three circle” perspective of COP28. 

Until next year, the work continues to implement the ambitions, large and small, that were agreed on these last couple of weeks. We’ll be sure higher education continues to have a key role in driving success.

Dr. Karin Hilgersom, President, Truckee Meadows Community College; Dr. Maurie McInnis, President, Stony Brook University and Chair, New York Climate Exchange; Dr. Julie Zimmerman, Vice Provost of Planetary Solutions, Yale University; Dr. Tim Carter, President, Second Nature
Dr. Karin Hilgersom, President, Truckee Meadows Community College; Dr. Maurie McInnis, President, Stony Brook University and Chair, New York Climate Exchange; Dr. Julie Zimmerman, Vice Provost of Planetary Solutions, Yale University; Dr. Tim Carter, President, Second Nature

Key Takeaways from COP28

Samantha Thomas
Climate Program Manager, Data and Evaluation, Second Nature

The debate on whether this COP was successful continues to highlight the urgency we’re all facing. I attended 33 sessions hosted during the first week of COP28 where I engaged with leaders across industries and communities that, unlike the final negotiations, gave me hope and confidence. There is a real sense of urgency and determination from some of our most brilliant leaders to end the use of fossil fuels and achieve sustainable and just development. Here are just a few of the takeaways from my first COP experience.

1. There is still a massive divide between scientific consensus to end fossil fuel extraction and the greenwashing of major oil company representatives defending a slow phase-out. This is a particularly visible debate as the number of oil and gas representatives was around 2,500 compared to 600 at last year’s COP.

2. The loss and damage fund was perhaps the most successful negotiation of the COP, with more than $700 million pledged. However, this amount does not yet cover the estimated losses.

3. Indigenous leaders continue to pave the way for just solutions that are developed by local communities, not by large corporations or governments. Through formal negotiations, demonstrations, and panels, it seemed like Indigenous voices were on the main stage, rather than sidelined.

4. There were dozens of new AI and big data tools launched at this COP including Climate Trace, a responsive map that uses satellite, sensor, and machine learning data to measure and identify top global polluters. The AI Innovation Grand Challenge was announced to identify and fund AI development of solutions in climate action, which is already being used to predict severe weather events, decrease resource consumption, and improve smart agriculture.