The COP Emotion

19 Dec 2023

By Josh Matthews 

Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Lewisham West and East Dulwich; London Assembly candidate for Greenwich and Lewisham; professionally, a sustainability “activist analyst”

Adapted from the original article which you can find on LinkedIn here.

I desperately hope that COP28 has helped, on balance, rather than provided a dangerous sense of achievement and control. But it still stands that politics, consumer behaviour, and business will not change at the speed and systems level that the climate and sustainability emergency needs. So it also still stands that we—whether as individuals, organisations including the Liberal Democrats, or governments—need to keep moving towards a critical mass that shows sustainability works across all environmental, social, and economic fronts—pulling policy, people, and all industries into alignment with the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). That to me is our last chance to simultaneously leverage the systems which got us into this mess, while fundamentally transforming them to the systems needed for a sustainable future.

What I’ve come to call “The COP Emotion” became even clearer to me this year at COP28 in Dubai. I’ve felt the same over the past two years at COP26 in Glasgow and observing Egypt’s COP27 online. This year’s UN climate summit left me, and many others I know, balancing the inspiration and hope you take away from the people and organizations throughout COP28, with the simultaneous feeling of still being in overwhelming trouble (my language on LinkedIn was less censored). Optimism and a feeling that we made some progress comes alongside a global context set to worsen dramatically before it improves. COP28 has not solved the climate and sustainability emergency, to state the blindingly obvious.

The “UAE Consensus”, as the final agreement seems to have been named, is historic and a surprising achievement for several reasons (see here for a longer summary from the Economist and here for another from three UCL academics). The scale of industry lobbying and the UAE’s Presidency of COP28 led by its state-owned oil giant, Adnoc, came with it a long bill of controversy that included denying science, condescending tones, and behind the scenes largely successful efforts to entrench and expand fossil fuels. But we knew that was the game. So the agreement of near 200 countries to language of “transitioning away from fossil fuels” is a success and we can use this to hold governments and companies to account. But when that agreement comes alongside the UAE, UK, USA, and most every large country upping their fossil fuel production… cynicism is understandable.

The agreement to set up a loss-and-damage fund for nations baring the worst of climate change was also historic—given our historic achievements. But we need to talk Trillions, not 100s of Millions. The UK’s meagre £60 million contribution from pre-existing and already decimated international development and aid spending was only partly excused by the US’s $17m, which still needs Congress approval… There was also no major achievement on decarbonising agriculture. A new target by over 100 countries to triple renewable energy by 2030 and a loose commitment from 50 or so oil and gas firms to decarbonise and address their methane emissions will not be enough.

1.5 is not alive

The climate will continue to worsen dramatically before things get better. We will almost certainly overshoot the 1.5-degree target of the Paris Agreement and hit a series of climate tipping points. Many who do not deserve it will suffer whether in small island nations, developing countries and emerging economies, and in the rich countries so determined to absolve themselves of the power they have to achieve the speed and systems level of change the world needs. Future generations continue to be failed. So much for treating future generations as we would have wanted to be treated by our predecessors… a distinctly liberal approach which sees little hope of reaching the majority globally anytime soon.

So what do we do? Both as individuals and as Liberal Democrats.

We all need to find the right use of our time and energy. That’s hard

It was difficult to know what to be angry about at COP28. Alongside the internationally recognised controversy and more small-scale annoyances at the summit itself, the realities of war in Gaza, Ukraine, and many other places kept coming back to many of our minds. For example, it was barely reported that Vladimir Putin arrived in the UAE during COP28—as well as Russia’s links to COP29’s host Azerbaijan, which I’ll come to later. Separately, the UK Government, rather than trying to re-establish its lost climate credibility, continued to weaponize refugees—choosing deliberate and distinct cruelty towards the extremely vulnerable human beings who have suffered so much already.

What can you do to show that sustainability works? And be part of the critical mass that moves us forward

I published some thoughts before COP28 that remain unchanged. Politics, consumer behaviour, and business are not going to change at the speed and systems level that the climate and sustainability emergency needs. Now anyone anywhere with a lever to pull should be under no doubt as to pulling that lever. We need to collectively show that sustainability works—on all environmental, people, and economic fronts—and pull policy, the public, and industry along into alignment with where we know we need to go.

We have to balance the COP emotion for our own wellbeing, but also in the narratives we use to advocate for change

Whatever our roles—political, business, community, personal—we can seek to balance the objective case for addressing the climate and sustainability emergency while not shying away from the emotional case, not least in being clear that we are in an emergency. That’s a large part of what I mean by saying that professionally I am an “activist analyst”. There is a massive role for storytelling. In the media, for one, as I wrote about in early 2023. But more broadly there were fantastic examples at COP28—including the work of Futerra, for example in Stories to Save the World. We’ve tried the facts and science case for over 50 years and it largely hasn’t worked. We need a new story.

Which brings me on to what this means for politics and the Liberal Democrats as we head towards a general election in 2024—one that’s likely to show the very worst of politics. But it puts a new onus on us to find that positive politics. A hopeful vision of what we could achieve. For all things climate and sustainability this is especially true.

Several opportunities have become clear for the Liberal Democrats

As a starting point:

  • The Liberal Democrats can formally adopt the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as an overarching vision for our efforts—especially our climate and sustainability policies.
  • Similar to 2019, our manifesto roadmap for decarbonization and addressing the wider sustainability emergency can continue to mirror the best updated evidence, combined with clear use of both markets and government action—and especially clarity where each is best placed to act where the other cannot.
  • Alongside our existing commitments to increase development and aid spending back to the UN target of 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI), we can enshrine loss-and-damage funding commitments to countries experiencing the worst effects of the climate and sustainability emergency.
  • We can use the COP28 agreement as another bar for challenging the Conservative government: for example, new oil and gas exploration in the form of Rosebank is unforgivable—on the science, on the Paris Agreement (net zero by 2050), and on the new “UAE Consensus” to transition away from fossil fuels.
  • We must push Labour to be more ambitious, more fair, and more evidence-informed on all fronts of the climate and sustainability emergency—and be the party that connects the global context to people’s lives and local areas.
  • We must show Green Party supporters that it is the Liberal Democrats that have the plans we need underpinning the ambition to address the climate and sustainability emergency.

My thoughts continue to crystalise as the dust settles on COP28. Not least looking ahead to COP29—in Baku, Azerbaijan—where we’ll come face to face with Russia’s political and financial influence. Heaven forbid that means a formal role for Vladimir Putin. We will also have to grapple with questions surrounding a new level of fossil fuel industry involvement, as well as matters of human rights and basic freedoms. More positively, from the COP floor I hear that COP30 in Brazil is outlining its ambition already.

Whatever comes our way over the coming months and years, let’s keep that ambition and underpin it by using our time and energy where it can best make a difference. Even if that best use can be very, very difficult to define. And no less difficult to be comfortable with. But maybe that’s unavoidable. I can’t say I’ve met too many climate and sustainability activists and professionals who will look at the world and think it’s job done. I think that holds for most Liberal Democrats.