COP Process Behind-the-Scenes

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    Stockholm (NordSIP) – The aftermath of December 2023’s COP28 climate conference led to mixed reactions to the final outcome.  While progress was made on some of the financing initiatives and closer attention was paid to biodiversity and the food industry, there was also frustration at the absence of a call to phase out fossil fuels.  A revealing look behind the scenes of these negotiations was provided by a veteran of the entire COP process so far at an event organised in Stockholm by climate-focused social media platform We Don’t Have Time on Monday 8 January 2024.

    A potted history of 28 COP events

    Prior to his work with We Don’t Have Time, Nick Nuttall was a Director of Communications for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi, Kenya.  He went on to perform the same role for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) based in Bonn, Germany.  Nuttall’s 17 years within the UN environment programme (UNEP) were preceded by more than a decade of environmental reporting the UK’s Times newspaper.

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    According to Nuttall, the early days of the global environmental debate focused mainly on acid rain and pollution.  It was only at a meeting in Stockholm in 1972 that climate change entered the agenda, and nations decided to set up a global environmental programme under the auspices of the UN.  Nuttall believes that basing UNEP in Nairobi was a cynical ploy by wealthy high-emitting countries, with Kenya’s fledgeling telecommunications infrastructure hindering rapid progress: “They knew that they would basically neuter this organisation so it would not interfere with their economic growth by promoting environmental action.” Explains Nuttall, adding: “You need to know this as with all these conferences, even today, there is a political story sometimes being told behind the scenes.”

    Nuttall goes on the relate his experience of the very first Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC that took place in Berlin in 1995.  He believes the first significant such event was Kyoto’s COP3, during which nations agreed to not just stabilise average global carbon emissions, but to reduce them over time by 5.2%.  According to Nuttall, this was also the first time that the fossil fuel lobby made an appearance, with the so-called high priest of oil Donald Pearlman stalking the corridors, lobbying hard on Saudi Arabia and Kuwait’s behalf.  The Kyoto protocol was achieved partly thanks to the pragmatism of the global insurance industry, Nuttal explains.  Insurers’ risk modelling capabilities allowed them to identify the scale of the potential climate-related losses by the mid-90s, spurring them on to help get the deal over the line in 1997.

    In other significant milestones, COP15 in Copenhagen was seen as a failure.  Nuttall believes it was a victim of circumstance, with the world still emerging from the 2007/2008 financial crisis and the cost of renewables remaining too high for developing countries.  He was however deeply involved in 2015’s successful event in Paris, which thanks to tumbling renewables costs and greater common interest resulted in the groundbreaking Paris Agreement that forms the benchmark for climate targets to this day.  For Nuttall, COP24 in Katowice, Poland was also significant in signalling the involvement of activist campaigners such as Greta Thunberg and the emerging use of the term climate crisis.

    The current state of global climate action

    Turning to the present day, Nuttall is unconvinced by the actions of the global investment community: “My feeling right now if they are having it both ways.  They are investing in some renewable energies, but also in the oil industry.”  He also mentions deceptive mutual funds that avoid holding fossil fuel producers but continue to invest in oil and gas distribution and support infrastructure. 

    Recalling a meeting with the CEO of Shell prior to COP21 in Paris, during which he expressed his commitment to climate action, Nuttall believes that firm’s subsequent behaviour should preclude the oil and gas sector’s involvement in the COP process.  “Until they stop telling ‘porky pies’ – i.e. lies, they should not be allowed at the table,” he says.  Nuttall refers to the belated inclusion of the term fossil fuels in Glasgow’s COP26 final statement but remains frustrated at the slow progress.  He points to the fact that two weeks’ worth of global fossil fuel subsidies would immediately fill the Loss and Damage fund, which according to Nuttall begs the question: “Why are we even trying to deal with climate change if governments are still doing that?”  He believes institutional investors have a key role to play: “It is the progressive investors that can lean on governments and ask why are you subsidising fossil fuels when we are actively investing in a future low-carbon economy?  That is the definition of insanity, it is like dinosaurs investing in the incoming comet.”

    Following this rare insight into all 28 COP events so far, We Don’t Have Time CEO Ingmar Rentzhog shares their experience of the two latest conferences in Egypt and the UAE.  This included quite explicit attempts to stifle press freedom and unprecedented levels of fossil fuel lobbying.  Nevertheless, Rentzhog believes that the leaked OPEC letter referring to potential “tipping points” for the oil industry and the audible arguments between Saudi and Emirati delegates may be positive signs of a fossil fuel sector rattled by the global shift towards renewables.  Nuttall and Rhentzhog express low expectations for COP29 in Azerbaijan and prefer to focus their efforts on this year’s USA election.  They believe its outcome will have a much greater climate impact and plan to host a Climate Town Hall in Washington DC as of mid-March 2024.

    Image courtesy of We Don't Have Time
    Richard Tyszkiewicz
    Richard Tyszkiewicz
    Richard has over 30 years’ experience in the international investment industry. He has worked closely with major Nordic investors on consultancy projects, focusing on the evaluation of external asset managers. While doing so, Richard built up a strong practical understanding of the challenges faced by institutional investors seeking to integrate ESG into their portfolios. Richard has an MA degree in Management and Spanish from St Andrews University, and sustainability qualifications from Cambridge University, PRI and the CFA Institute.
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