A person takes a photo of a video of someone harvesting lettuce.

An attendee takes photos during a video presentation as part of the Transforming Food Systems in the Face of Climate Change event on the sidelines of the COP28 climate summit at Dubai Expo on December 1, 2023.

(Photo: Saul Loeb/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

3 Reasons to Be Optimistic About COP28

COP28 skepticism is understandable, but we owe it to the planet and future generations to remain hopeful, ambitious, and bold.

As delegates gather in Dubai for the United Nations Climate Conference, COP28, the mood is not upbeat. Hopes, already muted, that this would be a transformational gathering have been further dampened by revelations that the hosts, the UAE, have been planning to use their position to strike new oil and gas deals; a clear breach of U.N. protocol. So far, so demoralizing.

Indeed, the fact that the world’s seventh largest oil producer put the head of their national oil company in charge of negotiations, and no one was able to stop them, raises understandable questions about the credibility of these multilateral negotiations and their fitness to respond to the oh-so-real dangers of climate change.

The biggest barrier to progress is a minority of powerful vested interests who have captured many of the political processes, and exert undue influence over global and national negotiations.

And yet, there are reasons to be hopeful about this conference. In fact, it is incumbent upon us to keep the faith, and keep raising our voices, on behalf of our colleagues, our friends and families, the planet, and future generations.

Reason 1: Food Is in the Spotlight

For the first time, food is a major focus at a U.N. climate conference. On December 1, 134 countries signed the COP28 Emirates Declaration on Food and Farming, committing to making food and agricultural reform central to their climate action plans. This is welcome and long-overdue.

But it is important that we work together to ensure that a focus on food does not come at the expense of attention and progress on fossil fuels. Indeed, the declaration doesnt’t set out how governments will tackle food emissions, and makes no reference to fossil fuels. This omission is concerning, particularly since a new report from the Global Alliance for the Future of Food estimates that food systems account for a staggering 15% of all fossil fuels burned globally each year. That’s equivalent to the emissions of all E.U. countries and Russia combined.

There has been progress in Dubai, but still more work to be done. We must use our time at COP28 to drive acknowledgment of the urgent need to decouple food production from fossil fuel use. The message could not be clearer: To avoid catastrophic climate breakdown, countries must commit to breaking the link between fossil fuels and food.

Reason 2: We Are Not Alone

I am privileged to be travelling to COP28 with a group of more than 40 frontline food and farming experts from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas. These farmers, non-governmental organization representatives, land and Indigenous rights activists, and academics have the local knowledge and expertise needed to inform progressive policy.

Food growers, producers, and advocates already know what needs to be done to make food systems more sustainable. They are living the daily reality of climate change and other economic stresses. They are innovating to prepare for a more challenging future, while producing and consuming food in a way that protects nature and is better for their health. Now leaders have to listen to them.

The biggest barrier to progress is a minority of powerful vested interests who have captured many of the political processes, and exert undue influence over global and national negotiations. Sultan Al Jaber’s role as President of COP28, while simultaneously heading up UAE’s oil company ADNOC, is just the most visible and egregious of these relationships.

Oil and gas companies, petrochemical manufacturers, and industrial food producers all benefit from the status quo. At COP28, we must come together to counter their undemocratic, outsized influence and raise our voices to speak of a better future for all. We are the many and our voices will be heard.

Reason 3: This Is a Moment of Opportunity 

Multilateralism does matter. In spite of the myriad challenges it is facing, COP is still the moment when every single country has a voice, large or small, and there is focused attention on the shared crisis. Media attention skyrockets, and past promises are scrutinized for the action that followed.

It is increasingly impossible for anyone to deny or ignore the reality of climate change. 2023 saw records set and broken: the hottest July, August, September, and October on record. Wildfires, droughts, melting ice, floods—the worst predictions coming true faster than we expected, in technicolor.

COP needs to end with an agreement to phase out fossil fuels and transform food systems.

This is as true in the UAE’s backyard as it is anywhere. This summer, devastating wildfires swept across North Africa and record temperatures were recorded around the Persian Gulf. In less than a decade, temperature rises in the Middle East and North Africa could surpass 2°C, exacerbating drought and water insecurity in what is already the world’s most water stressed region.

For too long, successive COPs have failed to enact the bold change we desperately need. That’s why it is even more important for COP28 to exceed expectations, restore trust, and deliver an outcome that is ambitious, comprehensive and, backed by genuine political will.

The long-awaited loss and damage fund agreement on day 1 of the Conference as well as the Emirates Food Declaration are a promising start. For the remainder of COP28, we need to hear messaging that speaks of transformation rather than incremental change: and see action to complement it. COP needs to end with an agreement to phase out fossil fuels and transform food systems. This will not only protect our environment; it will reduce hunger, create jobs, restore nature, improve health, and safeguard our collective future.

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