“COPs have become the climatic Olympic Games, except they happen each year with no winners”

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The recently concluded COP28 summit in Dubai was a reminder of just how complex finding meaningful solutions to the climate crisis will be, writes Sumita Singha.

It seems that COPs have become the climatic equivalent of the Olympic Games, except they happen each year with no winners.

The much-delayed deal at COP28 called on all countries to “transition away” from using fossil fuels for the first time – but not to phase them out, as many countries wanted. Island nations hard-hit by the climate crisis are critical of the deal, though it was approved by nearly 200 nations. Campaign groups such as Greenpeace also say the agreement doesn’t go far enough and that the transition won’t happen in a “fair and fast manner”.

The Two-Thirds World needs help before being lectured by rich nations

This was my first Conference of the Parties (COP). Certainly a party it was, with celebrities, world leaders and politicians, people wearing plastic floral wreaths and feathers, colourful umbrellas and national dresses, some serving tea and biscuits. The nearly 100,000 people gathered there seemed good-natured and affable despite the Middle Eastern heat, 30-40-minute walks to reach venues, long queues, restaurants running out of food and lack of facilities for the disabled.

As a meat-eating Buddhist, I encountered vegan peace protesters from Hong Kong with glossy leaflets about how bad meat is, and I reflected upon how complex and personal the solutions to the climate crisis are. The youth protesting about fossil fuels while wearing fast fashion, which is responsible for more carbon emissions than shipping and aviation combined. The delegate from the Solomon Islands, pregnant with her fifth child, would be uncomfortable talking about overpopulation. The delegate from Somalia who told me how she’d driven to watch three football matches in one day in Qatar. Who was I to pour water on her enjoyment?

The complexity is upon nations too. Can Iraq, for example, which has been bombed to smithereens, stop exporting the oil that is its main source of income? UAE and Qatar, both energy-intensive nations and major exporters of oil, are also major negotiators in the ongoing conflict in the Middle East (wars contribute 6 per cent of carbon emissions). Each country and each person needs a tailored approach.


Stella McCartney presents Sustainable Market of material innovations at COP28

The Two-Thirds World needs help before being lectured by rich nations about cutting down on their emissions. China is a major polluter, but much of its emissions come from goods produced for export. And while Western nations and industries plant trees in other parts of the world in the name of carbon offsetting, they continue to dump waste on South America, Asia and Africa where it is ultimately burned as poor countries struggle to deal with it. There were abundant slogans about “net zero”, but nothing about “de-growth”.

Dubai was an interesting choice for this conference. It is a city of immigrants, particularly from the Indian subcontinent, and now increasingly from Africa. The 2020 Expo site was manned 24 hours a day using 12-hour shifts, with airline style security.

Many people I met in the city were completely unaware of the huge conference about the environment being held in the Expo. I talked to a five-months pregnant woman who was working there to send money for her four-year-old left with her parents in Nigeria. I asked her how she was coping. She said she would work until her sixth month and then survive on the single income from her husband, who was also working in Dubai, since there was no maternity pay.

Where were the architects, designers and other creatives in the debate?

At my hotel, I met the Pakistani doorman who was a trained glazier brought in to work on the city’s shiny edifices, but claimed he had been cheated out of his salary for six months and was now living on borrowed money and trying to pay off his debts.

Dubai, with its high-energy architecture, endless roads, incomplete metro lines and gaudy malls seemed to pose perfectly the question: “Is this what you want? Is this progress?” Why not have the next COP at Tuvalu before it disappears – or even Bangladesh during the monsoons, so that world leaders can experience how the Two-Thirds World lives?

If many poor nations appear despondent at the COP28 deal, it is perhaps because they remember that most of the agreements reached at the COP15 held in Paris – the landmark Paris Agreements – have not been followed through. Some of the island nations say that they were not in the room when the agreement was reached. The official Indigenous representatives were outnumbered by attendees linked to the fossil-fuel industry by seven to one. Given they stand to lose so much more, they could have been given more of a voice.


“It is time for all of us to become aware of the gravity of the situation”

I wondered why exemplar nations like Bhutan, Panama and Suriname – all of which are carbon negative with over 60 per cent forested areas – weren’t given centre-stage, instead of big companies and rich countries. They argue they should be paid for maintaining the world’s lungs.

And importantly, where were the architects, designers and other creatives in the debate? I met many, but none of the architects that seemed to be making an impact were pursuing architecture or design – rather they were CEOs and presidents of NGOs. One was a former first lady and one was a minister for the environment.

As creatives dependent upon patronage, client budgets and tastes, as well as regulations, our ability to experiment is much hampered. At least the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has been granted “observer status” since COP26 in Glasgow. Engaging can help change the world in small ways.

Sumita Singha is an architect, educator and writer. She is director of Ecologic Architects and has served on several RIBA committees, as well as founding the institute’s equality forum, Architects For Change. She is author of Architecture For Rapid Change and Scarce Resources, published by Routledge, and received an Order of the British Empire in 2021 for services to architecture. She was writing for Dezeen in a personal capacity.

The photo is by Sumita Singha.

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