There are two climate summits taking place in Dubai. One is the gathering of bleary-eyed, sharp-tongued diplomats parsing over every word and comma in the international declaration that is expected in the coming days.
The bigger event is happening outside the negotiating rooms. It’s part trade fair, part protest stage, part debate forum. It’s where people come from all over the world, from all kinds of sectors to show off their gadgets, make deals, spar over big ideas and of course, lobby the diplomats.
This year, this big event is expected to be nearly twice as big as the last one, which itself set a record. According to the United Nations, which is overseeing the summit, known as COP28, a record 100,000 people registered; nearly 70,000 have shown up. Roaming through the venue are doctors and pesticide makers, venture capitalists and battery entrepreneurs, mining executives, real estate developers, permafrost scientists, policy wonks dreaming up new sources of climate finance, and at least 1,200 lobbyists for the oil and gas industry.
“The global economy is here, in a kind of microcosm,” said Rachel Kyte, a veteran climate diplomat and chairwoman of a group trying to make carbon markets more transparent.
Not surprisingly, there are competing visions for how to retool the global economy for a hotter future.
The livestock industry organized a panel on what it called “sustainable beef,” while just on the other side of a removable wall, an entrepreneur opined on precision fermentation, which is a way to make a meat substitute. Bhutan sought financing for its plan to remake its capital, Thimphu, more sustainably. An Indian solar entrepreneur created an immersive installation describing what happens when electricity comes to rural hospitals.
At one point, protesters smeared their white jumpsuits with fake oil and juggled inflated globes of planet Earth in oversized frying pans. A leaflet advertised a new faith, Vita Religion, promising “reverence for nature.”
In the past, climate conferences were largely focused on the energy transition. And this year, too, both established fossil fuel firms and renewable energy disrupters are in Dubai in force. The Canadian province of Saskatchewan spent $765,000 to come to the conference to promote its oil, gas and uranium deposits. OPEC, the oil cartel, hosted a “Model OPEC” session at its pavilion on Sunday.
But what stands out at this COP, which is short for the Conference of Parties to the United Nation’s climate change accord, is the vast array of interests that are represented. Doctors are speaking out about the health risks of burning oil and gas. Seed companies are lobbying to ensure any agreement encourages technological innovation in agriculture. At the ocean pavilion, there are debates on the pros and cons of marine carbon dioxide removal.
On display are as many pipe dreams as there are real-world innovations that are quietly scaling up.
“I call it climate expo 2023 and I’m not saying it in a pejorative sense,” said Robert Stavins, an energy economist at Harvard University. “This is the one everyone comes out to. People go because other people go.”
Dinara Ermakova, a nuclear engineer with a group called Generation Atomic, used the climate conference to spread the gospel of nuclear energy to government representatives from several countries. “They come to us and ask about nuclear,” she said. “‘Can you tell us more? These are our concerns. What financing is available?’”
Fittingly, the conference venue is also over the top. Stretching across 1,000 acres of desert, it is a mini-city with a helipad, a hotel, several convenience stores and restaurants. Every evening, at sundown, a light show projects inside a giant dome in the center of the exhibition complex. Calming music broadcasts through the grounds, as if to transform this over-the-top exhibition complex into a yoga studio.
Far from the negotiating rooms, follow the signs to an area named Surreal and you’ll find a circle of booths where startups of all kinds are showing off their wares. One offered carbon credits in exchange for the carbon-sucking microorganisms that it offers to farmers. Another was pitching a wildfire risk detection dashboard. A third displayed 3-D printed coral reef tiles made of clay.
One chief executive, from a Singapore-based company that makes three-wheeled cargo vehicles, had secured meetings here with potential investors, including a Gulf-based sovereign wealth fund. “We’d like to attract more investors here,” he told a visiting journalist. “If you could also introduce?”
She could not.
Max Bearak and Jenny Gross contributed reporting from Dubai.