Zeina Shahla, the editor of the environmental section at AMWAJ’s media partner Raseef22, attended the UN COP28 summit in Dubai. In this article, she shares her impressions of the conference venue from December 2023, exploring the different zones, initiatives, and the overall mood among participants.
As I ran around, looking for the bus that would take me from the metro station to Expo City Dubai, the site of the COP28 climate conference, one of the workers responsible for directing people smiled at me. Glancing at the kuffiyah I was wearing, he said: Free Palestine. I felt a sense of familiarity that contrasted with my feelings in the first hours upon arriving the night before.
As the plane descended towards the airport, I said to myself: “Why do they have all this electricity?” The city radiated a brilliance unlike any I have ever seen, an impression that lingered throughout my stay in Dubai. I thought it was because I come from the “land of darkness,” Syria, where living with minimal electricity has become the norm. Still, I heard the same observation from many people I encountered: the city is full of light, at times, almost to the point of annoyance. We decided to invent a new term, “electricity justice,” since we participated in one of the world’s largest global conferences, ostensibly dedicated to seeking justice among its many objectives.
The smile of that kind worker was just one of many. As participants traveresed the lengthy path, walking, navigating buses, and walking again – a seemingly exhausting process for those attending the conference daily – I encountered male and female workers of different nationalities that fill the small country. We exchanged smiles and expressions of greetings and gratitude. A number of them showed visible signs of exhaustion from prolonged hours of standing in the hot weather under umbrellas. Despite it being December, temperatures soared to thirty degrees Celsius in the afternoon hours.
On the same road, banners and billboards are filled with messages promoting “climate action and change,” such as: “Inspiring ideas”, “A protected planet”, “We turn promises into progress”, “Agreements into action”, and “Discourse into results”, “Let us promote inclusion” and “Inclusion of all”, “Let us be brave and bold” and “Hope inspires action”.
Upon entering the “Green Zone”, identified as “the center of people and solutions that turn climate agreements into real action”, and “the vibrant center of climate action” according to the conference management’s definitions, an area of pavilions and gardens of varying sizes unfolds. Some serve as showcases for countries exhibiting their environmental and “green” initiatives. Others are dedicated to specific themes, including climate finance, energy transition, knowledge and technology, and some spaces are reserved for small initiatives and startups, each contributing in its unique way to addressing the climate crisis that is troubling the world, as we perceive it: Cultivating meat from mushroom roots, transforming carbon dioxide into rocks, vertical and hydroponic farming, and other ideas. In some corners, artists and activists convey their demands through songs, while other engage in activities like crafting origami in the form of endangered bees, and other activities.
In the “Blue Zone” designated for leaders, official delegations, governmental and non-governmental organizations, and media professionals, a different momentum unfolds: meetings, movements, and demonstrations that address the most important points around which negotiations revolve this year, take place here. These include the Loss and Damage Fund, where rich countries are supposed to compensate developing countries for climate related losses. Additionally, discussions focus on the gradual phasing out of fossil fuels, a fair energy transition, adaptating to the consequences of climate change, financing climate action, and ensuring food security. Activists and media figures from all nations, particularly those heavily impacted by environmental disasters as floods, droughts, and fires, try every day, through various activities and movements, to underscore demands for climate justice, and exert pressure on the “major polluters” to shoulder their responsibilities concerning the ongoing climate disasters affecting the planet.
There is a growing sense of frustration among individuals who have been attending annually for over a decade, consistently reiterating the same messages. This year, marked as the hottest in history, their discontent appears to be more pronounced. This sentiment is amplified by reports detailing an unprecedented presence of pressure groups affiliated with fuel companies and the inclusion of a pavilion from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The latter held events on the sidelines of the negotiations to advocate for the continued support of fossil fuels, a primary contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Many describe the conference as feeling more like a “PR event”.
Adding to the frustration, some express disappointment with the inadequate representation of women and youth within the negotiating delegations, which means that numerous crucial demands fail to receive the attention they deserve. Others seem optimistic or at least “realistic”, “this is how negotiations always go, we have to persist in pressing for the gains we want,” they say.
I met Ines Wassy, an environmental expert from Benin. Each year, she brings her “Environmental Café” initiative, a project aimed at raising awareness about the critical importance of the environment and the devastating impacts of climate change in her country, such as floods and diminishing rainfall rates. In addition, Ines introduces her country’s rich culinary culture, offering local meals and drinks to visitors. Her work is part of a broader effort aligning with her country’s delegation in the ongoing negotiations. She shared with me, “Yes, I have hope. If I did not hold on to optimism, that would signal the end.”
The issue of Palestine was not absent from all these movements, patricularly in the Blue Zone administered by the United Nations, where demonstrations are allowed, in contrast to the general prohibition of such activities in the Emirates. Since the first day of the conference, gatherings and demonstrations, varying in size, have taken place, demanding a ceasefire in Gaza, an end to the occupation, and the realisation of climate justice, recognizing it as an integral component of human rights. The largest of these demonstrations was in the middle of the second week of the negotiations, attracting participants from hundreds of different nationalities. This event sparked intensified discussions around the concept of climate justice, gaining considerable momentum.
Within the Green Zone, an area that does not allow for similar movements despite its openness to all, many chose to wear various symbols indicating solidarity with Palestine, such as the kuffiyah, embroidered clothing, and accessories shaped liked watermelon. They look at each other, smile, and feel an inexplicable bond.
As I traverse the same path each day, I find myself revisiting those phrases that urge action and change. I contemplate the myriad lights that illuminate the city. I recall the words of a Yemeni friend on my first day here: “Lucky Emirati girls. They don’t have a war.” As is the case every day, I come across small papers strewn on the sidewalks displaying images of girls along with phone numbers, enticing people to call for “massage” services.
I keep one of them and add it to the brochures and advertisements gathered from various pavilions at the conference. Among them is a small piece of paper containing seeds that can be planted to witness their growth. I think we still have a long way to go from achieving justice.