First off, I’d like to start by thanking our practicum professor Jackson Ewing as well as our fearless TAs, Ina and Gabriela for this invaluable learning opportunity. This COP was an all-you-can-eat firehose buffet of learning and I am sure I absorbed so much more knowledge through osmosis than I realize. I know that this will be a foundational and enduring part of my climate education at Duke.

In my seven days at COP, I learned about climate finance, decarbonizing hard-to-abate industries, green transportation, carbon sequestration, agriculture, biofuels, Islamic finance, private-public sector collaboration, and international policy negotiations. This is truly one of the greatest single concentrations of talent, activism, and advocacy in the world. Although the final text of the COP agreement is not nearly as strict on fossil fuels as the climate community had hoped, and next year’s conference is being held in another petro-state, I am encouraged to see so many countries and companies ready to press ahead on climate priorities with or without the rest of the world.  Young people also turned out to COP; when the youth activists I saw protesting eventually become the decision-makers in their organizations, the climate movement will make strides. The momentum is in the right direction.

To close off my blog series, I want to share some areas that I am optimistic about, and some areas I am concerned about after my week in Dubai.

Areas of Optimism:

  • Ambition: The ambition of public and private sectors was in full display at COP28. I was personally shocked when the President of my home country of Colombia pledge to cease new oil and gas exploration, given the sector is one of our main exports. Many of the companies that spoke at the McKinsey booth also surprised me. Companies are taking climate change seriously and embedding ESG concerns into their core strategy. From a carbon removal startup looking to grow 100x in 18 months to a mega-consumer-goods companies looking to implement restorative agricultural practices across the 7 million acres of farmland that feeds into their supply chain, the private sector is moving.
  • Focus: Activists and representatives in the public and private sector came to COP prepared with a clearly defined agenda. The cynical side of me distrusts lofty corporate Net Zero pledges, but seeing and speaking with the business leaders who are operationalizing their companies’ commitments showed me that the leaders in the space have a realistic grasp on what actions are possible, what will need collaboration, and what will need innovation.
  • Collaboration: Companies are unifying around common interests and coming together with their competitors to define industry-wide ways of working. There are cross-sector ventures splitting off from their parent companies to identify how shared knowledge and expertise can come together to innovate new value chains. NGOs are involved in new projects to ensure high environmental standards and to build confidence for consumers and investors.

Areas of Concern:

  • Energy Production: Many of the conference’s hot topics, including green hydrogen production, carbon capture and storage and biofuel production are incredibly energy-intensive. Even with all global attention on the issue, these technologies are fundamentally inefficient (e.g., high energy inputs for lower energy outputs), and will require enormous amounts of new energy to power. Even with the COP28 pledge to triple renewables by 2030, it seems to me that the rapidly-growing energy demand of these green technologies is the elephant in the room that people are not talking about.
  • Bureaucracy: Even though leaders at the COP communicate urgency, bureaucratic bottlenecks are preventing implementation of the energy transition. Whether it is under-resourced governments, archaic rules, or poorly-defined relationships between local, regional, and national governments, in many areas it is difficult to build new projects. In Canada, new renewables projects face the same permitting process as new Oil & Gas exploration. In the US, a transmission line for a wind farm in Wyoming finally got government go-ahead after an 18-year long permitting process. Permit reform may not be why we get into the climate space, but without it, our efforts are severely hampered.
  • A Fair and Equitable Transition: As with any macro trend, there will be winners and losers in the energy transition. I am still not convinced we have a realistic solution for the localized social impacts of what we are proposing.While I was visiting Oman after COP, some locals were telling me their concerns about an energy transition. The country’s prosperity and modernization was largely built on oil revenues, which their former leader Sultan Qaboos used to build advanced infrastructure and education for its people. While the country has favorable conditions to build renewables into their energy mix (lots of sun in Oman), 80% of their economy relies on petroleum exports. With a hypothetical phase-out of fossil fuels, the country would have to find new economic sectors to replace the revenues, or make do with significantly lower resources. Simply put, it is difficult to replace 80% of your country’s economy. While we understand there is a global imperative to eliminate fossil fuel production and consumption, the regional disparities produced by transitioning to a new economy will continue to put sand in the gears of climate diplomacy if they are not addressed.

    In additional to regional disparities, I worry that the private sector will capture a disproportionate share of the value created by the green transition. Corporations are well-positioned to take large investments, innovate new technologies, and scale them worldwide. They are not designed to distribute wealth equitably or architect truly inclusive systems. While they may be an effective engine to implement the COP commitments, we need to remember that the green transition must benefit everyone – especially those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change – not just shareholders.