Amid the backdrop of an increasingly polarized geopolitical landscape, growing socio-economic challenges and intensifying climate conditions, the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) hosted its largest ever summit in Dubai with 100,000 attendees.
Each COP provides a global stage for nations to collectively address urgent climate issues and foster international cooperation — with the outcomes intended to shape national policies, commitments, and strategies to secure a sustainable future for generations to come. And while these climate talks are critical, what matters most is how countries turn diplomacy into tangible climate action to ensure climate ambitions don’t get left in the sand.
On this special edition of Disruptors, John Stackhouse is in the hot seat as this year’s climate talks come to a close. He is joined by the RBC Climate Action Institute’s, Trinh Theresa Do to provide key takeaways and insights from his time on the ground and what they mean for Canada in the race toward net zero.
Learn more about the RBC Climate Action Institute, here.
Speaker 1 [00:00:01] Hey, it’s Theresa, and I’m back for a special edition of Disruptors. Today, John is in the hot seat to talk about his time at COP28 in Dubai. This year, there are about 100,000 people on the ground officially making it the largest U.N. climate summit ever. And while the conference is no stranger to controversy and at times disappointment, it was also filled with collaboration and innovation, with some historic agreements made in the fight against climate change. So what was Canada’s role in the world stage? What are some of the key takeaways from this year’s climate talks? And what can we be hopeful about as we look to the future? This is a special edition of Disruptors an RBC podcast. I’m Theresa Do.
Speaker 1 [00:00:55] John, it’s great to see you. It’s great to be back on the podcast. It’s been so long and I’m really excited to get into your trip abroad and to hear more about all the historic agreements and conversations that have been made that are so important to the work that we’re doing at RBC and of course to the broader global context.
Speaker 2 [00:01:14] Thanks for much. It’s great to be with you again.
Speaker 1 [00:01:16] So can you set the stage for our listeners? What was it like this time around? How was this cop different from the previous cops you attended from other global conferences such as Davos? What was the vibe like?
Speaker 2 [00:01:29] So this is called COP28, which means there’s been 28 of these. This one was like no other. Imagine 100,000 people gathering in Dubai, one of the world’s great oil centers, to talk about the climate crisis. So that was a bit of a mind shift for a lot of people. That was three times the number who were at Glasgow, which was, of course, a historic climate conference. But a different way of looking at that number is to think of it in terms of the challenge to the planet. This is a huge, maybe the biggest challenge to the world, and it’s going to take a lot more than 100,000 people to solve it. So we do need big gatherings of people to work through some of these epic challenges. Dubai was a really interesting place for a climate conference and there was a lot of resistance on that fact. A year ago, I remember people talking about boycotting it and that kind of faded away. I think people realized whether you are for or against or neutral about oil and gas, we have to come to grips with oil and gas if we’re going to get to net zero. So let’s do that with the people who produce it. And we all consume it in different ways and work through some of the challenges. And that many ways is what COP 28 became. It became an oil and gas conference that was the first and the last order of business. Lots of other things that went on that we’ll talk about.
Speaker 1 [00:02:52] Yeah, and in some ways, to be able to meet those epic challenges, you have to open the tent and ensure that everybody is at the table, including those who had the major oil corporations in the world. So let’s dig into some of those epic challenges and some of the successes and agreements that were reached. Can we talk about methane? Can you share more about the methane agreement that was reached?
Speaker 2 [00:03:12] Yeah, well, that’s probably the most significant material thing to come out of this court. Maybe the declaration on fossil fuels at the end is also going to have some significant lasting impact. But the methane agreement, I mean, some people are comparing it to and I’m going to go back to the 1980s here, but to the Montreal Protocol that dealt with CFCs, the stuff that comes out of refrigerators and was causing holes in the ozone layer. I’m not sure we’re at that yet with methane, but this was an agreement by most of the world’s methane producers, including Canada, to get methane emissions down by 75% by 2030. That’s a major, some may say massive commitment. And now it’s a challenge to actually do it. But it’s important to have a goal like that to then turn to action. The core methane challenge comes from natural gas production. So you drill a well and you’ve got to essentially allow methane to leak or go into the atmosphere. If you try to contain it, things are going to explode. So that’s not a good thing. But there’s actually ways of capturing the methane and reusing it or keeping it from going into the atmosphere. The industry’s already been on this actually for economic reasons. And frankly, a lot of the best climate action in the world is driven by economic necessity. So gas companies and oil and gas companies have been working on reducing methane for a number of years. Canada has been a leader in this. Now it’s time for action. So all eyes are going to be on both the private sector and the governments that regulate them to see how progress is being made.
Speaker 1 [00:04:50] And if we stay on oil and gas for a moment. COP28 reached an historic agreement to phase out fossil fuels. Of course, there’s very precise language that was bantered back and forth for 48 hours or so. Can you tell us more about this agreement, why it’s historic and what that means for the future?
Speaker 2 [00:05:09] It’s always interesting to see people and nation states and their governments get really fired up about language and word choice. And this cop was almost inflamed by that choice of words about phasing out or phasing down fossil fuels. And it was politics and diplomacy at Decibel 11. On some days, the Saudis were very audible in encouraging other countries, especially other oil producers, not to agree to anything that might spell the end of oil. In the end, and this is what diplomacy often does. Fresh words were put on the table about transitioning away from fossil fuels. Some people see that as watering down of the language. But I think a different interpretation is that this is the first time a COP conference and by extension the United Nations. So the community of nations has put on paper and people have signed a declaration about fossil fuels coming to an end. Is this the end of the oil era? Well, if it is, wow, that just happened in Dubai, right in the middle of the Persian Gulf. That’s an incredible moment, but we’ll see. These are just words. And now it’s going to be to action. But there were also some important words that were associated with it. That, you know, we have to stick to the timeline as dictated by science, which is sort of code for we’ve got to get to net zero by 2050. We’ve got to reduce oil and gas production before 2050 to get there. And other declarations from science that will no doubt be the stuff of future cops and ongoing heated debates.
Speaker 1 [00:06:45] And from my understanding, Canada played a very important, orchestrating role in reaching the final words in this agreement. In another area, in Agriculture, Canada also plays a leading role in supplying food and the necessary inputs for agriculture production for the world. And there was also a deal reached on agriculture at COP. Is there anything you can share about that?
Speaker 2 [00:07:10] Yeah. It’s important to remind ourselves of the role that Canada does play and is expected to play on the world stage. Steven Guilbeault The Environment and Climate Change Minister has been to every cop as he likes to remind people. He’s a bit of a cop junky, but he’s respected by the crowd there. Canada’s willingness and ability to host the biodiversity summit a year ago in Montreal was really important to China, which was not able to host it because of COVID. So the Chinese, I think, have a willingness, at least in climate negotiations, to listen more to Canada. And we’re seen as a bridge builder with developing countries with other oil and gas producing nations. We are the fourth largest oil producer in the world with the United States, which is our neighbor and active trade partner. So Canada does have a special seat at the table and is able, especially in contentious moments, often to build those bridges. Agriculture is one of the areas where Canada does play a leading role, but I think there was a bit of disappointment on the AG front. This was the first cop that AG was center stage. There was a full food, water and Agriculture Day, which is an important declaration by the United Nations to say that AG is central just as oil and gas is and other sectors to our journey to net zero. But what are we going to do about it? It’s fine to shine a light on it. It’s fine to say the positive role that AG can play. So maybe this is baby steps. We have to make much greater commitments, especially on the financing of agriculture, to help farmers continue to develop sustainable agriculture and climate smart agriculture techniques and to ensure that they’re rewarded for those that this isn’t a punishment or a regulation on farmers, but is in fact an economic opportunity for them.
Speaker 1 [00:09:05] Do you see lasting change to how the world produces food coming out of this COP?
Speaker 2 [00:09:12] So an interesting fact about this, this cop, if you’re going to have a hundred thousand people, especially in a confined area, you’re going to have to feed and water them. In fact, the last cop to Egypt became a bit of a bit controversial because they ran out of food and water in the in the early days. They resolved it. But certainly people remember that a year later.
Speaker 1 [00:09:32] Oh, dear.
Speaker 2 [00:09:32] And the host, the UAE, had plenty of food for sale for 100,000 people who were there. And the majority of the food was plant based. And that was an important statement, I think, by the UAE that you can offer food at scale. And it was fantastic and very creative and represented the cuisines from multiple continents. But you can do that in a creative and economically mindful way. So an interesting proof point to to the world and to your question, how do we change the production as well as the consumption of food? The world’s growing. We’ve written about this from the RBC Climate Action Institute perspective. We’re going to have to play a role in helping to feed nine, maybe 10 billion people and do that in a way that reduces emissions. So that’s going to mean some adjustments to diet, but it also means we’re going to have to invest more in abatement technologies. So things like anaerobic digesters that capture the stuff that comes out of livestock because animal protein is going to remain critical for a long time. How to help those farmers with the technologies and the measurement systems to change their soil practices, to capture more greenhouse gases in their soil and reward that. So it’s not just changing practices, it’s changing economic models to ensure that the producers, the ones who manage emissions on the planet’s behalf, are rewarded for their work.
Speaker 1 [00:10:59] Mm hmm. Yeah. Especially as we’re heading into the holidays. Now, I think the call to change both the supply side of agriculture, but also the demand side and how we consume, I think that’s a very important reminder for folks about what we put on our Christmas table, our holiday table being a real important step for the future. So moving now to buildings, which is the third largest emitter in Canada, 40% of emissions worldwide. At COP Canada, along with the UAE, announced the cement and concrete breakthrough initiative, which is important as a way to signal to the world that these critical inputs and materials need to change. So what did you hear on the ground there? What do you make of this initiative and how do you see it making an impact?
Speaker 2 [00:11:43] There aren’t many better places for this kind of discussion than Dubai. It’s one of these fantastic newish cities literally growing out of the desert in the last half century, but critically, in the last 25 years. It’s hard to spend any time in Dubai without hurting your neck, looking up, up on up. All these new towers, including the tallest in the world, are their made out of glass and steel predominantly, and a lot of energy, a lot of burning of fossil fuels goes into creating that glass and steel and cement that we all need for the cities that we enjoy and the kinds of cities that much of the world is looking for. So when we look at Dubai, be mindful that millions, maybe billions of people are saying that’s the kind of city we need in our country as our economy grows. That was one estimate. I heard a COP that the world is going to double the built environment over the next 25 years. So we’re going to see more Dubai’s around Africa, across Asia, as populations grow and people need places to live and work. And we know how to build those cities. We just don’t know how to build them in a climate minded way. So we need a number of things in the built sector, but a different approach to materials is critical. And that was an important agreement there. There’s a lot of chatter about the number of business people now at COP, and in some ways has become almost a business conference. But I ran into a number of executives and engineers and even architects from around the world who were there to learn from each other, but also to look at new materials, new technologies so that they can go home and rethink or reimagine the way that they put up their next high rise or build their next expressway. So that’s another important side of COP. It’s not just diplomats negotiating words, it’s people who actually make climate action happen on the ground, coming together to share ideas and also push each other for these technological changes that are going to be needed to ensure when it comes to buildings, but many other sectors, that we do things differently over the next 25 years.
Speaker 1 [00:13:53] And a great opportunity for Canada to lead and offer our own learnings over the past several decades.
Speaker 2 [00:13:59] Well, some of the biggest developers in the region are great Canadian companies. It’s one of our exports. We’re a nation of developers. You have to be in a cold climate, but a nation of great engineers and planners and architects who are out there in the world helping to build those cities of tomorrow. And it would be great to see Canada play an even greater role in building the net zero cities of tomorrow.
Speaker 1 [00:14:27] As we wrap up this conversation, John, hoping to get your reflections on what more would you have liked to see from COP this year?
Speaker 2 [00:14:37] What a great question, Theresa. I think there is a number of things that fell a bit or a lot short. One is on finance. This is going to take trillions of dollars and the world is still falling really, really, really short in terms of mobilizing the capital for the transition. Developing countries, the low income countries of the world, continue to come to COP expressing their frustration that they need funds and it’s not handouts. A lot of this is debt financed to build those new cities that we’re talking about or to invest in new energy systems, in renewables. I got to spend time with different representatives of African countries who said, we know what we want to do. We know what we need to do. We can’t do it when we’re having to borrow money at 10% on international markets. And yes, that’s perfectly understandable. Part of that is out of anyone’s control because it’s just the nature of monetary policy cycles right now. But there remains a big finance gap. And we have to find ways for multilateral institutions like the World Bank to do more in terms of mobilizing capital. But it’s not just on the shoulders of, let’s say, the World Bank. Organizations like that also have to leverage the private sector that’s got multiple, multiple times the capital to move to climate opportunities, especially in the developing world. So how do we de-risk that? How do we imagine new ways to take the world’s savings and channel them into climate investments, especially in the places that need it most? COP also continues to be largely a supply side conversation. It’s about the supply of energy, the supply of food products, the supply of buildings, and not enough focus in my mind on the demand side. What can we all do as citizens? What should we all do as citizens, as consumers, as investors to help the world transition faster? So it’s fine to have our governments there making these declarations, but no government can force people to behave differently, to drive or eat differently. And maybe there’s a role for COP, especially in this virtual world, not just to be a conference of 100,000 people, but to be a coming together of millions and millions of people, even in virtual ways, to come to grips with the decisions, the big ones, but also the little ones that each of us makes on a a daily and hourly basis.
Speaker 1 [00:16:58] Well, that might be one of the hardest challenges that exists, how to overcome our own behaviour and change what we have grown so used to. John, this has been such an excellent conversation. It was great to be back on the pod with you. Thank you for sharing all of your insights. And I guess I’ll see you around the office.
Speaker 2 [00:17:16] Theresa, it’s great to have you on the podcast. Please come back. That’s our last episode for 2023. On behalf of all of us here at Disruptors, have a safe and happy holiday and please join us again in the New Year. Until then, I’m John Stackhouse and this is Disruptors, an RBC podcast.
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