Flashy country pavilions, corporate-sponsored cocktail parties and a smorgasbord of side events have turned the annual U.N. climate summit into what some say is a trade show or circus.

In this year's gleaming host city of Dubai, billboards advertise the benefits of wind energy, climate ambition and ExxonMobil's carbon-capture projects.

And with a record 84,000 registered attendees, this year's Conference of the Parties, or COP28, is a far cry from the first in Berlin in 1995, a low-key affair with fewer than 4,000 delegates focused on multilateral climate change cooperation.

This is seen by some as a sign of success and by others as a dangerous distraction from the business of combating climate change, as over nearly three decades global oil demand, carbon emissions and temperatures have marched steadily upward.

"It's a lobby fest where polluters can schmooze with politicians, all under the guise of tackling climate change," Pascoe Sabido, a researcher at the Corporate Europe Observatory, which scrutinizes corporate influence on policymaking, said.

The United Nations and COP backers say the planet would be much worse off without them.

For Alden Meyer, a senior associate at think tank E3G who has attended every COP, the carnival-like atmosphere is a positive sign of increasing global engagement with the climate crisis, even if it meant long queues for food and coffee.

"It's a three-ring circus, and it is a good thing. It means the issue has reached critical mass," Meyer said.

Lisa Jacobson, president of the 65-member Business Council for Sustainable Energy, which represents the energy efficiency, natural gas and renewable energy industries, agrees.

Jacobson recalls that in 2000 in The Hague the turnout was so low that everyone fitted into one auditorium. Having more than 80,000 people attend is something she only dreamed of.

"It's all we wished for," she said.


Countries have adopted a strategy of announcing voluntary pledges and initiatives at the start of COPs. These are meant to set a positive tone as delegations grind through two weeks of tough negotiations.

In Dubai, this process went into overdrive, with a succession of nonbinding agreements: from promises to triple global renewable energy and nuclear power capacity, to speeding the shift from coal and helping farmers improve soil quality.

Others proved more contentious, with oil and gas companies promising to decarbonize their operations rather than reducing production of the fossil fuels responsible for global warming.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore speaks during an interview at COP28 in Dubai on Sunday. He has said the whole COP process needs a rethink.
Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore speaks during an interview at COP28 in Dubai on Sunday. He has said the whole COP process needs a rethink. | REUTERS

In the first five days of COP28, dozens of voluntary partnerships were launched or expanded and at least 37 new financial pledges made, said the Global Strategic Communications Council, which is tracking the promises.

Some worry pledges could distract from the real business.

"We're always and — increasingly — cautious about the proliferation of additional declarations and pledges promoted at the COP," said Daniel Lund, special adviser on climate to the island nation of Fiji.

"Fiji has joined calls in the past that were meant to be long-standing initiatives, but were quickly forgotten."

Indonesia President Joko Widodo said on Sunday at a G77-China summit on the sidelines of COP28 that these pledges look good but divert attention from what developed countries need to do now to combat climate change.

"COP28 must be an event to accelerate implementation, not a show of ambition," he said.

Jake Schmidt, director of international programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the pledges require accountability to prevent an epidemic of "file and forget."

"While they create momentum for the talks at hand, it's not clear there are a lot of mechanisms to hold people to account to deliver," he added.

Big oil

While oil companies have always had COP presences, U.N. documents show, they have largely operated behind the scenes.

But in Dubai, the COP28 president's day job is running the UAE state oil firm, while heavy hitters such as ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods have been in the front row of high-level events.

Drillers also briefly took the spotlight with a UAE-led pledge among 50 oil and gas companies, including Exxon, to cut carbon dioxide emissions from their operations.

"The promises made clearly fall short of what is required," U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres told business leaders.

The UAE, an OPEC member, has argued that fighting climate change does not have to mean eliminating fossil fuels because technologies can be deployed to keep emissions from the atmosphere — a position that has drawn widespread criticism.

For former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, the whole COP process needs a rethink.

"When you have a petrostate in charge of the process, then we have this ridiculous situation where the main polluters have to give their permission for the world to make common sense decisions to save the future of humanity," he said.