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A map of europe with a blue line from Durham,UK to Dubai, UAE.

A Blog post by Prof Andrew Russell, Department of Anthropology

Blog post 1: Durham to Dubai – an overland journey to COP28

There are deep ironies in the fact that COP28, the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is taking place in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2023. 

Why have a global mega-event on a topic like this in a place that is so hard to reach except by plane, when air travel is the most carbon-intensive form of transport on the planet?  Why host a global event about climate change in an oil-rich country awash with petrodollars which will fund the gamut of activities that take place there?  What will the likely outcomes, given that the CEO of the UAE's national oil company has been appointed president of COP28 despite major questions over his green credentials?  As climate activist Greta Thunberg claims, is the COP process just a sideshow?  Are world leaders serious about climate change?  Can the COP process ever lead to any kind of binding agreement, or is it an example of greenwashing at a global scale?

Travelling to the COP

I am attending COP28 as part of a five-person observer delegation from Durham University, UK, linked to the Centre for Sustainable Development Law and Policy, to which we all belong.  The stars have aligned – or, more accurately, a period of research leave and access to some internal research funds - to give me the time and resources to get to Dubai by means of overland public transport as much as possible.  ‘As much as possible’ is a major proviso.  It is a grim fact that one cannot reach the UAE from Britain without leaving the ground at the moment unless one is willing to pass through a necklace of war zones and other trouble spots, something my University and family members would never countenance. Flying the shortest possible sector (shown in purple on the map of my journey) is therefore inevitable. 

Reflections on the experience getting from Durham to Dubai and the context of privilege that permits me to do so will form the basis for future blog posts, and I invite you to follow the journey on Instagram cop28overland.  I am leaving my home in Durham on Thursday November 16th, and should reach the UAE on Monday November 27th, 12 days later, having passed through 12 countries in total en route.

So what will I do when I get there?

COP28 runs from November 30th to December 12th.  During that time, I plan to use ethnographic, anthropological research methods to understand better the structure and organization of what Little (1995), describing the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, calls ‘transnational mega-events’, and answer some of the questions posed above. 

As an anthropologist, I am interested in what goes on around as well as in the conference venue.  Because of my interest in travel as a contributor to climate change, I shall focus in particular on what is said (and, as importantly, done and promoted) about transport options at COP28.  However, it’s important to look at the larger picture and record what other commitments are made in the linked fields of mitigation, adaptation, finance and collaboration as the COP proceeds.  This is because, for all the question marks hanging over the UNFCCC and the criticisms it is easy to make about it, it’s maybe the only chance we have to avert an environmental catastrophe at the global level. 

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Little, P.E. (1995) Ritual, Power and Ethnography at the Rio Earth Summit. Critique of Anthropology, 15(3): 265-88.