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Protest at COP28

A Blog post by Prof Andrew Russell, Department of Anthropology.

Durham to Dubai: Findings at COP28 and counter questions 


Travelling to Dubai: Difficult for whom? 

This is the 4th and final blog about travelling to the UNFCCC’s COP28 and what I have found when I got there.  It come from a response to my first blog by Reuben J. Brown, an Architecture graduate from Cambridge University. He contacted me with a gentle chastisement over the assumptions underlying my question 'Why have a global mega-event on a topic like this in a place that is so hard to reach?’.  The counter question he posed was ‘difficult for whom?’ 

Reuben argued that, over the past few decades, the UAE has positioned itself as a major destination for cultural, business and geopolitical gatherings, investing in the necessary travel infrastructure for this to happen, and introducing visa policies to match. He argued that for those in the Global South — particularly Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia — Dubai is a much easier destination to reach than (say) Glasgow (COP26) or Bonn (where COP29 might have had to be held). Assuming any kind of global mega-event like the COP will mean most attendees racking up the air miles to attend, you might as well hold a UNFCCC COP in a place which maximises the number of people who can reach it relatively easily and cheaply, he argued.  This is true, although the infrastructure of which he speaks has only been made possible through the climate changing petrodollars that delegates have assembled to discuss and criticize.  It is also not a cheap place to visit – accommodation and food costs are relatively high, at least on a par with those of the global North.  


Bearing the cost of international travel 

Another point is that while nearly all the 50,000+ delegates at COP28 in Dubai have flown here (apart from me), an event in Northern or Western Europe (or North America) would give more of them the chance to travel overland to reach it, at least for part of their journey. Given the additional costs often involved in overland travel compared to flying, it would make sense to put the burden of those costs on those who were most able to pay them, i.e. delegates from the global North rather than the global South. As a relative latecomer to the rail-building game (since the UAE was not part of the railway building bonanza that accompanied colonialism in many parts of the world), Dubai is a relatively ‘rail-locked’ location. It has a very efficient Metro system to ferry people around the city itself, but the ability to go further afield by rail is non-existent, at least at the moment.  This will be rectified in due course by the Gulf Railway (also called the GCC Railway after the six Gulf Cooperation Council member states that will be linked by it), and by the UAE’s equivalent project, Etihad Rail.  However, as of 2023 work was yet to start on the GCC project.  Etihad Rail is similarly talked about as if it is already in existence.  However, although it is close to completion it has yet to start carrying passengers and freight. 

The UAE is also easier and cheaper for people from the global South to obtain visas for a visit than it is for them to visit the global North.  Everyone attending COP28 from abroad was issued with a special visa at no charge, but the normal cost for someone from India (say) is around £75 for a 30 day, single-entry visa.  The cost is almost double that for same person to visit the UK (albeit on a 6 month tourist visa).  That’s assuming they can get one in the first place.  It is a major but largely unacknowledged scandal how long it can take to have a UK visa issued and the costs incurred in doing so.  Practically every academic who has tried to bring a colleague from the global South to a conference or workshop in the UK has a horror story to tell of hold-ups in the system, missed flights and rampant stress for the individuals concerned.  I fell foul of this problem in 2022 when I tried bringing a researcher from India on a project I was leading to the UK for a workshop.  Although we applied for her visa well within the ten-week statutory period stipulated, in the event she missed her originally booked flight and had to pay a supplement to come over two months later, thus missing the workshop that had been the main reason for her visit.    

Sharjah Architecture Triennial

Emphasising voices from the global south? 

Reuben alerted me to the 2nd Sharjah Architecture Triennial that was being held during the time of COP28 in Sharjah.  Sharjah is the third largest city in the UAE, about an hour north of Dubai.  The Triennial features contributions exclusively from the Global South or its diaspora populations.  Many of the contributors, as well as visitors to it from abroad, had been unable to attend the higher profile, Venice Biennale the previous summer, but they were able to get to Sharjah. Both at the Triennial and COP28, Reuben hypothesised, Global South voices from South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa could achieve much higher prominence than they would in a location that for them was much less accessible than it was for a European.  Certainly COP28, with its 50,000 delegates, has been the largest COP in the history of the UNFCC.  Whether this has led to a greater prominence of voices from the Global South remains to be seen. 


Embracing overland travel 

COP29, it has been announced, will take place in Baku, Azerbaijan in 2024.  Unlike Dubai (the source of my original but I now realise Eurocentric complaint about access), Baku is a destination that can be reached almost completely by rail from the UK. Perhaps, based on the experience of travelling to Dubai, I should go into business and establish a ‘green rail’ route to Azerbaijan for those who want to keep their carbon footprint down while attending COP29 there.  Of course, the unfair subsidies and costs involved that make air travel cheaper than travelling by train will remain.  But rail travel retains the potential for less frenetic, more place-engaged means of travel as well as significantly lower carbon emissions.  Rail travel is a possibility we should embrace wherever, whenever and however we can.  

Visit to find out more how we are addressing one of the biggest challenges facing our planet, how we are sharing knowledge globally, and how we are educating tomorrow's world changers. Visual impressions from Prof. Russell’s journey, including the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, can be found on the Instagram channel, cop28overland.