Unearthing the Problems at COP28: Heads of Nations Meet in the Arabian Desert

King Charles presented as an ostrich burying his head in Dubai sand at COP28 climate summit, where numerous delegates arrived in private jet planes; AI image by Ivan Kralj, with DALL-E and Adobe.

On this still-blue planet, where extreme weather events, record-high temperatures, and extinction of species are becoming less and less exceptional, the travel industry doesn’t talk nearly enough about what affects not only tourism but life as we know it. Once a year, for instance at this COP 28 climate summit in Dubai, we expect political masterminds to fix the problems they’ve been conveniently ignoring. And then disappointed by what can be seen as a greenwashing public stunt, we wait until the next opportunity to say that the moment has become critical.

Nothing says “Let’s save the planet” like putting a fossil fuel boss in charge of a conference dedicated to combating climate change

The Conference of the Parties, now COP28 (the digits counting the generous number of years since we acknowledged the severity of the issue), is the UN‘s annual convention on climate change. It brings political heads together, expecting them to tackle the issues of greenhouse gas emissions, and evaluate our overall progress in the global survival attempt.

This year hosted by Dubai, the oil-rich Arab emirate, and presided over by Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), the climate conference tries to keep a straight face while talking about achieving targets set by the Paris Agreement  (COP21) that was, back in 2015, imagining a “sustainable low carbon future”.

Nothing says “Let’s save the planet” like putting a fossil fuel boss in charge of a conference dedicated to combating climate change. On this same Earth that strives for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, Al Jaber’s appointment as COP president was a controversy bordering mockery. It was revealed that ADNOC was in a position to monitor summit office e-mails, that they planned to use the event to strike new oil and gas deals, and that Al Jaber was questioning climate science, claiming that phase-out of fossil fuels would take us “back into caves”.

Manon Aubry, a French member of the European Parliament, called out the UN’s decision to empower Al Jaber as scandalous, likening it to “having a tobacco multinational overseeing the internal work of the World Health Organization“. Twitter activists compared him with “Count Dracula in charge at the Blood Bank”.

We are not cockroaches

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the last decades, you know that our survival on this planet is seriously questionable. Well, that’s not entirely true. The endangered Australian cockroach Panesthia lata, previously thought extinct, has been literally hiding under a rock for over eight decades before being proclaimed resurrected.

But we are not cockroaches. Threatened with climate change, we cannot just cross our fingers for a surprise miracle. Playing hide-and-seek on this third rock from the Sun will not make our self-inflicted mess magically disappear.

Ostriches burying their heads in the sand, with Dubai skyline in the background - a satirical reinterpretation of COP28 climate conference presided by Abu Dhabi's oil giant; AI image by Ivan Kralj / Dall-E.
Not even ostrich’s feather duster would help you sweep climate change under the rug

Making political choices that involve appointing some of the architects of our climate catastrophe as leading voices in solving it is like asking a fox to babysit the chickens. It says that we might have either given in or given up. The reputation of our seriousness toward solving the issues is jeopardized. Is it all just a spectacle?

You’d think by 2023, we’d have moved past the era of empty paroles and symbolic gestures. But here we are, sending our leaders to yet another greenwashing gala, this time to the Arabian Desert, so they could almost literally bury their heads among the sandcastles.

One of the ways we produce irreversible damage to life on this planet is plastic pollution. Read how the travel industry fights against it!

“We belong to the Earth”, said the ostrich king

It was King Charles, the British monarch, who delivered an opening speech at this Ostrich Summit, with messages we would expect to be written for a speaker as privileged as him.

An ostrich with the head of King Charles, burying it in the sand with Dubai skyline in the background - satirical representation of COP28 summit where numerous political leaders arrived in private jet planes; AI image by Ivan Kralj, Dall-E/Adobe.
King Charles, still somewhat jetlagged from an uncomfy flight, managed to deliver deep thoughts in Dubai

“I pray with all my heart that COP28 will be another critical turning point towards genuine transformational action at a time when, already, as scientists have been warning for so long, we are seeing alarming tipping points being reached. (…) As I have tried to say on many occasions, unless we rapidly repair and restore nature’s unique economy, based on harmony and balance, which is our ultimate sustainer, our own economy and survivability will be imperiled. (…) After all, ladies and gentlemen, in 2050 our grandchildren won’t be asking what we said, they will be living with the consequences of what we did or didn’t do.”

As King Charles was delivering his environmental TED Talk about “an unmissable opportunity to keep our common hope alive”, urging his colleagues to meet this opportunity with a true sense of the emergency, and with a commitment to practical action, he conveniently forgot to mention that his Royal Highness, the UK’s prime minister, and the foreign secretary all took separate private planes to fly to Dubai. Apparently, “practical action” doesn’t include carpooling.

Ostrich businessmen flying in a plane and looking out of the window, with other plane and birds in the background - illustration of COP28 climate gathering where many delegates arrived in private jet planes; AI image by Ivan Kralj / Dall-E.
Jet-set, go!

Oxfam, the British organization focusing on the alleviation of global poverty, already calculated that the richest 1% of the world generates as much pollution as two-thirds of humanity. Billionaires living their lives like King Charles will cause 1.3 million heat-related excess deaths before 2030.

It is estimated that a private jet joyriding from London to Dubai is 10 times more polluting than a commercial plane. And yet, the British political elite took not one, not two, but three of these aerial polluters for their journey to the summit.

“The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth”, said the king of ostriches in his opening address, still coughing out some sand.

Dear King Charles, if you're reading this, you'll be glad to know that there are 10 simple ways to reduce your carbon footprint. And here's where to find the cheapest commercial flights!

Climate action cannot wait

King Charles who accepted to be the opening mascot of the summit is just one of the hundreds of political heads landing at Dubai airport in private jets, the most polluting mode of travel.

“When compared against the average annual carbon footprint per person of 4.7 tonnes in 2019, some private jets release two tonnes of CO2 per hour shared amongst typically very few passengers. Private jets therefore embody a striking example of carbon inequality in which the most privileged contribute significantly to climate change whilst the impacts are often experienced by those least privileged”, says the study that calculated the effects of 315 private flights during COP27 in 2022, when political ostriches got a taste of Egyptian sands.

Research led by Carole Roberts calculated carbon emissions of various transport options between London and Dubai, for COP28. (Not only) British political elite chose the most polluting way to get to the climate conference.

Carbon emissions of private jets flying from London to Dubai, compared to commercial flights and ground transport; from the research "Navigating the Climate Conferences: Comparing the Carbon Footprint of Private Jet Travel and OtherModes of Transport to COP28" (Roberts et al, 2023)
Research “Navigating the Climate Conferences: Comparing the Carbon Footprint of Private Jet Travel and Other Modes of Transport to COP28”, Roberts et al (2023), CC BY-SA

It’s 2023, and not everyone wants to repeat the obvious mistakes. Nepal‘s prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal flew to Dubai on a commercial plane, with Nepal Airlines. But before you applaud him, hear this: the flight left Kathmandu two hours before the schedule, leaving 31 not-very-important passengers behind. Nobody knows why the delegation was in such a hurry that the official departure had to be abruptly changed, but it seems their earlier presence in Dubai was of utmost importance. In their defense, it is a known fact that climate action cannot wait.

The airline claims it accommodated the stranded Nepalese passengers in hotels, and flew them to Dubai on alternative flights. As if climate cares.

To prove that we could think differently about long-distance travel, one British family embarked on a four-month-long journey to Australia. Read their inspiring no-fly story!

Charade of Swifties

With twice as many attendees when compared to that polluting Egypt conference (oh, how we learn!), COP28 prepares to leave the highest carbon footprint in history, making even seasoned air traffic controllers break into a cold sweat. Despite Dubai being the home to one of the world’s most connected airports, many world leaders decided to grace the summit with their bountiful contribution to climate change by arriving in private jets.

Ostriches and a businessman on a runway with a plane flying above - a visual commentary on COP28 climate summit in Dubai, where many politicians arrived by private jet planes, the biggest polluters; AI image by Ivan Kralj, Dall-E.
Jetiquette 101: Climate change demands a swift response, not Taylor Swift response!

Whether they started from Japan, Nigeria, or Switzerland, these very important jet-setters flocked to the climate conference as if they were Taylor Swift herself. In 2022, the pop star was crowned the greatest celebrity CO2 polluter, emitting 1,184.8 times more gas than the average person. But the fresh billionaire at least doesn’t pretend that she is circling the planet in her private jet to save it.

Swift is not giving speeches where she would, like seriously concerned King Charles, pledge happily-ever-after if we all just hold hands: “So if we act together to safeguard our precious planet, the welfare of all our people will surely follow.”

One political leader refused to participate in the grand charade. Hilda Heine, the former president of the Marshall Islands, a country acutely threatened by rising sea levels, resigned from the position of COP28 advisor. She wasn’t interested in playing a role in the carbon carnival, where the UAE allegedly planned to use the conference to secure new oil and gas deals. Heine called it “deeply disappointing” and undermining “the integrity of the COP presidency and the process as a whole”.

Do you think that King Charles' messages could make it to the list of the best Save Earth quotes?

Good COP, bad COP

We’ve grown accustomed to commercial companies marketing their products and brands through a greenwashing lens. From Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to Walmart and H&M, the economic giants have learned that trends should be exploited. So if consumers demand green, that’s exactly where the deception would be targeted.

“The moment is critical”, their crowned heads will mutter once again while grinding sand between their teeth

But we weren’t anticipating that climate conferences, those grand assemblies of political promises, would become the latest runway for greenwashing couture. COP28, the largest climate summit in history, smells of a smokescreen, with political heads trying to convince us that they’re doing more for the environment than what our eyes can clearly see.

“The moment is critical”, their crowned heads will mutter once again while grinding sand between their teeth, and swallowing more and more letters.

With now 2 million species threatened by extinction, we know at least one species that doesn’t seem to be endangered at all. These political cockroaches will never tell you the real truth: “The moment is hypocritical.”

What do you think about this climate summit? Are you an optimist?
Comment below and pin this article for later!

Is COP28 climate conference in Dubai - an ostrich summit? Political heads gathered in UAE to attend the event presided by a fossil fuel giant, and many delegates, such as King Charles, even arrived in private jet planes, the greatest air polluters. Will burying the head in the sand really unearth the problems of the climate change and save the planet?

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Ivan Kralj


Award-winning journalist and editor from Croatia

    1. Hi Natalia!
      Your sentiment echoes a shared frustration.
      It’s disheartening when passion meets the inertia of change.
      However, let’s not lose hope entirely! Small steps can lead to big movements.
      I know not everyone is happy with the outcome of COP28, it certainly wasn’t the greatest step that was desperately needed, but we will surely witness its effects in our lifetimes: whether we are doomed, without an escape route, or we’ll see something miraculous saving us.

  1. Great article & summary of the many issues contributing to this problem from the private jets (they can’t even pretend to care for one summit) to big brands walking the walk on so many practices they could put into place.

    1. It’s quite the spectacle when private jets, the epitome of excess, are juxtaposed against the urgent need for environmental action.
      Thanks for your comment, Alexa!

  2. your art is insanely awesome. but the content is so important. the irony of it all…but perhaps prioritizing arab countries is a good thing becuase they have the autocracy and money to actually make large changes that deomocracies can’t ever seem to get their stuff together to do. irony.

    1. Thanks for your comment and compliments, Morgan!
      The priority of the Arab Region seems to be extending the status quo with fossil fuels. And it ain’t stopping there.
      The climate summit of 2024 will be in Azerbaijan, a country with large gas reserves. While burning gas is “better” than coal or oil, it is still one of the biggest drivers of climate change.
      So I really don’t know how to interpret the fact that, with COP29, UN is again okay with giving the stage to some of the biggest fossil fuels advocates, while it’s obvious that we should insist on the quickest possible transition to green energies.

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