Returning from Dubai: Reflections on water in the climate conference

Guest Editorial by Sarah Ransom. This article was first published in World Water Policy Journal on 31 January 2024.

From November 30 to December 12, 2023, the UNFCC 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) was held in the United Arab Emirates, and I was privileged enough to attend for a few days on behalf of the Australian Water Partnership (AWP), a water for climate initiative of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. AWP presented a number of side events at COP across the Blue Zone—“Pavilions”—and we also supported the attendance of senior Australian water leaders as Water Pavilion Envoys, tasked with engaging in specific processes at COP and bringing water into them (AWP, 2023). We also worked closely with the Secretariat for the Pacific Community and Pacific Islands representatives from the Indigenous Peoples’ Organization.

Having been involved with the COP for 3 years, we knew we needed to engage with clear objectives. COPs are huge events—confusing, exhausting, crowded, exhilarating—and have been getting bigger each year as more people and organizations want to engage with the world’s most important climate event. It is a center of gravity, and it is easy to be drawn into the cornucopia of events and conversations—all engaging, interesting and vital to our planetary future—risking loss of focus. Our main objective this year was to help raise awareness of the critical interconnections between water and climate, highlighting Australian efforts in this space.

How does water fit into the COP?

The task of the COP is to raise ambition on climate action, and it is currently at a stage that focuses on implementation. The Global Stocktake (GST) and the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA) were both on the agenda of COP28. The GST is important because it sets the framework for the next round of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) where countries nominate the measures they will take to reduce emissions so as to limit climate change to 1.5°. The GGA Framework defines adaptation targets and is an opportunity to enhance climate adaptation ambition, to transform existing governance and management systems, and to increase coherence of the existing global frameworks to bring about a sustainable and climate-resilient future for all.

While water is part of many international agreements and frameworks, including the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the United Nations Conventions to Combat Desertification, and the Convention on Biological Diversity, it is not mentioned in the Paris Agreement. Water found its way formally into COP outcomes only last year, at COP27 in Egypt, where it was mentioned twice in the cover decision.

This water gap in the UNFCCC COP is a concern, because we know that without adequate attention to water management in both mitigation and adaptation, the Paris Agreement will likely be out of reach. By investing in adaptive water planning and management, countries can help build climate-resilient societies that benefit both people and the planet. On the other hand, if water is not considered in decision-making, there are risks to climate action, with many net zero initiatives dependent on abundant and reliable water. Water is a necessary part of the climate solution.

Expanding the agenda

As I write these reflections in mid-December, the formal COP28 outcomes are known, and I do not need to add to the commentary beyond acknowledging the mix of progress and frustration. Importantly, water is included in both the GST and GGA, in recognition of its importance in helping to achieve global mitigation and adaptation objectives. Now begins the work of integrating water considerations into country-level climate mitigation efforts and adaptation planning and financing.

What has not grabbed the headlines as much is the size and energy of the “action agenda” that surrounds COP—everything outside the formal negotiations. It is a remarkable thing and seems to me quite organic and fast-evolving. I have heard COP described as being a combination of a formal treaty negotiation, a trade show, an exhibition, an unparalleled marketing and networking opportunity, an academic conference, a rolling protest, and a party. All the issues are present and making their case for funding and attention. Business is developed and deals are done. People meet and form alliances and get into arguments. It is messy, but the action agenda seems to move on, bringing the formal business along in its wake, and the bar is raised higher each year, imperfectly, two steps forward and one step back.

My observation at COP28 was that this unique mechanism is engaging with complexity in a new way. The agenda is expanding to embrace issues that are climate-linked but have been outside the COP spotlight, in a way that links them to the formal process but is not limited by it. This can be seen in the Presidency’s championing of food and health, systems where outcomes are climate-driven, as part of the action agenda. There were formal statements for both, putting them squarely in the realm of issues that need to be considered for NDCs and NAPs and opening the door for financing. The formal statements were accompanied by a multitude of linked side events that went further than the official statements, fielding new ideas and pushing the agenda along into new territory.

Take food as an example. The Ministerial-level COP28 UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action (COP28 UAE, 2023a) touches on many important keystones but is less ambitious than the food and climate events that complemented it, across the Blue and Green Zones. Regenerative agriculture—outside the mainstream but with high potential—is not mentioned in the statement, for example, but was a key focus of side events, including one organized by the Presidency. The Presidency gave that issue forward momentum by framing the event as a lead-up to COP30 (COP28 UAE, 2023b).

Of course, neither food nor health systems will function without reliable water of sufficient quality. The Presidency did support a water-sensitive agenda with three main initiatives (on freshwater, urban water management and food and water), which were well attended and attracted new commitments. The naming of water in the GST and GGA texts is an important landmark. But I cannot escape the conclusion that there is more to be done, to truly recognize and deal with water effectively, recognizing its multiple roles in the climate agenda, but without diminishing or oversimplifying the complexity involved. Can we understand this moment of expansion of the agenda better to help us make the case for water?

Beyond COP: Action, urgency, and getting comfortable in shared spaces

Following COP, HE Razan Al Mubarak, UAE Climate Champion, shared some observations on how agendas and processes are converging, in the Outrage + Optimism podcast (Al Mubarak,2023). She identified convergence between the climate COP and the COPs on wetlands and desertification, but I think it is worth extending the concept further. Convergence implies welcome evolution is taking place and invites us to see COP as one moment in a continuous, multi-stakeholder process.

With its universal nature, water can serve as a connector across sectors and is a natural vehicle to build this convergence. The water community demonstrated this with a deliberate strategy to use this year’s Water Pavilion as a staging point to send Envoys to engage with other sectors. What is most valuable about this approach is the emphasis on new connections and relationships between individuals and work areas and agendas. These are also the growth areas of the climate agenda and it will be interesting to see how we build on this approach under future presidencies.

Learning to grapple with the complexity of the expanded climate agenda will be an interesting process in itself, demanding all of us working in water to communicate better, to become more skilled in collaboration, and to retain the rigor of water science while keeping hold of the bigger picture. Water is highly relevant to the climate crisis; but it is also an agenda on its own, and while there is clear overlap, it is not complete. 2023 was a year of reckoning on SDG6, where progress was found to be “alarmingly off-track” (High Level Political Forum, 2023). Some parts of SDG6 will gain energy from convergence with the climate agenda, but it will not be even. Unacceptable poverty still exists, and the water cycle itself now has inescapable global dimensions, as noted by the Global Commission on the Economics of Water (2023). Freshwater is its own planetary boundary as well, interconnected to others but named as one of the nine processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth system (Richardson et al., 2023).

There is an opportunity ahead for the water community to make a significant contribution both to the fight for 1.5—through fast-developing work to quantify its contribution to mitigation, directly and in support of the energy transition (UN Water, 2023)—and to ensure our skills and knowledge help communities and ecosystems to build resilience and adapt where needed. It is both exciting and sobering, knowing that as water professionals, we will play a part on climate action in this critical decade (United Nations Climate Change, 2023).

I asked Indigenous leader Dr. Phil Duncan about finding a way forward in this complexity, at the side event AWP organized at the Australia Pavilion (DCCEEW, 2023). He challenged us to amplify the value of relationships and traditional forms of knowledge in our approach. This was echoed by many of our partners at COP28—people from communities least responsible for climate change, but already the worst affected—who asked us to be in conversation, and really listen. Convergence means we need to increase regard for interconnections and relationships, to learn from others and find ways to build new approaches together.


Featured image: Group photo from Australia-Water Partners for Development session at COP28 (Source: DCCEEW Production)
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