Preview: Sport at COP28

November 23 2023

The world is gearing up for COP28, which begins next week in Dubai. But as world leaders descend on the UAE, how will sport be represented at the major climate conference?

Preview: Sport at COP28

What is COP28?

COP28, which will take place between 30th November and 12th December in Dubai, is set to welcome an estimated 70,000 delegates from 199 countries, as well as thousands of climate scientists, activists, youth, business leaders, and journalists.

The conference is the 28th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The COP conferences have been held annually since the very first meeting in Berlin in 1995. Since then, the conferences have produced several international climate agreements. COP3, held in 1997, led to the Kyoto Protocol, which first called on industrialised nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

More recently, COP21, held in 2015, led to the landmark Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement called on countries to limit greenhouse gas emissions to levels that would limit global temperature increase to 2°C, while aiming to pursue a 1.5°C increase.

While the COP events are host to high-level negotiations and debates, the events also see scientists, activists, and visitors from across the cultural and business sectors hold events outside the central negotiations.

The conference’s ‘blue zone’ is where negotiations, meetings of political leaders, and official events take place, while the ‘green zone’ is host to side events hosted by a huge range of non-government entities, including NGOs, businesses, and activist groups. Side events also take place across the host city during the 10-day event.

Each year sees a wide range of topics on the agenda. But what are the main themes set to be at COP28, and how will sport contribute?

Key themes and hot topics

Among the outcomes of last year’s COP27, held in Egypt, was a collective commitment to establishing a Loss & Damage Fund for vulnerable nations and an emphasis on nature, leading to a Global Biodiversity Framework.

One year on, there is set to be continued discussion on how a Loss & Damage Fund can be implemented, as well as debates on the phasing out of fossil fuels and the rapid expansion of renewable energy.

Importantly, this year’s conference will see the conclusion of the first-ever UN Global Stocktake, which began at COP26 in Glasgow two years ago. The Global Stocktake is a mechanism used to assess global progress towards the 2015 goals.

Meanwhile, this year’s COP has not been without controversy: the UAE is among the world’s top ten oil-producing nations, and the president of the talks, Sultan Al Jaber, is also chief executive of the state-owned oil company Adnoc.

Previous editions of the conference have also been criticised for greenwashing and have been questioned over issues like sponsorship.

With so many critical topics on the table, a number of sports organisations are set to be on the ground in Dubai to engage with these issues and connect the industry to the biggest questions of the day.

Sport events at COP28

Sports including sailing, motorsport, and adventure sports are currently set to hold events during this year’s COP, focusing on topics including nature, ocean rights, and zero emission technologies. Sport Positive recently published a helpful list of all sport-related events taking place during the summit.

Many of these events reflect work that’s already taking place across the industry: Formula E, for example, has been working to develop high-level technology for electric mobility and has a well-recognised sustainability programme, while SailGP and The Ocean Race have a track record of collaborating with scientists and campaigning on ocean health.

But COP28 provides a particularly powerful opportunity for sports organisations to collaborate with those outside the industry, including NGOs, activists, scientists, and businesses, and to see how some of the biggest issues facing the sport world are reflected in wider climate debates.

Adventure sports inspiring environmental action

One good example of collaboration is Extreme Hangout, which was originally launched at COP26 in Glasgow.

Extreme Hangout, whose partners include the Sport Ecology Group and Race to Zero, is a climate action events platform founded by two adventure sports enthusiasts. Extreme Hangout’s aims include diversifying & popularising the climate conversation, inspiring environmental action, and giving young changemakers a voice on the environment.

The organisation will be hosting workshops, exhibitions, and talks from 3rd-12th December in the Green Zone, focusing on ten topics over ten days.

With a line-up of over 500 speakers covering a wide range of topics, the event covers issues both within and beyond sport.

Sport-specific events include a Future of Sport panel on 7th December, a Sport 4 Nature panel on 9th December, and Sailing for Change: Film Festival for the UN Ocean Decade on 11th December.

Extreme Hangout is a clear example of how collaborating with partners beyond the industry can lead to wider discussions that can connect with broader audiences.

Motorsports and green mobility

Motorsports are also set to be represented at the conference. The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) will host an event during the transport-themed day on 6th December in the Green Zone.

The panel, moderated by Sky Sports presenter David Garrido, will focus on ‘Shaping a Just Transition to a Net-Zero Road Transport Future’, and will see speakers from motorsport and mobility as well as Formula E champion Lucas di Grassi.

Representation from motorsport continues the following day when the Future Mobility Hub hosts Sustainability in Sports Day.

A delegation from Formula E, including teams and partners, will mark its tenth season by attending COP28 and hosting the event on 7th November, which will cover ‘legislation, venues, logistics, and the trajectory of motorsports’.

Marine sports and ocean rights

Ocean sports will also be well-represented during the conference.

SailGP announced this week that it will host a ‘Race For The Future’ takeover at the Emirates Dubai Sail Grand Prix, which takes place from 9th-10th December.

The organisation says that it will ‘use the sixth event of its Season 4 calendar to demonstrate the huge power for good to inspire action and change mindsets’.

Taking advantage of COP28 and the Emirates Dubai Sail Grand Prix in the same week, SailGP will showcase a range of initiatives to demonstrate ‘how events can be run more sustainably’.

Innovations will include the largest temporary solar array ever installed at an event; remote broadcast, umpires, and event control to reduce the event’s carbon footprint; and the use of electrically powered autonomous marks. The event will be powered by 100% clean energy.

SailGP will also have a presence in both the Green and Blue Zones, and aims to be ‘the leading sports voice at COP28’. Athletes including Ben Ainslie, Hannah Mills, Anne-Marie Rindom, Blair Tuke, and Jo Aleh will be present, while Transition and Innovation Manager Tom Verity will present a keynote on SailGP’s decarbonisation strategy.

The organisation is also partnering with Goals House and ROCKWOOL to host a roundtable discussion on raising the bar on sport and climate action, set to take place on 6th December.

Meanwhile, The Ocean Race will also be present at the conference, and will be continuing their campaign for a universal declaration of ocean rights following presentation to the UN General Assembly in September.

The Ocean Race will hold an ‘Ocean-Climate High Level Reception’ with the IUCN, and Race Chairman Richard Brisius will discuss The Ocean Race’s science programme during an Ocean Climate Spotlight session organised by IOC-UNESCO in the Ocean Decade + OceanX Pavilion.

Brisius believes that COP28 provides an opportunity to build on sailing’s work to protect the ocean, which has become more and more of a theme at COP in recent years.

‘In Paris, the role of the ocean wasn’t really a focus, but in Glasgow, there began to be a bit of talk about it,’ he says. ‘Acknowledging the role of the ocean is something we will keep pushing at COP28.’

Credit: Sailing Energy / The Ocean Race

Credit: Sailing Energy / The Ocean Race

Impact and reach

With a week to go until COP28 begins, more sport-related events could be announced in coming days.

As the range of events to date has shown, COP28 provides a good opportunity for sports stakeholders to connect to those beyond the industry and collaborate on topics like protecting nature, clean mobility, and emissions reductions, all of which are huge topics that politicians and delegates will also be tackling over the negotiating table.

With the first-ever Global Stocktake set to take place, the stakes are high for this year’s COP: we are halfway between COP21 in Paris and the 2030 deadline, and many experts agree we are running out of time to limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C.

With its global reach and billions of fans, sport could play an important role in connecting wider audiences to the high-level debates taking place at the event.

The Ocean Race Chairman Richard Brisius wonders whether some of the qualities of sport could be useful in negotiations.

‘Sport requires a certain level of teamwork, a high level of resilience, and some discomfort,’ he says. ‘We can apply that mindset to ending the climate crisis.’

Whatever the outcome of COP28, sport will be one sector among many that will need to continue to think through these critical issues and continue to push for change in the months and years to come as we draw closer to 2030.

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