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Swimming with the Carbon Sharks at COP28

By Rowan Foley

Sharks are good for the environment, they’re a sign of a healthy eco-system. However, you should be careful not to be recycled into their habitat.

Our small not-for-profit team had an amazing experience at COP28 in Dubai. We strengthened relationships with other like-minded organisations, listened to a huge range of interesting talks and presented our work in Timor-Leste with the President of the National Designated Authority for Combating Climate Change.

However, the sad reality is most companies and institutions go to COP to make money. It’s the lure of brokering international business relationships and trade that can be too attractive to refuse.

COP was attended by at least three Australian Universities, but I fear that not one has produced a single graduate ‘job ready’ for the carbon industry. Worse still these Universities refuse to divest their financial interests in the oil and gas industries, but happily attend international climate conferences around the world.

I can’t help but be a little suspicious of anyone attending COP, some might even go so far as to call it a ‘junket’. Yes, we deserved a well-earned break after a long and difficult year but being ‘seen’ at COP has fast become just as important as actually doing anything about climate change. (I note the infiltration of ‘celebrities’ and past Prime Ministers seem to grow in numbers every year.)

You are now a member of the select crowd that has made it all the way to Dubai, obtained an official party overflow pass to the fabled blue zone and if you’re extra lucky even given a spot to speak on the agenda.

It’s a clear sign you have finally made it into the exclusive climate warriors club!

Despite my skepticism, one important aspect that should not be overlooked is it is an importance of opportunity for First Nations people and their organisations to be on an international stage. This is a rare opportunity that is seldom available.

Ironically, the solutions to many of the grievances expressed by First Nations can be found in other talks by First Nations. We sat in a side event for an international panel that expressed many well-founded reservations about the carbon industry, only to listen to great solutions and pathways forward 30 minutes later in the next international panel with First Nations people.

It is clear – the global North is not going to solve the problems of the global South. The global North continues its eco-colonial practices that are at least 400 years old of extracting natural resources (i.e. now carbon credits) from the global South for a healthy profit. And the cycle continues, ad nauseum.

The global South need to develop its own methodologies, standards, trading platforms, research and development hubs that suit its communities and environments.

Alternatively, we can go to COP29 and present the same old grievances.

What is that old definition of insanity that has been credited to Albert Einstein? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

The idea that First Nations can own and manage their own carbon projects, as we do in Australia, seemed somewhat of a novelty at the international level. The concept of using free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) as a standard process in the development of projects was viewed as refreshing. Yet for the AbCF, and a handful of others like us, this is par for the course.

I think one of the fundamental problems is simply a lack of knowledge about the nuts and bolts of the carbon industry, especially by First Nations people. If you asked how many people have actually conducted an FPIC process, written an offset report and/or traded a carbon credit, the answer I suspect sadly, would be not many.

The reality is if you can use an iPhone, can play a video game, have ever watched a YouTube video or managed to get yourself on a plane and through customs to an international conference – then you are capable of doing the basics in the carbon industry.

From little things big things grow.

My Badtjala mother literally lived on a rubbish dump as a child for four years, left school in grade 7, lost all her teeth by 16 years and started her working life as a domestic servant. She went on to negotiate the first hand back of land on K’gari (Fraser Island) in the mid-1980s from the notoriously conservative Queensland Joh Bjelke-Petersen government.

Many other Indigenous men and women have achieved great things in their life, and none of it has been easy. The carbon industry can achieve what we want and need it to achieve for our collective benefit in the global South as well as tackle climate change largely created by the global North.

K’gari is surrounded by Tiger sharks which are magnificent creatures and amazing to observe feeding. My mother never allowed us to swim in the water, but we did bathe at low tide and catch fish on the coming in tide. You can live quite well with sharks, just be careful and respectful of their nature.


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