There are four days to go, but the outcome of this year's COP may have already been decided.

Written off before it began, the annual climate gathering, this year in the eyebrow raising location of Dubai, has given at least the appearance of getting off to a good start.

Agreements on loss and damage, on methane and renewables put the talks on a relatively positive path, but the main action is yet to take place.

You might assume the main subject of global climate talks is how to tackle climate change and it is, but the next five days won’t be about the science or technology of emissions reduction, they will be about words.

In particular these words, unabated, phase out, phase down.

As the talks enter their second week, the importance of these individual words and the different interpretations that can be put on them cannot be over stated.  

The Herald: Cop28 delegates

Pictured above: Delegates and world leaders at COP28

Having attended a fair few, the emphasis at a COP is always on getting a deal, on finding the compromise, on finding the language.

The alternative, of letting the talks collapse is widely seen as unacceptable. The global weight of expectation that negotiators and politicians have to achieve a positive outcome is palpable in the corridors.

So in the next week days will be spent in formal and informal talks on the difference that will be made to global temperatures if we phase down fossil fuels rather than phase out fossil fuels and who a Just Transition is being “Just” to. 

Yet the words matter so much that what negotiators mean by them is something that may perhaps never be defined.

Each year since the Paris agreement in 2015 it is the constructive ambiguity of diplomacy - the use of deliberately open and ambiguous language that somehow gets us from one round of climate talks to the next.

I say that not to denigrate the talks. The COP process is the best process we have right now and has, despite difficulties, kept the world moving in the right direction, though clearly not fast enough.

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The event itself is an entirely surreal mix of negotiators, politicians, activists, business people and the occasional celebrity, many of whom spend much of the year with each other working through each stage of the negotiations, climaxing in a two week marathon, somewhere in the world, that never ends on time. It is certainly not what you would design if you were starting from scratch, but it’s what we have and since that 2015 agreement, it has delivered some progress each and every year. 

Last year an extra 24 hours of negotiation were spent clinching a deal on Loss and Damage, in a rare example of countries from across the global south deploying the pressure to reach an agreement for very specific ends.

It took a clear demonstration from nations in the global south that they would rather see the talks collapse without agreement than accept a deal that did not make commitments to a new loss and damage fund within 12 months, for the US and others to properly engage in the issues.

Yet it is language that was key. 

A good twenty four hours was spent on the difference between a finance facility and a fund. That may sound pointless but it is why the fund, which has so far raised only £700m, far short of billions thought to be needed, is voluntary, a problem that will no doubt be returned to in the future.

More fundamentally, for some in the global south and post colonial countries, loss and damage, the concept of financial support from the global north nations who have historically contributed the most to climate change, for those countries who have contributed the least but are seeing the biggest impacts. was reparations, compensation, the righting of a historic wrong.  

But use of the words reparations or compensation even in informal talks, would send the US government, a reluctant negotiator on this issue at the best of times, and most countries with imperial or colonial pasts running for the hills. Support for loss and damage could be a moral obligation, it could be an economic reality, but it could not be anything that sounded like a formal acknowledgment of past wrongs.  

So will the language of phasing out or phasing down fossil fuels make it to the final agreement this year.

Right now, I doubt it.

Last month in Sunnylands, California, the US and China reached an agreement on climate action.

They agreed to pursue efforts to triple renewable energy capacity globally by 2030, a commitment adopted by around 100 countries so far at the COP, and they did so “to accelerate the substitution for coal, oil and gas generation.” 

The lead US negotiator welcomed the agreement by saying it shows other countries that “this language works”.

The Herald: COP28 in Dubai

Sitting in the back of the plenary hall two years ago at COP26 in Glasgow I watched an agreement that almost included bold commitments to reduce fossil fuel use be objected to in the final moments by India. A compromise piece of language was negotiated largely by US climate representative John Kerry with China who then agreed it with India while the US agreed it with the EU, and the EU with groups of nations in the global south.  

The language that John Kerry had to hand, and was ultimately inserted echoed almost word for word the last agreement between the US and China on climate.

So as dividing lines are drawn at the COP this week between phasing down unabated fossil fuels and phasing out unabated fossil fuels and the talks get closer and closer to the wire, I can’t help wondering if the outcome has already been agreed.  

Perhaps negotiators will make a break through and find a compromise on phasing out fossil fuels or phasing them down, anything is possible when the COP gathers under the global spotlight.  

The President of the COP, the head of the UAE’s state oil company, is certainly feeling some pressure to find a way forward and prospects of a deal are  higher than many expected for a COP being negotiated in an oil state.

But it would not surprise me at all if at some point this week negotiations reach the stage where new language, new words are needed, and the US and China produce from their back pocket, the  language they already have that works, even if we don't really know what it means.

And the constructive ambiguity of international diplomacy might once again keep us moving, just not fast enough.