Thoughts on COP 28

Alan Journet, Cofacilitator,
Southern Oregon Climate Action Now

COP 28 in Abu Dubai started inauspiciously. Young Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, who famously described COP 26 in Glasgow (2021) with the words: “Blah, Blah, Blah!” identified the appointment of Dr Sultan Al Jaber, head of the UAE’s state-owned oil company, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), to the role of arbiter of climate talks as “completely ridiculous.” It is difficult to disagree with this sentiment.  This was underscored when Sultan al Jaber’s opening remarks reportedly included the statement that: “it is essential that no issue is left off the table.”  This was followed by: “We must look for ways, and ensure, the inclusion of fossil fuels.” These comments did not lessen the threat articulated in an investigation by BBC News and the Centre for Climate Reporting alleging that the UAE planned to use its role as COP host to strike “secret” oil-and-gas deals behind the scenes of the summit.

Nevertheless, the opening day did see an agreement on the operations of a fund designed to pay for loss and damage caused by climate change. This is a critical issue since the developed nations are responsible for some 79% of historic emissions.  Meanwhile, in terms of their ability to withstand or adapt to the changing climate, developing nations are much more vulnerable than developed nations.  When we consider the hemispheric distribution of developed versus developing nations, we understand the source of the oft-reported conflict between the northern and southern hemisphere in terms of addressing the climate crisis.  The notion of a ‘loss and damage’ fund, largely financed by developed nations, that aids developing nations to help them deal with the impacts of the changing climate, is driven by this discrepancy.

The second day saw the appearance of the first COP reference to fossil fuels. The COP 28 presidency and the International Energy Agencies launched a statement acknowledging that “fossil fuel demand and supply must phase down this decade.” As Tegan Blaine, Director Climate, Environment and Conflict at the United States Institute for Peace reported:  “In a surprising and historic deal, language in the final agreement reached at COP28 in Dubai calls for “Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050” (presumably ‘net zero’ refers to greenhouse gas emissions) and “Phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that do not address energy poverty or just transitions, as soon as possible.” Blane also noted the acknowledgement that additional attention needs to be paid to “other greenhouse gases, such as methane, many of which are much more potent than carbon dioxide.” In a promising statement reported in the United Nation Climate Change conference summary we read: “Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end,” said UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell in his closing speech. “Now all governments and businesses need to turn these pledges into real-economy outcomes, without delay.”

In terms of methane, the dominant component of fossil ‘natural’ gas, NBC reporter Evan Bush stated: “Some 50 oil and gas companies worldwide have pledged to shore up leaky methane systems by 2030, a move that could rapidly reduce emissions of the potent gas and forestall some climate change effects — if the companies live up to their word.” In a different commentary, it was reported that UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Sunday sent a strong message to the oil and gas industry: the pledges made at COP28 in Dubai fall well short of what’s needed to meaningfully tackle the climate crisis. Several environmental groups, meanwhile, promised to track these efforts and criticized the fossil fuel company promises as greenwashing and noted that the only real solution is to phase out fossil fuels rather than prop up their business model with band-aid promises. It might be considered symbolically valuable, at least, for there to be recognition at the COP of the serious climate impact of gases other than carbon dioxide. Given the history of misinformation and disinformation of fossil fuel corporations, it is difficult to generate much confidence in their commitment to action.

In short, while COP 28 did not result in our globally turning the tide on the climate threat, it did, at least:

(1) represent recognition by the nearly 200 signatory nations of the underlying cause of the problem in terms of fossil fuel use and the need to phase this out, along with the role of gases other than carbon dioxide, and
(2) provide further acknowledgement of the need for developed nations to assist developing nations through a loss and damage fund.

On the downside, the COP 28 language remains very soft and incorporated no specific targets, binding agreements, or penalties for failing to meet them.  It appears that too many attendees at the conference and parties to the convention fail to understand either the science or the urgency of action to address the climate crisis.

Background:

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established three decades ago in 1994 to prevent dangerous human interference with the global climate system. The specific focus then, as now, is on the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases.

One hundred and ninety-eight nations have ratified the convention and are designated Parties to the Convention. The Conference of the Parties (COP) represents the supreme decision-making body and involves all nations that are Parties to the Convention. The best way for us globally to achieve meaningful action to address the climate crisis is for a COP to produce agreements that demand and bind nations to substantial action. While some COP meetings have developed significant symbolic statements and agreements, regrettably there have been little or nothing in the way of binding requirements imposed on the parties that would move us forward.

On a positive note, regarding COP actions, it certainly was the COP 21 in Paris (2015) that acknowledged the need to keep global warming to no more than 2⁰C (3.6⁰F) above pre-industrial revolution conditions, but preferably, just 1.5 ⁰C (2.7⁰F) above those 1750 pre-industrial temperatures. Of course, acknowledging that need without imposing requirements on the parties served very little purpose and achieved little in reality. The U.S. election of 2016 then totally undermined this since it awarded the Presidency to Donald Trump, a climate science denier who immediately withdrew from the Convention. Thus, for four years, the U.S. federal policy was to undermine efforts to reduce emissions. Fortunately, the private sector continued many of the policies instituted by the previous Democratic Obama Administration, so emissions nevertheless declined.

Since the 2015 Paris COP, we have experienced a series of COPs (22 – 27) during which very little meaningful happened. This brings us to COP28 in Dubai (in the oil producing United Arab Emirates). The critical question is: Has COP 28 moved the needle?

Summarizing the conference, Nathalie Bernasconi, Interim Co-President and Co-CEO | Vice-President, Global Strategies and Managing Director, Europe at the International Institute for Sustainable Development opined: “COP 28 outcomes represent significant wins overshadowed by disappointments. While we celebrate the historic deal on financing for loss & damage and the commitment to transition away from fossil fuels—adopted for the first time—we can’t ignore the heartbreaking letdowns on adaptation and the dangerous loopholes in mitigation. The decisions adopted today in Dubai will impact the most vulnerable communities on earth, leaving them underprepared, underfinanced, and exposed to the consequences of global warming breaching the 1.5°C threshold.”

An extensive discussion of COP 28, from which some of this discussion was taken, is available from the highly credible Carbon Brief. Carbon Brief also offers discussion of the many texts from COP 28.

Further readings are available as follows:

https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/12/1144282

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