COP28. By Prof. John Sweeney, Day 1.
Holding COP28 in a major oil and gas producing country was always going to be fraught with controversy. This is particularly so since the host President, Sultan al Jaber, is also the CEO of the United Arab Emirates national Oil Company, a company which is responsible for more emissions that Exon Mobil or BP. However, at the end of the first week, the events have not played out according to plan for either the hosts or most of the 197 countries hoping for a breakthrough to tackle the dire climate situation laid out by the scientists of the IPCC or the Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres.
The Presidency needed an early win to provide some momentum. And so it seemed this had occurred with the surprising announcement that the long running dispute on Loss and Damage was settled on day 1. This took everyone by surprise and was swiftly followed by the pledging of $100M by the host country and several substantial commitments to the Loss and Damage Fund by other countries, including €25M from Ireland (claimed to be the second highest per capita contribution after the UAE). While the figures adding up to date to around €720M sound impressive, in reality, the expressed need is measured in trillions. Of course the likely beneficiaries are not the primary drivers of global heating. That responsibilities falls to the developed countries. G20 countries emit 7.9 tonnes of greenhouse gases per capita while the corresponding figure for the least developed countries is 2.2t per capita. Ireland’s figure is 11.9t per capita, so maybe it should be among the highest contributors to the Loss and Damage fund.
Shortly after day 1, however, the drip feed of information questioning the real intentions of the President began to emerge. First was the publication of leaked documents by the BBC indicating that the President was intending to do ‘side deals’ with various countries to facilitate the expansion of their fossil fuel infrastructure. This was generally condemned as not something the COP President should be doing during a COP and could be interpreted as a misuse of his position as well as demonstrating a serious conflict of interest. His defence was rather unconvincing to this author.
A few days later, a recording emerged of a feisty interchange between Sultan Al Jaber and former Irish President Mary Robinson. In the heat of this debate Al Jaber stated there is ‘no science’ behind calls for a fossil fuel phase out’. Although this was recorded from an event that predated COP28, its revelation was devastating. Here was someone tasked with achieving the one thing that could save the planet from what Guterres had described as ‘opening the gates to hell’ denying that fossil fuel cessation would provide a way of avoiding the catastrophic tipping points being breached.
Both the Tanaiste and Minister Ryan have been generous with their time and have met with the Irish civil society group to provide updates. For the most part the negotiating position of the Irish government is progressive and Minister Ryan in particular is heading up, together with France, the EU negotiations on climate finance. But the world outside Europe is a very different collection of countries with often widely differing priorities. President Putin has been visiting those countries in the region over the past few days which do not risk his arrest for war crimes. These countries, like Russia, are major fossil fuel producers and one can imagine that ceasing fossil fuel production was not a priority in their meetings. Indeed one of the young Ukrainian climate activists condemned the way energy production has become weaponized as a result of the war.
What is now emerging as the sticking point for the wording of the final communique is the extent to which it will embody a commitment to phase out all fossil fuels: coal, gas and oil, before 2050. A new global plan with strict milestones is necessary for this. At this stage in a COP the President assumes
control over deadlocked negotiating committees and seeks to drum out compromise texts. How successful he will be in doing this is not at all clear given the misgivings in his neutrality emerging over recent days. Various draft texts already in circulation repeat the mantra of previous COPS: “phasing down”, “phasing out unabated fossil fuel emissions”, or even omitting any reference to fossil fuel reductions entirely! We won’t know until the final gavel comes down if India, China, Saudi Arabia or Russia will veto the final wording as happened in Glasgow. On this rests the verdict as to whether this will be a COP for change or not.
Fossils and Fossil Fuels. By Prof. John Sweeney, Day 2.
It is customary for civil society groups to nominate a country that they feel has done least to tackle climate change as ‘Fossil of the Day’. These nominated are subsequently entered into ‘Fossil of the Week’ etc. to hopefully embarrass countries into upping their game. It’s a bit of a stunt, but has been a feature of COPs for many years. Friday was Youth and Children’s day and the nominated country was Israel, narrowly pipping Russia and Australia. The nomination of Israel was emphasising that there can be no climate justice without social justice, and reflected on the tragic loss of young life presently occurring in the region. In the case of Russia, the fact that Mr. Putin landed in the UAE the day before and didn’t even come to COP was pointed out, together with the long standing opposition of Russia to emissions reductions. His potential motive in going from one petrostate, the UAE to another, Saudi Arabia, was also commented on by the nominators. The contribution of fossil fuels to the Russian economy is as high as 40% and new markets are needed following the EU boycott. This of course raises doubt as to what Russia will agree to in the final communique.
In the case of Australia, the fact that they have made no contribution as yet to the Loss and Damage Fund despite being one of the world’s leading exporters of fossil fuel was pointed out. The very limited contribution they have made to ameliorating climate change impacts in their neighbouring countries was also a factor. Of course the awards are purely symbolic, but do tend to show up the real ‘laggards’ in the negotiations.
Also produced at each COP is the country ‘league table’ which positions 59 countries and the EU in terms of their climate performance. Rankings are decided by a panel of experts with inputs also provided at a national level. After improving briefly in 2022 to reach 37th place, largely as a result of the passage of climate legislation, Ireland has now slipped to 43rd place in 2023. Not quite in the relegation zone yet, but clearly being overtaken by other countries. The reasons given primarily relate to implementation failure, namely Ireland’s failure to convince the evaluators that the carbon budget agreed for 2021-2025 will be achieved. Indeed the EPA have also projected recently that the subsequent budget period 2026-2030 will also not be achieved. So despite ‘talking the talk’, Ireland is not ‘walking the walk’!
There is a striking presence of ‘Big Agriculture’ lobbyists at this COP. While the omni present oil lobbyists tend to get the greatest attention, industrial agriculture lobbyists are very active. Emissions associated with food production amount to about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions with over half of this due to livestock farming. Methane is particularly problematic, trapping 80 times more heat than the same amount of CO2 over a 20 year period. Yet the focus in this COP seems to be largely restricted to reducing methane from oil and gas flaring, rather than from livestock. Ireland’s Minister for Agriculture has arrived and will meet civil society groups tomorrow where the COP theme focus will be on agriculture and food. It should be interesting given that Ireland emits 3.7 times as much methane per capita as the average EU citizen.
Today there was a lot more activism inside the COP venue with noisy marches and demonstrations to rightly remind negotiators what is at stake. However there are growing concerns that the final decision will not signal an end to fossil fuels. Presently the negotiators have a number of alternative texts to argue over. These range from ‘an orderly and just phase-out of fossil fuels’ to no text at all being offered. Somewhere between the two there will be compromises suggested involving ‘unabated emissions’ and ‘phase down’ of fossil fuel emissions. The planet however can’t wait for compromises in this area. Nonetheless the requirement for unanimity which has bedevilled progress in this area for 28 years means that it will only take one country to veto what over 190 countries want to do. The next few days will tell the tale.
COP28; See Through the Spin. By Prof. John Sweeney, Day 3.
As a veteran of 13 COPs I can confirm that I left disillusioned from 12,with only Paris being different. The pattern is ominously similar here in Dubai. The first week is dominated by world leaders arriving with their entourage and making lovely noises about how this particular COP is crucial, how the window for avoiding the tipping points is rapidly closing, and how much we should listen to the science. In the three minutes allocated to each world leader in the Plenary Hall, we hear noble statements of how much a particular country is doing to tackle the problem. Seldom do we hear figures of how much their emissions have increased since their last appearance or how structural changes in their economies and societies are underway to achieve a sustainable world for the next generation. Of course there are exceptions, but the first week is mainly designed for domestic consumption back home. If you can’t say our emissions are increasing, instead say we are reducing emissions intensity, or we are a rich country and are contributing finances to ease the plight of climate victims in poor countries or those facing submergence.
The second week is very different. The delegates are given a brief from their bosses and tortuous negotiations commence. Draft agreement texts are prepared, riddled with square brackets to be accepted or rejected in lengthy sometimes overnight negotiations. Around the conference venue activists march and young people demonstrate to keep the pressure up on negotiators to deliver. It makes for a colourful and noisy COP, especially with reference to the indigenous peoples groups. Amazonian indigenous people in full costume protesting their loss of habitat, Canadian First Nation people protesting their mistreatment by big oil etc. For most countries however their minorities are silent, protests by them would not be countenanced by their national governments. All the while, the men and women in dark suits ply their trade. 2,500 oil and gas lobbyists are active behind the scenes. Taking a lesson from the big oil playbook, Big Agriculture presents a greenwashed perspective loosely draped in what they believe passes for ’food security’.
And then the Saudis send in their lawyers.
Having seen these individuals in action in previous COPs I can only marvel at their skills. Often Harvard or Yale educated, they are expert at dismembering sentences. A comma here, a semi colon there and the whole meaning of a sentence is changed. Of course taking up speaking time with lengthy statements also is a good tactic, especially late at night.
The first draft text that emerged could have been written by OPEC. It contained little of substance and was crammed with aspirational language that promised little implementation certainty. The so-called North Star that the President emphasised as his compass to keep the planet heating up beyond the Paris 1.5oC threshold was certainly not in evidence. The phrase ‘rapidly phasing down unabated coal’ was especially scorned by the delegates. No mention of other fossil fuels being ‘phased down’ far less ‘phased out’. This immediately led to threats of a walkout from the EU. The final text that was agreed after a day of wrangling, was not that much better. When Sultan Al Jaber finally brought down the gavel on Wednesday morning the delegates hugged and cheered as usual. But in reality the concrete achievements of COP28 are not likely to avoid the planet warming above the 1.5oC threshold.
The key phrase in the final agreement called on countries to contribute to global efforts to ‘transition 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 in keeping with the science’. But this contains
no timescale or quantification of what transition actually means. It is purely voluntary, reflecting the watering down of intentions that occurs in a system where unanimity is required. Unsurprisingly, after the deal was reached, an oil representative reportedly said the deal ‘does not affect our exports, does not affect our ability to sell’.
Maybe expectations were too high. Maybe the tactics of having an especially poor first draft made any improvement seem good. Maybe the COP did for the first time signal a transition to a fossil free world. But the question hanging over the event is will countries live up to their commitments this time, or will global climate change wait long enough for a sustainable future for the next generation? On both counts the prognosis is poor.