COP28: Cup half-full or half-empty? December 14, 2023

Photo: COP28 / Mahmoud Khaled, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Working in overtime, the delegates at the United Nations COP28 climate talks adopted a “historic” statement urging nations around the world to transition away from fossil fuels. It is the first time a COP conference has actually cited fossil fuels as causing climate change.

Other agreements taken at COP28 have also been embraced as signaling real progress: a “loss and damage” fund to reimburse low-income (and low-polluting) countries for climate change-caused damages; a call to reduce methane leakage by at least 30 percent by 2030, and a call to triple the world’s installed renewable energy generation capacity and increase energy efficiency.

Yet the loss and damage fund is currently supported by pledges that cover less than 0.2% of the amount needed, and the statements on methane, renewables, and phasing out fossil fuels are in fact proposals for voluntary, not binding, commitments. One observer, speaking in a New York Times op-ed, calls them “theater.”

The push and pull between competing views reflects the tensions between countries and people affected by climate change and the power of the oil and gas industry. The oil industry was present in force at the conference: The conference took the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is dramatically ramping up its oil production, and the president of COP28 was Sultan al-Jaber, the head of the UAE’s national oil company. At least 1,300 oil, gas and coal industry lobbyists attended the conference.

And OPEC, the international oil cartel, pressured member states’ delegations to reject a phase-out of oil and gas in a letter that called on delegates to “proactively reject any text or formula that targets energy ie fossil fuels rather than emissions.”

So did the conference call on the world to end the use of fossil fuels, or did it not?

How you answer that question may depend on your perspective. The call for a transition away from fossil fuels is a landmark statement – for COP, at least, although much of the world, PSR included, has been calling for it for years. UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell called COP28  “the beginning of the end” for the fossil fuel era.

But the conference rejected an earlier draft statement calling for a “phase-out” of fossil fuels, which implies a stronger and clearer rejection of fossil fuel use. And COP’s policy statements are, in any case, non-binding. Nations are free to pursue the energy policies they choose. As was evident from the positions taken by major oil-producing nations, many governments are not willing to move swiftly off fossil fuels.  Clearly the United States is not.

In a year that witnessed record-setting summer heat around the world, and with carbon emissions actually rising, not falling, that is simply not enough. We need to use the COP28 agreements as a tool that will move us towards the phase-out of fossil fuels, and fast. Our future on Earth depends on it.

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