The 28th conference is a milestone event where the international community must confront the harsh truths about our collective (and differentiated) efforts to combat climate emergency.
There is always a hype built around the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference. Every Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is projected as a do-or-die meeting. Success is typically measured by the grandeur of new pledges, with the host country basking in the glow of any significant commitments. However, the 28th COP, which begins on 30 November in Dubai, is unique because it is not so much about new promises (though there will undoubtedly be some) but what happened to the old ones. The question to be answered in Dubai this December is: Have the countries kept their promise, and if not, what's next. Dubai COP, therefore, is the first ‘official’ reality check of the climate crisis. It is also a reality check for the oil and gas industry and for the commitment of the rich world to support poor countries in dealing with climate disasters.
Climate balance sheet
The Paris Climate Accord, adopted in 2015 and signed by 195 countries, is a unique treaty. While it has set an international goal to keep temperature increases within 1.5-2.0°C, it cannot force countries to cut emissions. Countries pledge voluntary commitments to reduce emissions, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), but these are not legally binding and there is no penalty for non-compliance. What the Paris Agreement has is a process to review pledges every five years, called ‘global stocktake’, to check where the world stands on climate action. The assumption is that disclosing information will put moral pressure on countries to enhance their commitments. The Dubai COP, therefore, is crucial because the results from the first-ever global stocktake will be discussed here. It will also be a test of the “moral pressure” hypotheses.
This year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Sixth Assessment Report. It confirms that between 2011 and 2020 global surface temperatures were on average 1.09°C higher than they were from 1850 to 1900, with 1.07°C of this change being caused by human activity[i].
The findings of the UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2023: A Broken Record is even graver. It notes an average temperature 1.8°C warmer than pre-industrial levels in September 2023. It further asserts that proceeding along the current path as determined by NDCs would have us on track for 3°C of climate change by the century’s end[ii].
The preliminary findings of the global stocktake, published in the Synthesis Report of the Technical Dialogue of the Global Stocktake, clearly states the following:
“Global emissions are not in line with modelled global mitigation pathways consistent with the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement, and there is a rapidly narrowing window to raise ambition and implement existing commitments in order to limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”[iii]
While all assessments clearly show that the world is far off from the 1.5°C emissions trajectory, the big question is what kind of message from the global stocktake will be delivered in Dubai? Would it be greenwashing, or would it call out countries for vapid and unmet commitments? This is important because the outcome of the global stocktake will inform the next round of NDCs that countries need to declare by 2025. These commitments will be implemented through 2035 and thus would decide climate action for the next 10 years. So, the right messaging from COP28 is crucial to unequivocally indicate what countries, developed and developing, are required to do to put the world on track to meet the Paris Agreement goals in the next decade, a decade which will decide whether we will win or lose the climate battle.
Moment of truth for oil and gas
There is the elephant in the room and it is oil and gas (O&G). Often touted as a cleaner fuel than coal, oil and natural gas in 2022 accounted for 54 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions; coal accounted for 40 per cent. O&G is the developed world’s fuel of choice. In the European Union (EU), for instance, they contribute about 60 per cent of the total energy; coal's contribution is 10 per cent. The reliance on O&G is even greater at 70 per cent in the US. In contrast, the dependence on coal is higher in emerging economies like India, China, South Africa and Indonesia.
Two years ago, at COP26 in Glasgow, an agreement was reached to phase down coal use. This concession was wrung from countries like India that depend heavily on coal to meet their energy demands. Despite repeated attempts, and support from the EU, no such commitments have been made for O&G, although it is abundantly clear that prolonged reliance upon such fuels is entirely incompatible with the 1.5°C goal. Dubai, however, is the perfect venue to make such a commitment.
The UAE is the world's eighth largest petroleum producer and very much a petrostate. A recent Guardian exposé found that the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) has the most investment in new petroleum production projects. The CEO of ADNOC is Sultan Al Jabar, the man that the UAE has selected to preside over COP28. So, the stage is set for what the executive director of the International Energy Agency has called a "moment of truth for the [global] oil and gas industry's efforts on climate". Would the developed world and the petrostates agree to the O&G phase-down, or would this be another lost opportunity?
A compassionate world
Perhaps the most critical issue for developing countries at COP28 is action on the Loss and Damage Fund, whose creation was agreed to last year at COP27 in Egypt. Recent years have seen a rapid acceleration of climate-related disasters. In 2022, there were 81 weather, climate and water-related disasters in Asia, of which over 83 per cent were flood and storm events. More than 5,000 people lost their lives, more than 50 million people were directly affected and there were more than US$ 36 billion in economic damages.[iv] So far in 2023, the world has witnessed extreme floods in China, forest fire in Canada, flash flood in Somalia, heatwaves in East Asia and extreme rainfall in India. These impacts are being borne disproportionately by smaller, poorer, and inevitably less developed countries, which are least responsible for the climate crisis. The Loss and Damage Fund was envisioned to channel funds from rich economies into those most vulnerable to climate disasters.
While the agreement to create the Loss and Damage Fund last year was undoubtedly momentous, we will see whether this vehicle will be given any teeth in Dubai. If it is left toothless and penniless, the Global South should accept that the North has no intention of taking any responsibility for its historic emissions and has no serious plans to help those in need.
The commitments made in Dubai on the Loss and Damage Fund and action on Oil&Gas will determine whether the goals of the UNFCCC can be met. Will developing countries be made to bear alone the costs of adapting to a rapidly warming planet while the rich burn gasoline and natural gas and utter empty platitudes? Or will the developed world finally take responsibility for its historical emissions?
In essence, COP28 isn't just another gathering; it's a milestone event where the international community must confront the harsh truths about our collective (and differentiated) efforts to combat climate emergency.
[i] IPCC, 2023: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, H. Lee and J. Romero (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, pp. 1-34, doi: 10.59327/IPCC/AR6-9789291691647.001