There is a risk that listing climate shocks endured this year – extreme weather events, the appalling consequences of unrelenting temperature rise and the wrecking of human lives – will only give rise to overwhelming doom, amid attempts to provoke the appropriate global response.
There may be better grounds for hope elsewhere, including indications that the hosts of Cop28, the United Arab Emirates, have an ambitious agenda for the UN process whereby almost 200 countries attempt to fashion a co-ordinated response to the climate crisis.
Cop28 has, arguably, the most extensive, action-focused schedule since Cop21, which delivered the Paris Agreement in 2015. Cop27 last year was a disgraceful treading of waters – more evidence it has become a bloated process – apart from securing a “loss and damage” fund.
Yet, digging deeper below the surface, there is a risk this year’s optimism will give rise to cynicism. Data has revealed that UAE’s state oil company – whose chief executive will preside over imminent climate negotiations in Dubai – has “the largest net-zero-busting expansion plans of any company in the world”. That means business as usual at a time when the world already has plans to exploit far more fossil fuel reserves than can safely be burned.
It follows shameful backtracking of decarbonisation ambitions and moves to scale up extraction by fossil fuel companies, ostensibly due an energy crisis exacerbated by the Ukraine war, and facilitated by state actors citing the need for enhanced energy security.
Data from the Global Oil and Gas Exit List (Gogel), a database detailing activities of companies representing 95 per cent of global production, shows almost all are ignoring warnings from climate scientists that new oil and gasfields cannot be developed if the global temperature rise is to be kept to the agreed 1.5 degree limit – a key Paris 2015 target.
Sultan Al Jaber is chief executive of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) that tops the list, and president of Cop28, opening on Thursday.
Nils Bartsch of non-governmental organisation Urgewald, which helps produce Gogel, criticised Al Jaber’s dual role. “I’m not sure how a person that’s responsible for this kind of oil and gas expansion is fit to lead the climate negotiations. It is the most obvious conflict of interest there can be,” he told the Guardian.
Adnoc disputed the data and trotted out the dubious line that oil and gas will be needed to meet future energy demand, insisting Adnoc produces “some of the world’s least carbon-intensive oil and gas”.
There are, nonetheless, indications we are in a better place in confronting what is about to become the overriding challenge to humanity this century. The renewables revolution is gathering momentum. Solar energy is widespread and achieving remarkable efficiency at low cost. Petrostates and the world’s biggest carbon emitter, China, know it and – despite clinging to fossil fuels – are to the forefront in adopting this technology.
A single Goldwind wind turbine with a rotor diameter of 252 metres offshore in China’s Fujian province last September produced enough energy in a day to power 170,000 homes. There is every indication floating turbines of even greater dimensions will soon operate off the west coast of Ireland.
A tipping point in global adoption of electric vehicles is also fast approaching. Storage capacity of battery technology is growing sufficiently to suggest the energy gap when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow can be bridged.
There are many welcome trends, but the latest undeniable science from multiple sources is killing that positive outlook: human-made greenhouse gases (GHGs) are continuing to rise globally despite big pledges being made by countries. Without immediate emissions cuts, global temperatures will breach Paris Agreement goals sooner than expected, scientists predict. Average summer temperatures in Dubai are set to be 50 degrees plus – just one indicator of a hellish future.
Despite decades of warnings, we are still heading in the wrong direction. That will prompt some to declare that those saying we are getting on track for a net zero world are naive. Scientists warned this month that global warming is likely to continue even if we achieve net zero emissions, as overheating of the planet is likely to persist and “intensify dangerous climate change”.
In responding to that bleak indication, US climatologist Michael Mann said that despite its alarming message, the study offered hope. In a telling way, he outlined where the world is right now: “It reminds us that the obstacles to climate action are neither physical nor technological. At this point, they remain political. And history teaches us that political obstacles can be overcome.”
Prof Brian Ó Gallachóir of MaREI in UCC advises the EU and the Government on energy. He will be watching out for the outcome of the coming global stocktake on where the world is at – the ultimate reckoner that no country can hide behind. “This will be the first time this has taken place since the Paris Agreement... It will confirm what we know, that the transition is under way, but not fast enough to align with Paris Agreement goals. This will raise a very important ‘So what now?’ that global leaders will need to respond to and agree what comes next to address shortcomings.”
The stocktake is a critical milestone designed to mark a staging point before the next round of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) is prepared. It is informed by parties to the Paris accord rather than independent external bodies, explains Sadhbh O’Neill, senior climate adviser with Friends of the Earth Ireland.
“Thus, negotiations around a decision text will reflect what the parties want rather than what the scientific advice is, revealing yet again the yawning gap between science and politics in international climate diplomacy,” she says.
The key elements the decision text should include are renewed commitments to a 1.5 degree pathway, nailing down $100 billion (€92 billion) in climate finance by year-end and a date for peaking global emissions, she adds.
Given how fast the window is closing to a future that can stay anywhere close to just a 1.5 degree level of global warming, “we will need a strong and united approach to rapidly reducing fossil fuels... that’s what I’ll be looking for in Cop28”, Ó Gallachóir adds.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) backs the case for a threefold increase in renewable electricity-generating capacity by 2030 for us to have a chance to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, he says. “A global commitment to achieve this short-term goal would provide the necessary impetus to achieve this rapid acceleration in deployment of renewables. This also may meet with less political resistance than specific targets for fossil fuel reduction and yet could be a significant achievement.”
It will come down to language; namely “phasing down” versus “phasing out”. EU countries and climate-vulnerable states want a package of measures to cut planet-warming emissions faster, including phasing out of fossil fuels.
Cop28 must reflect the scale and urgency of the crisis. It must prioritise the most vulnerable— David Regan, Concern Worldwide
Investment in clean energy is accelerating at a faster rate than for fossil fuels, helping bring “peak oil” demand into view. Demand for oil, gas and coal will peak before 2030, the IEA predicts.
Al Jaber has called for Cop28 to bring together all stakeholders, including the fossil fuel industry, and said a phase-down of fossil fuels is inevitable. Phasing down suggests countries should reduce, but not entirely eliminate, their fossil fuel use. European and climate-vulnerable states want to go further, and agree to eventually phase them out.
With energy responsible for 86 per cent of emissions, largely from fossil fuel combustion, negotiators need to agree a timeline for peaking and phasing out all fossil fuels, “as this will be necessary to even stay below 2 degrees, never mind limit global warming to 1.5”, O’Neill says.
Progress on the loss and damage issue in providing financial assistance to poorer nations as they deal with negative consequences arising from unavoidable climate risks is also hugely important given increased frequency of extreme weather events and the devastation that heatwaves, storms and hurricanes are causing, Ó Gallachóir says.
“Ireland’s leadership role in negotiations on this last year in Egypt provided one of the key positive outcomes of Cop27. It’s hugely important to determine who pays for the damage caused by climate change,” he underlines.
This process is about building trust between the Global North and the Global South, and acknowledging the immediacy of the crisis in hitting countries least responsible for global overheating, but most susceptible to it.
The here and now aspect is highlighted by Concern Worldwide chief executive David Regan: “Already, climate change has robbed millions of the world’s poorest people of their livelihoods. As Concern responds to floods in Pakistan and the worst droughts in east Africa in 40 years, it’s obvious the climate crisis is now a vast humanitarian crisis.
“Cop28 must reflect the scale and urgency of the crisis,” he adds. “It must prioritise the most vulnerable. It must deliver the finance to enable impacted communities adapt their livelihoods and food systems to survive. It must urgently address the enormity of losses those of us who have done most to cause the climate change have inflicted on those who have least impact on the environment.”
Promises made in 2021 to double adaptation funding – to help adjust to present and future impacts – must be honoured, Regan adds. “Anything less will only deepen this escalating crisis.”
Governments from richer and poorer countries have agreed key measures to supply funds to the world’s most vulnerable people to repair the damage from climate breakdown. They drew up a loss and damage fund blueprint after a tense two-day meeting in Abu Dhabi recently. Initially it will be administered by the World Bank and draw on funding sources including large developing countries.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has indicated he will be attending Cop28 with a message for heads of state and government that “being ambitious on climate action isn’t a choice; it’s an imperative” – given that this generation, mindful of recent extreme weather events, “must turn the tide on climate change and biodiversity loss”.
Over the last 12 months... we are really seeing large-scale renormalisation or re-mainstreaming of the kinds of denialist arguments that we thought had been relegated to the margins of public life— Jennie King, Institute for Strategic Dialogue
Ireland is likely to play a lead role in firming up issues regarding loss and damage, building on good work last year and credibility earned from the way it supports developing countries, while Minister for Climate and Energy Eamon Ryan, as IEA co-chair, is likely to be involved in negotiations on the energy transition. He will be pushing the polluter pays principle, “to ensure there is adequate funding to support the most vulnerable countries and to encourage greater access to renewable energy, particularly in the developing world; Africa specifically”.
Food systems, responsible for a third of global GHGs, will feature prominently for the first time. Modern farming is the most significant driver of biodiversity loss, while the world’s ability to provide healthy diets combined with food security is threatened by climate change with extreme weather affecting the ability to produce and transport food. Covid and the Russia-Ukraine war has exposed their lack of resilience and price volatility.
The US will take the lead, but the event is a big opportunity for Ireland to position itself as an international leader in sustainable food systems, while also achieving UN sustainable development goals including zero hunger and adhering to Paris 2015 targets.
There is an added complication when it comes to trust building, which is that climate mis- and disinformation are thriving like never before on social media platforms, according to Jennie King, head of climate research and policy with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
“Over the last 12 months... we are really seeing large-scale renormalisation or re-mainstreaming of the kinds of denialist arguments that we thought had been relegated to the margins of public life. And that form of denialism is being updated through the lens of conspiracy theories, through the lens of political polarisation in a lot of countries,” she told a Covering Climate Now briefing.
“There are clear vulnerabilities in the way social media platforms are designed and governed at present which allows such content to rise to the surface,” she added.
This is ultimately rejecting the premise of fossil fuel linked or anthropogenic climate change and trying to convince people that the problem is not as serious or not as urgent as is being presented by science. It is no longer the sole preserve of mega oil and gas companies, big auto or agriculture heavyweights.
The digital landscape has shifted “in dramatic kind of earthquake-level ways”, and there are few public commons or public squares that now exist after the downfall of Twitter, King said. Elon Musk’s X antics has meant more and more users are funnelled into closed or in some ways specialised communities, whether it’s on Mastodon, TikTok, Telegram, Gab or WhatsApp – so much so “you don’t any more have many spaces where the scientific community is actually engaging with the general public”.
Separately, geopolitical tensions over the Israel-Hamas war risk inflicting collateral damage on Cop28 and undermining future co-operation. The conflict has already led to divisions in the global climate movement that could yet become a schism laid bare in Dubai.
Cop28 will be judged “on whether it leans into a clean and equitable energy future or maintains a business-as-usual course towards climate catastrophe”, O’Neill of Friends of the Earth Ireland believes.
“If governments fail to stand up to the fossil fuel companies and petroleum-exporting nations, we may get a weak decision text that undermines public confidence in the entire UN Framework Convention on Climate Change process. However, there is always the possibility of new diplomatic initiatives to boost climate and loss and damage finance or talks for a new treaty to phase out fossil fuels.”
As a COP veteran, she knows such processes are often slow to begin with, but with enough public pressure and first mover states, momentum can build rapidly. “So we have to press every single lever for change that we can. The global movement for climate justice will continue to work across all international forums and processes, as well as build societal momentum for change at a national and local level. Because we have no alternative.”