For cynical outsiders looking in on the annual UN gathering of signatory countries to the Paris Agreement – almost all countries on the planet – it’s a bloated circus that has failed to act as the Earth continues to burn, and not a suitable global mechanism for collective action on rapidly approaching climate breakdown.
Yet against all odds it generated the Paris Agreement, which set a course for decarbonising the world. That has helped curb emission excesses in developed countries with business-as-usual mindsets, though its flaws as a voluntary process are clear.
This year’s COP is in UAE, should we be sceptical about it being hosted by a petrostate?
Cop28 – the 28th staging of the process – is being hosted over two weeks by UAE from Thursday when 70,000 people will convene in Dubai. Some 160 global leaders will attend for the first two days and then it’s down to messy negotiations behind closed doors.
Usual risks apply; yet more weak action and watering down of language seeking to curtail the chief culprit responsible for global warming, the fossil fuel industry.
But this is no ordinary Cop. The Israel-Gaza conflict casts a shadow. That it is being held in a region dependent on oil and gas exports has fuelled scepticism. But the fossil fuel sector, with its economic might and lobbying ability, has always been able to force its way on to the agenda through illicit means or with the help of complicit state actors.
Yet Cop28 president Sultan Al Jaber, who is also chief executive of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, has set the most ambitious agenda since 2015. And, remarkably, the imperative to quit fossil fuels will be front and centre. This is because of a year of worsening weather extremes, yet more record temperatures and unprecedented global emissions.
Two additional factors are a catalyst for stepped-up ambition. The economic case for renewables is indisputable. Countries at the sharp end of the climate crisis are on board, having secured a “loss and damage” fund. Emboldened by this, they are pushing for a fair deal.
Who will be there?
The mix will be diverse, whether it’s flamboyant climate activists, small armies of negotiators/experts, politicians with green genes, campaigning NGOs, technocrats promising silver bullet solutions, and big business – including some not averse to greenwashing. King Charles (off the restraining hook of Downing Street) will give the opening address at the leaders’ summit while Pope Francis will not be attending as planned due to illness.
US climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua – representing the world’s biggest emitters – will command the greatest presence in seeking to make progress. A large Irish delegation will be led by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
What are the big agenda items?
A “global stocktake” required under the Paris pact will assess progress made since 2015. That will indicate how far off target countries are. This forces states to indicate what they are going to do to address gaps. Cop28 has to spell out what is to be done now to bring the agreement’s overarching goals closer.
Food will be centre stage as a third of the world’s food production is at risk due to rising temperatures. Leaders will be asked to sign a food declaration, while the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation will set out a roadmap on how the world can feed a growing population while adhering to a 1.5 degree temperature limit.
This overlaps with health, which will get strong billing, as the climate breakdown exacerbates food insecurity, proliferation of climate-sensitive diseases, and the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, placing unprecedented strain on health systems.
The UAE is hosting a methane summit given emissions from this greenhouse gas are about 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. The prime focus will be curtailing its leakage in oil and gas extraction. It breaks down much faster in the atmosphere but could reduce global temperature rise by about 0.3 degrees in coming decades. Scientists agree that would be a substantial lever to keeping within the critical 1.5 degree rise. Inevitably, methane arising from agriculture will feature, a singular problem for Ireland.
As talks progress the robustness of language relating to fossil fuels will attract attention. Sultan Al Jaber insists he will get oil companies and oil-rich states to the table in ways others could not by way of “a decarbonisation accelerator” underpinned by pledges to reduce emissions associated with their operations.
Separately, there will be a big tussle over efforts led by the EU, Ireland and others, to apply the polluter pays principle to fossil fuel companies to help finance climate mitigation, adaptation and specially to roll out renewables in poorer countries.
If that gets across the line, even on a voluntary basis, and if there is commitment to at least step up efforts to phase down fossil fuels, it will be a substantial outcome – though phase out is what is required to make a liveable planet.