Can Cop28 really pull the plug on fossil fuels? With five days left, Irish activists want action

Kevin O’Sullivan’s Dubai diary: Mary Robinson’s testy exchange with Cop president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber brings wider attention to a technical debate

Frantic days and nights

It’s too easy to say Cop, the annual assembled multitude trying to steer a climate-disturbed world to a safer place, is not fit for purpose.

At Cop28 in Dubai, 70,000 people gather daily. The usual chaos applies, despite the best efforts of the United Arab Emirates hosts. There is a rush to endless meetings, press conferences, briefings, “big” announcements and token mini protests with ridiculous winding queues to access a stunning venue.

On the surface it seems as if the latest evidence presented at Cop28 of a world hurtling to climate breakdown somehow is untrue because, if accepted as real, it would surely prompt a global emergency response. And so the frenzied business of Cop rumbles on, as if that matters more.

For many Cop veterans, however, this year is different, based on what has already been achieved over 10 days and what is possible in five frantic days and nights to come, despite the heft of industry and big oil being present like never before.


Mary Robinson’s moment

A jolt, nonetheless, came early by way of a testy exchange between chairwoman of the Elders Mary Robinson and Cop28 president (the talks facilitator) Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber. It immediately surfaced old suspicions that despite his earnest plea for much greater collaboration in ensuring a strong outcome, fossil fuel states would be up to their usual tricks, stalling at every turn when their “resource” is the world’s biggest source of carbon pollution.

In a pre-Cop28 online exchange, he said science didn’t show the need for fossil fuels phase-out to keep global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees. Robinson politely begged to differ. Scientists sided with her, apart from the usual sceptics.

There is a notable irony as he has accepted the need for phase-out ultimately, and says 1.5 degrees is his “North Star” – arguably, a seismic shift in position by petrostates and a basis for a historic breakthrough.

Carbon markets expert and philosopher Dr Kian Mintz-Woo, who is leading UCC’s delegation at Cop28, is surprised “a very troubling aspect” did not get more coverage. “It seemed like a classic case of a man talking over a woman. I think a lot of Irish women would watch and feel regret and anger and familiarity. She didn’t let herself get riled up. That is really impressive.”

The row is valuable in bringing a focus on tensions about the presidency and disagreement on the role of this Cop, he says. “I’m on Mary Robinson’s side. [That] means fossil fuel phase-out over some reasonable time span. I was glad that debate, which is rather technical, got all of this attention.”

He believes the joust “reflects what his instincts are” rather than Al Jaber’s subsequent press conference, which was probably designed to “reflect a very curated image”.

Early wins

It injected realism into the process, underlining what has to be bridged. Early wins include the loss and damage fund for climate-damaged developing countries being put in place; support of tripling renewable energy by 2030; and big oil-producing states committing to eliminating methane in their fossil fuel operations. If delivered it would slash global emissions significantly.

But like all big international negotiations, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. In this case, a global stocktake has to get over the line first. That would be the chief enabler of a strong outcome. This is a big review of global climate actions, and charting a way to close huge gaps given we are way off containing warming to 1.5 degrees by dramatically reducing emissions and protecting lives and livelihoods.

Now for the hard political phase

It was left to UN climate change chief Simon Stiell on Wednesday to inject adrenaline into the upcoming hard political phase when he told countries to stop posturing, aim high and agree on a way to end the “fossil fuel era as we know it”. The global stocktake was then “a grab bag of wish lists”, yet many parties see the potential for the most momentous outcome since the Paris Agreement of 2015.

It remains to be seen what form of “phase-out” will be in the final text being refined by the Cop28 presidency. Much work is needed on scaling up adaptation funding to help prepare for inevitable climate destruction and climate finance to ensure a just global transition to clean energy.

The International Energy Agency recently noted: “We are witnessing the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era and we have to prepare ourselves for the next era.” Friends of the Earth head of policy Jerry MacEvilly says: “The jury is very much still out on whether Cop28 will support or hinder this transformation.”

He has seen some proposals “which will simply allow the fossil fuel free-for-all to continue, fatally undermining the survival limits set out in the Paris Agreement. Our big concern is the commitment we need – for a just and equitable phase-out of all fossil fuels – is already being deprioritised”.

Others favour “carbon abatement” despite these technologies being “at best a speculative distraction, and at worst an ambiguous loophole allowing states and companies to further lock in more fossil fuel infrastructure”.

“For the next era to start, this era has to end: when it comes to fossil fuels at this Cop we need an end to the false narratives, an end to the deliberate obfuscation, an end to the tiresome efforts by the worst polluters to try to ‘win the slow bicycle race’, and an end to their lowest common denominator positioning – all facilitated by masses of fossil fuel lobbyists.”

Siobhán Curran, Trócaire head of policy and advocacy, highlights the disconnect between much of Cop and global reality. “We are seeing alarming emissions and temperature records across the world and we see the direct and devastating impact on communities in the global south. Communities are losing their homes, livelihoods and ways of life. They require money to flow from richer countries to recover from devastating climate impacts and to meet their climate plans, including a fair, fast phase-out of fossil fuels.”

A reality check is needed on the amount of finance being provided and what’s needed for loss and damage, she adds, as pledges “are chronically low”.

The fund is vital to address the impacts of extreme weather events such as climate-induced floods, droughts and wildfires. “This does not signal a commitment by richer countries to fill this fund, which is so desperately needed by those communities bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.”

A loss and damage fund

Loss and damage discussions have not been concluded, Curran underlines. The Cop should outline “a requirement that richer countries lead in providing new, additional, adequate, predictable and grant-based financial resources to the fund, including through introducing ‘polluter pays’ taxes and levies, such as greater taxation on fossil fuel companies”. This position closely aligns with Ireland’s stance.

The UN standing committee on finance has shown trillions are needed to implement the climate plans of developing countries; “global climate finance needs to grow in scale from billions to trillions”.

Insurer Aon estimates Cyclone Freddy caused $655 million in damages when it hit a small number of southeast African countries this year, notes Christian Aid Ireland’s policy and advocacy officer Ross Fitzpatrick.

“That would see the fund as it stands emptied by a single cyclone. Politicians still haven’t aligned ambition with reality. Unless there is a concerted effort to urgently raise the hundreds of billions needed, there is a real risk that this process could lose credibility in the eyes of those most reliant on it,” he adds.

After the loss and damage fund was agreed there was a sense many wealthier countries were now keen on parking the question of financial support, says Fitzpatrick. Some developing countries remain opposed to fossil fuel phase-out unless there are clear commitments on how it will be supported. “They argue that they are being asked to skip the fossil-fuel-powered development path pursued by wealthier countries over the last century. Making it clear to developing countries that the transition away from fossil fuels will be supported by adequate and predictable climate finance could be the key to unlocking progress.”

The presence of a record number of fossil fuel lobbyists is a stark reminder of the infiltration of the entire process by those intent on enriching themselves at the expense of the planet, he says. “Any further delay in making the commitment to phase out fossil fuels will only lock in much more frequent and devastating climate disasters around the world.”

Ireland is part of an increasingly influential coalition of countries pushing for accelerated phase-out of fossils fuels under the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. At one of its press conferences, Danish minister for global climate Policy Dan Jorgensen declared what was needed at Cop28: “The stone age did not end because we ran out of stone. Just like the fossil age won’t end because we run out of fossils ... We need to make political decisions.”

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