COP28: Will a Petrostate Lead the Fight Against Climate Change?

The world will soon know whether a petrostate can steer the global fight against climate change as the 28th UN Climate Conference (COP28) opens in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The two-week summit, expected to draw a record 70,000 delegates from more than 200 countries, marks the largest gathering of world leaders this year. 

The summit comes at a critical crossroads in the climate crisis. As proceedings opened in the Emirati capital of Dubai on Thursday, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released data confirming 2023 as the hottest year on record. Records for greenhouse gas concentrations in the planet’s atmosphere, fossil fuel production and subsidies were also broken in 2023 as extreme weather fuelled by man-made warming swept the globe.

Two weeks before the start of COP28, the average daily global temperature shattered the 2°C above pre-industrial level mark for the first time – a historic milestone underlining the stakes riding on the UN climate negotiations.

“Greenhouse gas levels are record high. Global temperatures are record high. Sea level rise is record high. Antarctic sea ice is record low,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said on Thursday. “It’s a deafening cacophony of broken records.”

The primary objective of COP28 will be for nations to jointly assess their progress in achieving the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to well below 2°C. This comprehensive assessment, known as the global stocktake, is expected to culminate in a high-level roadmap outlining the actions required to achieve the desired climate targets.

In September, the United Nations released an early stocktake assessment that found the world was far off track in achieving its climate targets, emphasizing the need for immediate action “on all fronts” to limit the global average temperature rise to 1.5°C.

The world is headed for a nearly 3°C temperature rise by the end of the century under current policies, double the target set in the Paris Agreement, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Scientists warn this emissions trajectory will transform up to 19% of habitable land into desert-like hot zones by 2070, threatening the livelihoods of billions and pushing one in three people globally outside of the climate niche fit for human life. 

The health toll of climate change is also escalating, with more than 5 million deaths per year attributed to ambient air pollution from fossil fuel combustion, according to data published in the British Medical Journal.

Extreme heat, a growing threat to public health, claims an estimated half a million lives annually, disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations such as infants and the elderly. If no action is taken on climate change, heat-related deaths are projected to surge by 370% by mid-century, according to the medical journal The Lancet.

Simon Stiell, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, which convenes COP summits, warned in his opening remarks on Thursday that the world is standing at a “precipice”.

“Science tells us we have around six years before we exhaust the planet’s ability to cope with our emissions and we blow through the 1.5°C limit,” said Stiell. “If we do not signal the terminal decline of the fossil fuel era as we know it, we welcome our own terminal decline – and choose to pay with people’s lives.”

Loss and damage fund takes off

The opening day of COP28 achieved a watershed victory as countries voted to approve the Loss and Damage Fund.

The summit secured a major victory on its opening day as countries at COP28 unanimously approved the operationalization of the long-anticipated Loss and Damage Fund. The fund, championed by low- and middle-income nations for three decades, will direct financial support from high-income nations to the world’s most vulnerable countries grappling with the devastating impacts of climate change.

The vote to set the fund in motion marked a historic turning point, considering that just a year ago, during COP27 in Egypt, its creation seemed like a distant aspiration and was not even on the agenda.

As recently as a month ago, disputes over the fund threatened to disrupt the opening proceedings of the Dubai summit. Intense negotiations in Abu Dhabi leading up to COP28 turned into a battle over language and financing, with co-chair Outi Honkatukia describing reaching an agreement on the fund as “mission impossible.”

Avi Persaud, advisor to Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, hailed the agreement as a “hard-fought historic” moment.

“It shows recognition that loss and damage is not a distant risk but part of the lived reality of almost half the world’s populations and that money is needed to reconstruct and rehabilitate if we are not to let the climate crisis reverse decades of development in moments,” Persaud told the Guardian.

Developing countries had to make significant concessions to secure approval for the fund. The fund’s interim hosting for four years at the World Bank, viewed by developing nations as influenced by the United States and lacking transparency, raised concerns. Additionally, the final agreement diluted language related to binding financial obligations, opting for a strictly voluntary contribution model after the United States threatened to walk away from the fund altogether.

“[Rich countries] fought hard to make sure that that language talks about voluntary contributions only,” Rachel Cleetus, policy director of the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists said at a press briefing on Thursday.

“There’s nothing voluntary about the devastating billions of dollars of impacts, the loss of lives and livelihoods for people who are experiencing loss and damage,” said Cleetus. “The damage is not voluntary, but the contributions apparently, richer countries want to keep them that way.”

While the vote was met with a standing ovation, the fund remains effectively empty. Countries pledged a total of $429 million on Thursday, with the United Arab Emirates and Germany pledging $100 million each, the UK adding $25 million, and the United States contributing an additional $17.5 million. The World Bank needs $200 million to kickstart the fund, leaving just $200 million to combat loss and damage.

“The progress we’ve made in establishing a loss and damage fund is hugely significant for climate justice,” said Madeleine Diouf Sarr, Chair of the Group of the 46 Least Developed Countries. “But an empty fund can’t help our people.”

The establishment of the fund occurs against the backdrop of developed countries’ financial assistance for climate adaptation and mitigation declining to $21 billion in 2021. This amount, combined with the $200 million in the loss and damage fund, falls well short of the trillions required by low- and middle-income countries to address the escalating impacts of the climate crisis and achieve a transition to green energy.

Persaud further clarified that the pledged money is part of existing climate commitments, and does not represent new funding.

“Because the fund was only approved today, we can’t expect [them] to open up new budgets,” Persaud told reporters on Thursday. “So … this initial money will be coming from existing budgets.”

‘Phase-out’ or ‘phase-down’

COP28, the 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), will take place from November 30 to December 12, 2023, at the Expo City complex in in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

For decades, the scientific consensus has pointed to the root of the climate crisis: fossil fuels. Yet, the term “fossil fuels” was conspicuously absent from any decision text at UN climate summits for the first 25 years, a glaring omission that finally ended at COP26 in Glasgow.

This year, the battle at COP28 will centre on the future of fossil fuels: whether nations will agree to phase down their use or phase them out entirely. The central demand of environmental groups is the complete elimination of fossil fuels from the global energy mix.

“The success of COP28 will be judged from our point of view on whether it delivers a decision on the phase-out of fossil fuels,” said Romain Ioualalen, global policy campaign manager for Oil Change International. “That being said, we cannot ask all countries to phase out fossil fuels at the same pace. Historically rich countries with diversified economies have a responsibility to phase out fossil fuels first and fastest.” 

However, the prospect of an agreement to completely phase out fossil fuels is considered unlikely, if not impossible. But with a two-week marathon of negotiations ahead, hopes that countries may for the first time agree to a “phase-down” of coal, oil and gas remain alive.

In April, the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Hiroshima, Japan, saw the United States and its G7 partners agree to accelerate the “phase-out of unabated fossil fuels.” The term “unabated” refers to fossil fuels that are burned without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.

The battle over the definition of “unabated” is expected to be a key focus of environmental groups. They argue that allowing the use of CCS technologies would undermine the goal of phasing out fossil fuels, as CCS technologies are still unproven at scale, have significant costs, and have frequently resulted in net increases in emissions. An estimated 79% of operating carbon capture capacity globally are used to reinject captured carbon into the ground to produce more oil.

“We have two options,” said Stiell. “Either we can note the lack of progress, tweaking our current best practices and encourage ourselves to do more at some other point in time, or we decide at what point we will have made everyone on the planet safe and resilient … and decide to commit to a new energy system.”

Stiell’s remarks followed the opening statement of the newly minted president of this year’s UN climate summit, Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber – the lightning rod whose decisions will define the legacy of COP28.

Fossil fuel companies can ‘lead the way’

As the world teeters on the brink of climate catastrophe, major fossil fuel-producing nations plan to expand production.

“The world has reached a crossroads,” Al-Jaber declared in his first remarks as COP28 president on Thursday. “Since Paris, we have made some progress. But we also know that the road we have been on will not get us to our destination in time.”

“The science has spoken. It has been loud and clear,” said Al-Jaber, adding that his presidency will be “laser-focused” on the “North Star” of the 1.5C target enshrined in the Paris Agreements.

Al-Jaber is the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc), the United Arab Emirates state-run oil giant.  Al-Jaber’s dual role as head of both COP28 and Adnoc, which has the largest oil and gas expansion plans of any company in the world, has raised concerns about his ability to impartially lead the global effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

New revelations in the week leading up to Thursday’s opening ceremony further fuelled the conflict of interest controversy surrounding the oil magnate.

On Monday, the Centre for Climate Reporting released leaked documents allegedly showing that Al Jaber has been utilizing his position as COP28 president to lobby foreign governments to purchase oil and gas from Adnoc. The leaked documents reportedly detail meetings between Al Jaber and high-level officials from countries like Brazil and India, where he lobbied for increased Adnoc exports.

Al-Jaber has denied the authenticity of the documents and defended his appointment, arguing that he is uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between the fossil fuel industry and climate negotiations. In June, Al-Jaber unveiled what he described as a “game-changing plan”: directly involve oil and gas companies in the climate negotiations.

COP28 President Sultan Al-Jaber.

“Let history reflects the fact that this is the presidency that made a bold choice to proactively engage with oil and gas companies,” proclaimed Al-Jaber. “They can lead the way.” 

Major oil and gas producers have so far shown little interest in addressing the climate crisis. Governments and industry continue to expand fossil fuel production, with governments worldwide on track to produce fossil fuels at a rate 110% higher than the 1.5°C target by 2030.

The top 20 oil and gas companies, meanwhile, are projected to emit 173% above the 1.5°C limit in 2040. Oil and gas companies currently account for just 1% of clean energy investment globally – and 60% of that comes from just four companies, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The scientific assessments of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the International Energy Agency (IEA) are all in lockstep: no expansion of fossil fuel use can be reconciled with the 1.5°C target enshrined in the Paris Agreement.

Christina Figueres, the former UN climate chief and a key figure in the Paris Agreement negotiations in 2015, has warned that Al-Jaber’s approach, which provides fossil fuel companies with more influence over the negotiations, is “very dangerous” and a “direct threat to the survival of vulnerable nations”.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has also weighed in, urging oil and gas companies to make “profound decisions” about their future role in the energy sector. The agency’s executive director, Fatih Birol, has warned that “continuing with business as usual is neither socially nor environmentally responsible” in the face of the worsening climate crisis.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the international oil cartel of which the UAE is a founding member, shot back at the IEA, stating in a press release that its report “unjustly vilifies the [oil and gas] industry as being behind the climate crisis”.
This article was edited to reflect new information on the Loss and Damage Fund. 

Image Credits: Simon Evans, Dennis Sylvester Hurd, UNEP.

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