Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Can COP28 Police the Climate?

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Martin Wahl

Note: This article about the 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28, UNFCCC) at Expo City Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, was completed before the conference ended on December 12, so it reflects only its first ten days’ meetings and events.

The conference got off to a mixed start on November 30. It was positive in that the Loss and Damage Fund for developing countries experiencing the effects of climate change was initially funded by countries promising to provide $425M. But it was negative with the release of information that the conference host and president, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber of the United Arab Emirates and head of Dubai’s oil company ADNOC, had a 60 page talking point memo to guide him when making oil and gas deals with representatives of attending countries.

By December 8, pledges to the Loss and Damage Fund exceeded $700 million, a big number, but less than 0.2% of the estimated losses caused by climate change in developing countries annually.

Things got testy when Al Jaber’s heated discussion with Mary Robinson, Chair of the Elders NGO and former president of Ireland was reported by The Guardian. Al Jaber declared, “There is no science … that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5°C…” Al Jaber later walked back some of the “no science” statement and said phase-down or phase-out of fossil fuels is needed. While some might equate Al Jaber’s presidency of COP28 with Pablo Escobar hosting a drug abuse prevention conference, there is perhaps an argument to be made that a ‘war on oil’ may be as futile as wars on drugs have been unless the underlying demand for fossil fuels is addressed as well, much as tobacco use was reduced in the U.S. by encouraging users to quit with advertising, publicity and incentives, despite the headwinds of industry counter measures.

The Big Issue: Phase-Out, Phase-Down, Or “Unabated” Only

The most significant issue at the conference as of this writing is the debate about reaching an agreement calling for fossil fuel phase out, phase down or unabated fossil fuel phase down only. None of these terms is particularly well defined; and only “phase out” has a timeline with a goal of 2050. The phasing out or down of “unabated” fossil fuels would allow the continued use of the fuels where CO2 emissions are “abated” through carbon capture and storage (CCS). CCS is controversial, as it is expensive and energy-intensive to implement, and may best be suited to industrial processes, like cement production, where there are currently no viable alternatives.

All agreements issued by COP must be unanimous with no dissenting votes. It took 26 years for the Conference to agree that coal should be “phased down.” Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said Saudi Arabia would not agree to a text that calls for a phase down, let alone the phase out, of fossil fuels, and OPEC sent a letter to its 13 members who own 80% of global oil reserves urging them to consider agreements concerning reducing “emissions” only and not energy or fuels per se.

Host Al Jaber has made it clear that he hopes an agreement on phase-out or phase-down will be issued: on December 10 he convened a meeting of all participant nations and urged compromise. He has been working with Saudi Arabia since before the conference to temper their stance and attendees have expressed optimism for a meaningful outcome. We will keep our fingers crossed!

Other significant developments during the Conference’s first ten days included:

  • Representing 40% of world-wide production, 50 oil and gas producers pledged to cut operations-sourced emissions, primarily methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas. The pledge includes cessation of routine flaring which results in CO2 pollution. COP28 President Al Jaber led the initiative, stating, “We must do all we can to decarbonize the energy system we have today.” Participants complained that majors Chevron and ExxonMobil did not join the effort.
  • During the December 7 recess, the more than 100,000 participants enjoyed the amenities of the Dubai waterfront, hotels, and elaborate attractions, including a display of pollution pods – geodesic domes containing simulated air samples from Beijing, London, and New Delhi.
  • The attendees included about 2,400 fossil fuel lobbyists, indicating how important the conference has become to those industries.
  • The U.S. pledged $3 billion to replenish the Green Climate Fund that was created back in 2010. Others contributed $9.3 billion. The Fund was first endowed with $10.3 billion in 2014, and received an additional $10 billion in 2019.
  • Climate envoy John Kerry announced that the U.S. will work with other countries to make nuclear fusion a source of carbon-free energy. The hope is to have fusion power a reliable source of energy within 20 – 30 years.
  • Sixty-three countries, including the U.S., pledged to cut cooling-related emissions by 68% by 2050 compared to 2022 levels, and to establish energy performance standards by 2030. Demand for refrigeration and air conditioning cooling is expected to grow significantly as the world heats up further. Currently, about 20% of total electricity is consumed globally to operate fans and air conditioners, so this is no small task.
  • COP29 will be in oil-producing Azerbaijan – none of the other candidate venues would consider hosting a conference with more than 100,000 expected attendees.

After a career in data product management, Martin Wahl has worked in biofuels since 2006, currently with Lee Enterprises Consulting, a large bio-economy consulting group. Dividing his time between California and New Hampshire, he serves on Corte Madera, California’s Climate Action Committee and is a Newfound Lake Region Association member.


Image: Official Conference Logo

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