COP 28: Can Tentative Hope Withstand the Controversy?

WRITTEN BY Kate Burke

December 7, 2023

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COP 28: Can Tentative Hope Withstand the Controversy?

Kate Burke

7 Dec, 2023

Almost three decades in existence, the 28th conference of parties (COP 28) is currently underway at Expo City in Dubai. Cop was formed under the 1992 UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC) and legally binds every country to avoiding dangerous climate change and to reduce greenhouse gases in an equitable way.

The most pivotal commitment on mitigating climate change was made in COP 21 in Paris in 2015. The Paris accord legally binds countries to pursue efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, as above this level would have a catastrophic and potentially irreversible impact on the environment. To achieve this target, countries must reach net zero emissions by 2050 and halve 2010’s level of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. 

World leaders convened at the World Leaders Summit on December 1 and 2, after which designated officials have taken over for the remainder of the conference, which is expected to go on until December 12.

Irish Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and Minister for Transport, Eamon Ryan, who was initially going to have to return to Ireland to vote in the no-confidence motion against Minister for Justice Helen McEntee can now remain in Dubai thanks to a vote pairing agreement with Social Democrat TD Jennifer Whitmore; this tactic will have no effect on the motion as their votes will essentially cancel each other out.

It is important that Ryan remains in Dubai, as Ireland, with the support of the European Union, has proposed that the profits from fossil fuels should be diverted into clean energy investments in developing countries. This motion is gaining traction, and Irish and EU leaders are hopeful it will get the necessary support.

The purpose of this financial strategy is to reduce the risk involved in investing in renewable energy in developing countries, primarily in Africa, Latin America and small island states. 

Despite being marred by recent controversial comments by Cop president and oil tycoon Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber (more on that later), COP 28 has had a relatively promising start. The proceedings began with momentum and goodwill as there was a breakthrough on so-called “loss and damage”, a process under which wealthier countries with larger emissions pay for the environmental damage caused to vulnerable developing countries. This principle was agreed upon last year at COP 27 in Egypt, however the completion of this deal means that it can now come into operation.

The United Arab Emirates has pledged $100m to this fund, as has France and Germany, the rest of the EU has pledged $145m, the UK has pledged $51m, the US has pledged a rather paltry $17.5m and Japan has pledged $10m. Many stakeholders have welcomed this progress, however, Ann Harrison, Amnesty International’s Climate Advisor has reacted with disappointment, stating “the amount pledged is barely enough to get the fund running, and little more”. 

Leaders at COP 28 seemed intent on getting to work straight away as they agreed on the agenda within the first few hours of the proceedings, a process which has often caused delays, wasting valuable negotiation time. There has also been progress made in the recognition of the role food systems play in global warming. 134 world leaders have pledged a move towards greener farming. This pledge includes vowed support to protect vulnerable farmers whose source of livelihood is at risk. While fossil fuels dominate the limelight at COP 28, there are many other stakeholders present who are campaigning for awareness of and investment in issues such as crop diversity, without which we risk food insecurity.

Modern industrial farming methods favour monocrops, synthetic fertilisers and deforestation, all of which strip the soil of its nutrients and contribute to greater greenhouse gas emissions. The ability to climate-proof food production is an intrinsic part of ensuring that there is a just green transition. COP 28 also appears to recognise the environmental benefits of plant-based eating, with almost all of the catering containing no animal products. 

Despite some hopeful signs of cooperation, COP 28 almost appears doomed from the start. Dubai, which is one of the seven Emirates of the United Arab Emirates, is the host of the conference, yet the UAE is the 8th biggest oil producer in the world. To compound this conflict of interest further, the president of COP 28, al-Jaber, is the chair of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc).

In 2021, Adnoc produced 2.7 m barrels of oil every day, and the company plans to double this by 2027. Greta Thunberg described his appointment as “completely ridiculous” and former US Vice President Al Gore commented that it is “absurd”. Indigenous leaders have called for big polluters to be kicked out of climate talks. Though there are a record number of campaigners at COP 28, almost 2,500 fuel lobbyists were granted access to the conference.

Perhaps it comes as little surprise then that during a heated response in an interview with chair of ‘the Elders’ Mary Robinson – former Irish president and former UN Envoy for Climate Change – al Jaber said there was “no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5 degrees… show me the roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socio-economic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves”. Such a roadmap can be found here.

Following on from these ill-considered comments, al Jaber backtracked during an emergency meeting, claiming that his background is in engineering and that he “respect[s] the science in everything [he does]”. Robinson has also made a comment via X, formerly Twitter, “[a] successful COP 28 is not about a single individual or nation, but the collective will and concerted efforts of all countries in these negotiations. The science compels: phase out fossil fuels rapidly, accelerate renewable energy adoption, and radically scaled up finance.” 

It is still too early to gauge what the outcome of these negotiations will be; but it is clear that, as US Climatologist Michael Mann has said, “the obstacles to climate action are neither physical nor technological… they remain political”.

We are tentatively hoping that COP 28 can demonstrate the power of collective political action and that greater climate commitments than ever before will be agreed upon. 

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