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What Have We Achieved at COP28?

COP28 President Dr. Sultan al-Jaber opens the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference.
His Excellency Dr. Sultan al-Jaber, COP28 President and participants at the UNFCCC Formal Opening of COP28 during the UN Climate Change Conference COP28. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED) Photo by COP28 / Christopher Pike. Some rights reserved by UNclimatechange.

The 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP28, is nearly over, and this is a good time to take stock. The conference has delivered a mix of wins and setbacks so far, and the outcome is still very much in doubt. Let’s see what we’ve achieved — and we can anticipate in the final days.

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The conference began under a cloud when the Centre for Climate Reporting revealed that conference president Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber — head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) — headed to pre-conference meetings foreign government officials prepared to lobby foreign governments for oil and gas deals. It’s unclear how many of his meetings actually included discussions about trade-related matters, but the controversy undermined al-Jaber’s presidency from the start.

Still, there have been some positive results. On opening day, delegates reached an agreement on loss and damage. The world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries have long sought such an agreement, which is meant to help them cope with the effects of climate change.

It’s great that the fund is finally operational, but there’s still a lot of work to do. Initial funding came to just $429 million USD — just 0.1 per cent of the $400 billion developing countries estimate they require on an annual basis. Canada contributed a paltry $16 million CAD, while the United States contributed just $17.5 million USD and Japan another $10 million USD — miserly contributions considering the gargantuan levels of CO2 these three leading economies have emitted. But it’s a start. Let’s hope the large emitters up their game in the years ahead.

Fossil Fuel Industry Influence at COP28

With the conference taking place in the United Arab Emirates, a petrostate, under the leadership of al-Jaber, many feared the influence of the fossil fuel industry would overwhelm this year’s COP. To a great extent, events have borne out these fears.

Fossil fuel lobbyists thronged the conference — 2,456 of them, to be precise, which is four times as many as the number who attended just one year ago. The Saskatchewan government shelled out $765,000 for a pavilion, using the space to showcase its green blather about sustainable oil production. Alberta dispatched over 100 oil-friendly delegates, including Premier Danielle Smith and Minister of Environment and Protected Areas Rebecca Schultz. Alberta was well rewarded for its efforts, earning a Fossil of the Day award from Climate Action Network for its obstruction of climate action — the first subnational jurisdiction to win such an award.

The Fight Over Phase-out

COP28 President al-Jaber committed an enormous gaffe when he all but revealed himself to be a climate denier. Speaking to former Irish President Mary Robinson at an online event called She Changes Climate, al-Jaber questioned the scientific basis for phasing out fossil fuels to limit global heating to 1.5℃. He then compounded his error by asserting that a phase-out would “take the world back into caves.”

The blowback was immediate and fierce. Joelle Gergis, a climate scientist and contributor to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, called Al Jaber’s remarks “disgraceful.” Scientists Jean-Pascal van Ypersele and Michael Mann rebutted al-Jaber in an open letter, asserting that “humanity needs to phase out fossil fuels by 2050.” Mary Robinson herself repeated her call for a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels. Al-Jaber’s own goal left his reputation in tatters, which I suppose we can view as a kind of negative accomplishment.

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As I write these words, al-Jaber is steering the conference towards its conclusion. He seems to be trying earnestly to salvage his reputation, as well as the conference itself. Perhaps he is even trying to keep the goal of 1.5℃ alive. “Failure, or lack of progress, or watering down ambition is not an option,” he told delegates, adding “it is our opportunity to deliver an outcome that is based on the science lead by the science and equipped by the science that keeps 1.5 within reach.”

At this hour, delegates also seem to be increasing their commitment. Al-Jaber has invited delegates to a majlis, an Arabic-style conference where participants sit in a circle and speak freely about what matters. Destination Zero Executive Director Catherine Abreu, a hawkish climate advocate, found the developments promising. “In 8 years of attending climate talks,” she wrote on Twitter, I have never felt so much like we’re getting real about what matters. It’s kind of blowing my mind. Ministers [are] talking straight about the realities of phasing out fossil fuels.”

Conference president al-Jaber will prepare a draft agreement text overnight Sunday UAE time. Negotiations resume on Monday. Let us hope the delegates maintain their resolve. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, we are headed for 2.9℃ of warming during this century — but only if we fully implement unconditional Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) made under the Paris Agreement.

Next year, the COP continues its tour of the world’s petrostates in Azerbaijan. That doesn’t bode well for a good outcome. But climate outrage and phase-out momentum are both rising as fast as the seas, and we can expect that scientists, activists, and ordinary citizens will continue to press for solutions. Time is not on our side, but public  opinion is.

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