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COP28: Lessons from a once bright light

Updated: Jan 8

Sultan Al Jaber (R) hugging United Nations climate chief Simon Stiell (L) during the summit. Photo credit: Martin Divíšek/EPA

By Fairul Reeza, Director Sustainable Practice

It is fair to say that few COP summits have made a lasting impression since Berlin in 1995. The Paris Agreements of 2015 was arguably the last big one, where the prospect of a temperature rise to 3.6°C by 2100 snapped us out of a stupor and brought enough changes to bring that down to 2.9°C. Who knew that would be as far as we’d get¹


Summit President Sultan Al Jaber set the tone early when he stressed that there was no science to show that a phaseout was necessary,² and ending fossil fuels would “take the world back into caves”, adding “I am in charge” to stress the point. The outcry was instantaneous, and many feared for the summit. So it was with significant that 2 weeks later, the words “transition away from fossil fuels” were finally included in the declaration, after a tense 3 days of negotiation. Many were disappointed it wasn’t more, others were just happy the words “fossil fuels” were included. Everyone went home with a measure of comfort.


But is it, really, or have we just been hoodwinked in the world’s biggest shell game?³ Is it possible that the text been agreed to all along, and the sequence of events – a slip of the tongue before the event, the soothing of fears with the world’s first loss and damage fund on the opening day, the tense final three days of negotiations that led to the final statement – all a play of shadows – wayang kulit, as we call it in Malay - to lead us to a statement we would begrudgingly accept, with no real consequence?


Consider the facts.


Fact check #1: They were always going to do it anyway


According to the UN’s own report issued a week before COP28, all 20 of the world’s largest petrostates - including the U.S., U.K., Russia and China - plan to openly breach their commitments to the Paris Accords, and increase their collective production far above the limits agreed to keep global temperature increase to 1.5°C. By 2030, coal production is projected to rise 460% above the agreed cap; gas 80% and oil another 30%. Taken as a whole, fossil fuel production will increase by almost 70% above the limit set for a 2°C increase, despite the fact that 17 of those states have pledged to achieve net zero.


Much of it started when then U.S. President Donald Trump approved record levels of drilling that upended its reliance on the Middle East for energy stability and security, quickly becoming a net exporter for the first time. But it was only Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which threatened the EU’s own supplies that things really began to boom.

Source: US Energy Information Administration, Liquefaction Capacity Table and the US Dept. of Energy


For all the clamour to defer retiring its nuclear reactors and fire its coal plants back up, Brussels and Downing Street ended up approaching Washington for help, who ramped up production and met the shortfall within weeks. It is now the largest LNG exporter in the world, with 17 new projects since approved to ensure supply for the States and its allies. Collectively the plants will have the potential to release up to 1,642mn metric tons of CO2 equiv. per year - as much as 440 coal-fired power plants – even as China and India were highlighted as the main hurdles to a stronger statement in COP28.


Current U.S. President Biden has now approved more new oil & gas projects in his first two years than Trump in his. Saudi Aramco was officially made Saudia Arabi’s national oil company ahead of the Cop28, allowing for more strategic alignment with Riyadh’s sovereign wealth fund PIF. This will be pivotal as it expands into new territories including South America and North Africa, which has seen renewed investments from the EU in the absence of Russian competition on the continent.

Fact check #2: There is very little help forthcoming

The fund that was announced to provide reparative funds worth USD700mn to the most badly affected countries came after 28 years of protracted negotiations, with host UAE and Germany leading the way with a pledge for USD100mn each; another USD75mn from the UK and some USD25mn from the US. It’s noteworthy though that COP15 in Copenhagen promised USD100bn a year to poorer nations for exactly the same thing, and not a cent has been seen since. The pledge for USD700mn 13 years later therefore can almost be called insulting, if the need weren’t so dire.


Fact check #3: The banks are not on board. Well, not yet anyway


Regardless of how big a company you are, new projects tied to future revenues such as oil fields and LNG facilities often require significant financing upfront, at times up to 36-40 months ahead. It is a lucrative deal however, guaranteed against future contracts, which is why while 49 of the world’s 60 largest banks have committed to net-zero targets, all have continued to provide USD5.5tn to the fossil fuel industry since the Paris Accords in 2015. USD669bn of this were channelled in 2022 alone, and USD150bn of that to the top 100 companies expanding fossil fuels worldwide such as TotalEnergies, ConocoPhillips and Saudi Aramco.


And as long as banks will finance their undertakings, the industry will continue to expand while supporting the status quo. Perhaps one day when the floods have wiped out their asset base, and temperature changes triple their industrial exposures over and above their stress tests. So what can we look forward to in 2024?


Azerbaijan and COP29


In all more than 90,000 attended the 2-week long conference in Dubai – more than twice that of COP27 in Egypt – with 3,000 of those lobbyists from oil & gas and agriculture. On the other end of the spectrum  small bands of protestors¹⁰ were allowed to speak under extremely strict restrictions and under strict supervision, be it regarding Indigenous rights and reparations to genocide and the industrial military complexes. It was farcical. It was frustrating. It was very much reminiscent of the football World Cup held in Qatar as well just over a year ago: all the right noises managed over a few weeks, and then business as usual for everyone.


It is unlikely to improve at the next summit in Azerbaijan, which recently scored 9/100¹¹ for political rights and civil liberties, and for whom oil & gas production accounts for half its GDP, and more than 90% of its export revenue. It is a hard pill to take, given the optimism that surrounded the summit’s early years and - as it stands - culminated in Paris eight years ago.


Perhaps it’s time to come around to the fact that we should, really, not look to others for this change. Government leaders, billionaires and corporations cannot be “there for us”. Not by any sustained measure anyway. In the end I think it comes down to that adage hope for the best, expect the worst. And fight like hell to make it happen.

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