Per Capita Davis: Curtain comes down on COP28
This is my last column of 2023. It’s about the end of the 28th Conference of Partners as representatives from 200 countries tried once again to grapple with the climate crisis.
Many have trumpeted the results, calling the final agreement historic and game changing. Although there were many positives in the agreement, the primary reason for elation cited by those trumpeting the COP’s success was that, for the first time, the agreement actually included the words “fossil fuel.” Forgive me if I’m underwhelmed.
I can see a legitimate reason for the happy talk. Directly naming fossil fuels in a document about how to fix the problem of the climate crisis is a big step, if only because participants at the previous 27 conferences were not able to do so. But still, come on.
Including the obvious after ignoring it for so long is important insofar as it signals to the world of policy makers, investors, and the rest of us that there is hope on the horizon. But there’s a part of me, a cynical part, that doubts the actual commitment of fossil fuel “users” and their “suppliers”. There are precious few, if any, metrics attached to those commitments. Countries are to “phase out” fossil fuels, without saying by how much and when. And everything is voluntary. While some claim the agreement will result in accelerating a transition from fossil fuels, there are significant reasons for raised eyebrows.
According to a summary of the agreement in the New York Times, the Saudi energy minister said the agreement “buried the issue of immediately phasing out or phasing down fossil fuel and instead left space for countries to choose their own way.” He indicated that Saudi oil exports would not be affected by the agreement. Also from the oil-rich gulf, the individual from the United Arab Emirates, the person who managed COP 28, whose voice is most loudly proclaiming the agreement as a huge success, chimed in with, “We will continue to produce oil as long as the market demands.” It appears that “phase out” can mean very different things to different people or interests.
Perhaps we should take seriously the failure of many of the commitments made at the 27 prior COP agreements and examine what happened or, rather, didn’t happen. History may inform how we should look at promises made at COP 28. It’s fair, to acknowledge from the get-go that there has been progress, and past COP agreements have been a big part of that. But there’s also ample history to indicate significant failure. As an example, the 2021 COP produced an agreement to “phase down” coal-fired power plants. Less than a year later Britain approved a new coal mine and global coal use has soared to record highs. And this year at COP 28, the NYT indicates that “An earlier draft of the agreement urged (again, voluntary) nations to stop issuing permits for new coal-fired power plants unless they could capture and bury their carbon dioxide emissions. But countries like China and India, which are still building large coal plants to satisfy growing energy demand opposed overly tight (again, we are talking about being “urged”) restrictions. The language on new coal plants was removed from the final version.
When the speeches are all over and conference attendees, including some 1,200 representing the fossil fuel industry, head for home, this is when aspiration and reality collide. Going cold turkey on ridding the world of its reliance on fossil fuels would have major adverse effects on many countries. African nations argued they need to exploit their oil and gas resources to generate the funds necessary to pay for transitioning to clean energy. Speaking of which, the agreement, unsurprisingly “recognized a special role in the energy transition for so-called transitional fuels, seen as code for natural gas.” “Unsurprising” in part because COP 28 took place in the city of Dubai, just a few miles from the largest natural gas plant in the world. Natural gas is less harmful than coal, but is still a fossil fuel, the burning of which produces carbon emissions.
The US is a champion of the agreement, but we seem to perhaps have our fingers crossed behind our back when speaking of our own efforts to curb fossil fuel production and use. We are doing a lot to promote renewables but at the same time producing record levels of oil and authorizing efforts to find more. And Europe, weaning itself from Russian oil is increasing their use of natural gas.
Which brings us to what may be the most important promise the US and other developed countries have made to compensate developing countries: “loss and damages” resulting from the climate crisis. Developing countries have contributed very little to the problem by way of carbon emissions but have suffered from the adverse effects resulting from the climate crisis. This fund comes on top of other promised funds to help developing countries make the transition away from fossil fuels. So far, not enough has materialized, and some promises are “subject to the availability of funds.”
Bottom line, ending the climate crisis is complicated. The curtain has come down on COP 28. How the promises are implemented will determine whether or not it will be curtains for all of us.
John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column was published orignally in The Davis Enterprise, where it appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.