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COP28: Cop-out or historical landmark?

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Picture: Giuseppe Cacace / AFP / Taken on December 6, 2023 – Environmental activists display placards during a demonstration at the venue of the COP28 United Nations climate summit in Dubai on December 6, 2023. COP28 agreed to establish a loss and damage fund to support especially vulnerable countries, ‘but broken promises on transition funding from developed countries have floated like polluted plastic on the surface of oceans, drowning out prospects for a just transition in most African countries’, the writer says.

By Kim Heller

“As we approach the finish line of COP28, my main message is clear,” the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres stressed. “We need an ambitious outcome that demonstrates decisive climate action and a credible plan to keep the 1.5°C warming limit alive and to protect those on the frontlines of the climate crisis.” Guterres urged COP28 delegates to “End the fossil fuel age”.

The year 2023 has been the hottest ever for humanity, according to Simon Stiell, the United Nation’s Climate Change Executive Secretary. “We are paying with people’s lives and livelihoods. Science tells us we have around six years before we exhaust the planet’s ability to cope with our emissions. Before we blow through the 1.5-degree limit … if we do not signal the terminal decline of the fossil fuel era as we know it, we welcome our own terminal decline,” Stiell said.

In his opening address, the President of COP28, Sultan al-Jaber, said: “We feel, as you feel, the urgency of the work, and we see, as you see, that the world has reached a crossroads … science has spoken. It has confirmed that the moment is now to find a new road, wide enough for all of us.”

But as COP28 edged towards closure on a warm Monday evening this week in Dubai, it looked like there would be no happy ending. High hopes that world leaders at this historical climate summit would commit to phasing out fossil fuels and transition meaningfully to renewable energy seemed to have turned to dust.

In a world where the wholesale burning of coal, oil, gas, and petroleum is fuelling a fateful pandemic of global warming, environmental ruin, and human sorrow, the phasing out or phasing down of fossil fuels should have been the pinnacle of COP28. But Monday evening’s COP28 draft report was both an anti-climax and anti-climate.

The draft report made no commitment to either a phase down or phase out of fossil fuels. Rather it called for the world’s nations to decrease “consumption and production of fossil fuels, in a just, orderly and equitable manner so as achieve net zero by, before, or around 2050”. A can-do-list of activities rather than a must-do-list of activities to decrease consumption and production was part of the proposed path ahead.

The list included phasing down unabated coal, accelerating emissions reductions from road transport, and transitioning away from fossil fuels. A rather tepid approach to a red-hot crisis. One climate expert, Alden Meyer, criticised Monday night’s draft for presenting voluntary options to countries on getting rid of fossil fuels, rather than enforcing decisive and binding action. Meyer commented: “It’s like a fast-food menu — maybe you pick a or b, maybe you pick nothing.”

There was great opposition and objection to the banter of reducing rather than phasing out fossil fuels, the greatest culprit of climate change. Fiery exchanges were had over this lack of a firm commitment to an actionable fossil fuel phase-out. For those fighting against the titanic environmental damage and devastation, and for climate justice, there was little to celebrate.

It is an “epic mess” DR Bill Hare, a climate scientist said on Monday night. The climate editor for BBC News, Justin Rowlatt wrote on Monday evening: “Is this moment it all falls apart?” Rowlatt wrote that it appears as if the promised COP28 ‘transformational’ deal “could be evaporating in the desert sun”.

Picture: Giuseppe Cacace / AFP / Taken on November 30, 2023 – COP28 President Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber speaks during the opening ceremony of the COP28 United Nations climate summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, one of the largest oil and gas players in the world. Not only has this caused concern from the very start of this critical climate summit, but the significant climb in the number of delegates with oil-related interests or agendas had has stirred sceptism among many delegates, especially climate activists, the writer says.

That COP28 took place in the United Arab Emirates, one of the largest oil and gas players in the world, had caused a measure of concern from the very start of this critical climate summit. That the president of COP28, Sultan al-Jaber, has material interests in the oil industry and that the number of delegates with oil-related interests or agendas had climbed significantly from previous summits, had stirred sceptism among many of the delegates, especially climate activists.

Grand attempt to dilute the resolution to phase out fossil fuels gave credence to these initial suspicions. If one examines Monday’s draft report, it would not be far-fetched to say that those invested in the oil business, and some of the greatest polluters in the world, were indeed the main scribes of COP28.

Rachel Cleetus, a policy director of the UCS, said Monday’s document was “riddled with the evidence of world leaders succumbing to the perverse influence of the fossil fuel industry and petrostates instead of choosing to safeguard a liveable future for people and the planet”.

Quelling the storm of discontent on the draft report, COP28’s Director-General, Ambassador Majid Al Suwaidi, said, “We are facing the most demanding COP agenda of all time … the text we released was a starting point for discussions”. He also went to great pains to stress that the COP28 president was not biased towards any party.

It was back to the drawing board. CNN’s Angela Dewan wrote of how the global climate summit ran into overtime as bitter division over fossil fuels continued. “The global climate summit is well into overtime late Tuesday night in Dubai, with no deal on the meeting’s final agreement, and countries are bitterly divided over whether to call time on fossil fuels. Negotiators are scrambling last-ditch meetings to salvage more ambitious language to address the cause of the climate crisis.”

After a sleepless Tuesday night, a new draft was presented in the early hours of Wednesday morning. In the uneasy dawn of the new day, a refashioned document was presented, much to the relief of most delegates.

This new and now adopted document is historical in that it calls on countries to phase out fossil fuels. But it is a cop-out in that it cannot require or force nations to do so. The deal is not legally-binding, and this could place the transition to renewables in slow motion.

The COP28 wish list includes the tripling of renewable energy capacity globally, the rapid phasing down of unabated coal, limiting new and unabated coal power generation, and accelerating zero and low emissions technologies. The document also speaks to the rapid deployment of zero emission vehicles, and the phasing out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that do not address energy poverty or just transitions.

COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber hailed the climate deal approved by almost 200 countries as an “historic package”. He said: “We have delivered a paradigm shift that has the potential to redefine our economies.”

But it may not be enough. Time is fast running out. Poor and developing countries continue to carry the burden of global warming and the devastating social, economic, and environmental impacts of man-made pollution.

Speaking at COP28, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “African countries are among the most vulnerable to the effects of a rapidly changing climate and have to adapt and build resilience within the context of historically low levels of development and severely limited capacity.” COP28 agreed to establish a loss and damage fund to support especially vulnerable countries dealing with the effects of climate change. But broken promises on transition funding from developed countries have floated like polluted plastic on the surface of oceans, drowning out prospects for a just transition in most African countries.

A UN report published in November 2023 pointed out how the developed world agreed more than a decade ago to transfer at least $100 billion a year to developing countries to help both with their green transitions and efforts to adapt to the climate crisis. Although the pledge was reaffirmed in the 2015 Paris Agreement, this target has not been reached.

Given the wishy-washy non-binding character of the COP28 agreement, it may well be that African nations are once again left to sail in an environmental pit of despair and destruction, not of their making, without any lifeboat or jacket.

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.