The U.N.’s COP28 climate summit begins on Thursday, accompanied by a symphony of groans from environmental activists and rueful chuckles from skeptics since the host for 2023’s event is the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — one of the world’s greatest oil powers.
“Brilliant: a COP28 to save the planet – staged by oil barons who imperil it,” columnist Marina Hyde grumbled at the UK Guardian on Tuesday.
Hyde thought the idea of “a petrostate hosting a climate conference” sounded like a bit of absurd improv comedy, especially since the presiding official of COP28 just happens to be the chief executive of the UAE’s national oil firm, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber. She wondered if the UAE might shut down its waste gas burning operations for the duration of the conference, “a bit like the Chinese government ordered many Beijing factories to shut down during the 2008 Olympics so that a pea-souper didn’t prevent enjoyment of the dressage.”
That is a notable comparison to draw, as Beijing’s air quality was still a topic of conversation during the 2008 Olympics (and even during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics many years later), but some environmentalists believe China’s vainglorious effort to arrange temporary blue skies for the Olympics actually had a salutary long-term effect on air quality. China’s air pollution is still nowhere near the standard for healthy air laid out by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), but it did get better.
Climate activists might likewise consider that getting the big oil-producing nations on board with their agenda is the only way to get remotely close to achieving their goals, so if the UAE wants to theatrically “do the right thing” for selfish reasons, maybe a bit of appreciation for the effort would be in order.
On the other hand, as Hyde made clear at great length in the Guardian, climate activists fear high-rolling politicians and industrialists will co-opt the movement and write generous indulgences for themselves into climate policies:
How do the omens for Cop28 look? Aside from all of the above, it emerges that protests at the event have been “approved”, in that authoritarian way that the form book suggests means they will take place in a fenced-off somewhere out near the airport. Joe Biden isn’t even going to turn up to it, meanwhile, though it was only a couple of weeks ago that his climate envoy, John Kerry, was declaring it “an experiment” to put an oil and gas-producing state in charge of a climate conference. The experiment certainly seems to be grippingly under way.
In fact, Cop28 seems to be taking on the character of one of those late-stage Fifa tournaments, where World Cups are really just an international bribery exchange to which the football merely serves as the backdrop. How else to explain Monday’s revelation by the BBC and non-profit Centre for Climate Reporting that Al Jaber and the UAE planned to use the conference to pitch and promote oil and gas deals to foreign governments including China, Brazil, Germany and Egypt? We have to say “planned”, because Cop28 spokesfolk now say the documents detailing the strategy “were not used by Cop28 in meetings” and that “private meetings are private”. No doubt, no doubt.
Bloomberg News reported on Monday, without a detectable twinge of irony, that “more than 70,000 politicians, diplomats, campaigners, financiers, and business leaders will fly to Dubai to talk about arresting the world’s slide toward environmental catastrophe.”
Seventy-thousand people flitting about to a climate conference on luxury jets sounds like quite a carbon footprint, but much like people who say none of the calories they consume on holidays should be counted against their waistlines, climate activists cheerfully ignore the vast amounts of carbon spewed during their unnecessary global confabs. (Were we not just told, during the coronavirus pandemic, that in-person meetings are wasteful and everything can be done via teleconferencing?)
The climate movement wrote itself an extra-special indulgence for COP28 because — just like every single climate conference before it! — this one is super-urgent, a “sobering, even somber moment as world leaders gather,” in the words of Union of Concerned Scientists Climate Policy Director Rachel Cleetus.
Bloomberg mentioned the grumbling about an oil magnate hosting the conference but then offered an optimistic view of what a fossil fuel heavyweight like Sultan Al Jaber might accomplish:
For his part, Al Jaber has publicly said he sees this COP as an opportunity to co-opt the fossil fuel industry into tackling emissions. One of the star announcements is expected to be a pledge by the global oil and gas sector to eliminate emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, by 2030. While the deal won’t have legal force, it’s one of several signs that progress can be made in the United Arab Emirates this December.
At least 150 countries and 25 national and international oil companies have signed the pledge, Adnan Amin, chief executive of COP28, said in an interview. His aim is to get 50% of methane emissions covered by the commitment.
“These are very, very significant companies and countries and if we are able to really attack the methane issue here, that gives us substantial emission reductions of probably the most dangerous greenhouse gas,” Amin said, talking up prospects for this year’s summit.
Bloomberg also said the mood at COP28 was optimistic thanks to “the improved diplomatic mood between the U.S. and China,” which were described as “the world’s top two polluters” even though China is an order of magnitude worse and far less willing to compromise its industrial goals in the name of climate change.
Beyond a deal on methane and expanding renewables, other key areas for the talks are a potential commitment to phase out fossil fuels, progress on securing more climate cash for the developing world and the first formal stocktake of the world’s progress fighting climate change since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015.
China has already dismissed phasing out fossil fuels as “unrealistic,” as Bloomberg remembered two paragraphs later, but it is a safe bet that more “climate cash” will be “secured” for the developing world.
The developing world has been increasingly clear that it expects the developed world to make all the sacrifices for climate change, which means all of this is for nothing because the Paris Agreement goals would be nearly impossible to meet even if the entire world embraced them equally.
Those goals certainly cannot be met if the “Global South” is given massive carbon indulgences, but the Global South is understandably reluctant to collapse back into pre-industrial poverty for want of reliable, affordable energy. India, currently the world’s Number Three polluter but making a spirited effort to surpass the U.S., has plainly stated it will not sacrifice its industrial ambitions to reduce carbon emissions. India has trimmed its coal use a little but blocked global agreements to phase out coal entirely.
Foreign Policy (FP) on Tuesday noted the climate movement has reached the “begrudging realization that it’s no longer simply enough for the world to try to curtail emissions,” which could be more bluntly stated as the begrudging realization that developing nations are not going to make the required sacrifices — and China, the world’s top polluter, considers itself a developing nation.
Adjusting to this reality means “climate negotiators are increasingly open to discussing multiple priorities at once: cleaner energy but also capturing carbon and methane that’s already in the environment, all while mitigating the impacts of the weather fluctuations roiling our planet.”
A key feature of those other “priorities” is that wealthy Western nations can be taxed to provide technological gifts to the developing world, which need only agree to accept them.
Persuading Third World leaders to hook their factories up to solar panels is impossible, but getting them to hand over a bit of real estate so foreign operations can build carbon capture facilities is much easier. Managing the emissions from fossil fuels is much more politically salable than banning them. Emissions of methane, the new superstar celebrity gas of the climate movement, can be contained without shutting down fossil fuel production.
Perhaps the greatest hurdle for COP28 to overcome will be fiscal reality. Climate activists speak casually of spending trillions on green technology in the developing world while the United States teeters on the verge of a fiscal apocalypse after decades of wildly irresponsible government spending. There are not any more “trillions” for the climate movement to play with. They might consider being a little nicer to the super-rich oil man who wants to throw a big party for them in Dubai because deep pockets are getting harder to find.