COP is stuttering, but it’s still crucial for the world

COP is one of the few fora where all parties can thrash out their differences, but with fossil fuel interests given a sympathetic ear in recent years, it will be difficult to change the narrative at COP28.

Opinion by

Image : Rafael Henrique / Adobe Stock

Another year, another COP.

The 28th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which takes place in Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), from 30 November to 12 December, will follow a familiar, almost lulling routine. World leaders will fly in and the second and third days will be devoted to speeches, pledges and announcements from the people running almost every country in the world.

The US president, Joe Biden, and the UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who are both facing pressure at home, will be prominent. So will Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, CEO of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company – ADNOC – and president-delegate of the event.

Leaders from the Global South, whose countries have borne the brunt of the climate catastrophe, will no doubt be prominent as well. Perhaps Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, parts of whose country sweltered through several successive days over 44 degrees in June, leaving 170 people dead, will make a statement. Or President Taneti Maamau of Kiribati, one of a number of small, drowning island states whose heartbreaking invocations of their countries’ right to exist has become a hallmark of the COP proceedings.

António Guterres will also have a lot to say. The secretary-general of the UN has cut an increasingly hoarse, angry figure of late, thundering in September that humanity had “opened the gates to hell” by allowing the climate crisis to worsen. Similar protestations have accompanied every step of the way in the turbulent climate politics of recent years, every report that illuminates the chasms between rhetoric, ambition, action and impact, and every record that has tumbled in a horrific, climatically violent 2023 that is all but certain to be the hottest year in history.

Yet he must also recognise that the decision to hold COP28 in the oil-producing UAE sends a message about just how much COP has changed. Eight years ago, at COP21, rich, high-emitting countries bound themselves in the landmark Paris Agreement to hold the increase in the global average temperature to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees. However, it seems that the COP process is increasingly divorced from domestic policy agendas. After all, one of the hallmarks of the Agreement is that it largely leaves countries to chart their own climate course. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the space at the international level has been filled largely by fossil fuel interests, who have captured COP to what former US vice-president Al Gore calls a “disturbing” degree.

A set trajectory?

A year ago, during a workshop at the London School of Economics on the eve of COP27, Australian conservationist and climate scientist Tim Flannery told me that he expects global warming to peak around 2.1 degrees above pre-industrial averages. This prediction, he said, reflected almost entirely the speed with which renewable energy technology was being developed, refined, made cost-competitive and rolled out across the world.

This boom has made billions for the countries that got in quick – particularly China, which dominates global manufacturing of clean energy technologies – and the US, whose new industrial policy has instigated over $80bn in domestic clean energy investment, and for the most part occurred without particularly friendly government policy. Australia, where Flannery was the first (and last) climate commissioner, is a case in point. Despite weak, often outright antagonistic public policy, it has the highest uptake of solar PV in the world, largely due to individual consumers’ decisions to purchase and install solar panels on their roofs.

To an extent, Flannery’s message is a comforting one. Despite the worst missteps of national governments and fora such as the UN, and the malfeasance of fossil fuel companies clinging to industrial-era business models, it looks like the world may decarbonise just quickly enough to avoid completely shattering the 2-degree ceiling.

This may explain why COP has come to feel increasingly marginal. With diminishing chances of transformational breakthroughs, the hoped-for global carbon taxes or binding emissions caps that animated the very first COPs, all that is left is for each party to manage the worst impacts on itself until the market independently delivers a global emissions peak.

But this, of course, is to ignore the frictions. And it is these frictions that keep COP relevant. For less-developed countries there is a huge amount at stake. These countries have emitted the least, yet will suffer the fullest extent of whatever apocalyptic expression climate change is allowed to reach in the decades to come. For countries at the sharp end of any conversations around loss and damage, climate reparations, climate migration or the long-awaited $100bn a year in climate finance pledged at COP15, in Copenhagen, way back in 2007, COP remains the best arena to press their claims. For them, in Dubai, there is everything to play for.

Loss and damage still on the table

If COP27 was notable for one thing beyond the record number of fossil fuel lobbyists who passed through its doors, it was the conversation around loss and damage. Following three decades of persistent, though ignored, calls by less-developed countries for some kind of compensation or adjustment mechanism, a deal was struck as dawn broke after the final day of negotiations.

Loss and damage is a cornerstone of any kind of systematic, truly global response to the climate crisis, and this deal, which established a fund to provide financial assistance to poor nations hobbled by climate breakdown, was one of the few “wins” of the conference. In its invocation of the politics of responsibility, and as an admission of guilt on the part of those countries that have caused the problem, it was hailed by the Egyptian president of COP27 as “listening to the calls of anguish and despair”. For Sherry Rehman, then Pakistan’s minister of climate change, it was “a down payment on investment in our future, and in climate justice”.

Payment for loss and damage could take many forms. It could be assistance to help move affected communities; funds to help clean up in the aftermath of climate events; or insurance against lives, property and livelihoods lost to climate impacts. Yet in the form it took at COP27 it was little more than an empty pot, with participating countries pledging to use 2023 to work out how much, and how, they were going to pay money into it, and how that was to be distributed.

In late October, the transitional committee set up to carry out this task was still unable to agree on something as basic as which institution would host and administer the fund. More-developed countries, led by the US, were pushing for the World Bank to do the honours, while the G77 group of developing countries and the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) were citing the Bank’s inefficiency, alignment with the US, debt focus and reputation for punitiveness as arguments against. The committee earned a stern rebuke from al-Jaber – “the eyes of the world are on you,” said the president-delegate in a statement – and a last-minute breakthrough in early November saw the decision to temporarily house the fund at the World Bank, pending review.

But the onus now moves to COP itself. Further details and points of contestation will be thrashed out in Dubai, with little indication of resolution on key issues that have forever strained negotiations at the conference, particularly who is responsible for paying into the fund, and the precise definition of who is eligible for receipts. If the rancour persists through COP28 there can be little hope that this initiative – which could be transformative, and is so long overdue – will have the impact it needs to, as quickly as it must.

Phase out or phase down?

Since the failure to include strong language on phasing out fossil fuels brought conference president Alok Sharma to tears at COP26 in Glasgow, there has been a general pessimism around the possibility that COP will deliver a definitive statement on the matter any time soon. The final statement of COP27 maintained the key – and much weaker – commitment to a “phasedown” of fossil fuels, leaving the door open for a similarly anodyne result at COP28. Early indications from the UAE presidency and the official programme – which does not even allocate a whole day to the theme of energy – is that this is not the time for a bold anti-fossil fuels agenda.

Though some of the heat has gone out of global energy markets, which were upended in 2022 by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it remains the case that a scramble for potentially lucrative fossil fuel exports underpins the growth plans of many less-developed countries. Never mind that most of the returns on this expansion – both financial and in terms of energy supply – are set to be captured by enormously wealthy multinationals and the rich countries in which they are predominately based.

As Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate recently wrote in an article for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, it would be better for African leaders to focus on the opportunities of the renewable economy as a path to growth and development rather than believe the promises of the rich countries that oil and gas exploitation will lead to development.

Perhaps in the background, given the likely pro-fossil-fuel inclination of the conference itself, these alternate visions of development will be slugged out once again at COP28. The recent Africa Climate Summit called for the world to support a five-fold increase in African renewable energy capacity, with a potential pot of up to $300bn of clean energy investment mobilised by the UAE up for grabs in Dubai.

Yet powerful leaders, countries and institutions – amongst them Nigeria, Mozambique and the oil and gas powers of North Africa, as well as some of the continent’s multilateral institutions – appear committed to fossil fuels as the path to growth. The rich countries, whose banks have bankrolled the new fossil fuel free-for-all, will gain either way. As always, the clincher will be finance – who is willing to stump up the cash to make either pathway a reality?

With fossil fuel interests given a profound head start, and sympathetic ear, over the past few years, it will take a strong, concerted, authentic position to shift the narrative at COP28, despite the International Energy Agency’s recent prediction that demand for oil, gas and coal will fall from 2030.

Onwards to Dubai

Given conflict, scarcity, economic, environmental and political volatility and the less-than-inspiring results of the last few COPs, climate change is not going away. While some rich countries may be able to afford the luxury of sitting on their hands, the compounding crises of past years foreground the continued importance of the COP process. It remains one of the few fora where all parties, partners and protagonists meet, face-to-face, and thrash out their futures. The agenda may be weak, and momentum stuttering, but the possibilities of a response to loss and damage, ongoing efforts to raise and channel finance where it is most necessary, the opportunity of accountability and a debate over what development “looks like” in 2023 mean there is much to be gained – and lost – in Dubai this December.

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Angus Chapman

Angus is an economist specialising in climate policy.