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Climate at a Crossroads

August 15, 2023

Perspectives on COP28 and the Road to Dubai

The 2023 Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — more commonly known as COP28 — is fast approaching. The stakes are high for planetary and human health as the climate crisis is reaching a point of no return. The global gathering from November 30 — December 12, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is the most important COP meeting since the 2015 Paris conference where the parties committed to limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The question is whether it can be successful.

A series of events over the past few years has made a successful COP even more challenging. Amid calls for drastic climate action now, there has been political backlash against climate change activism and mitigation in the United States, and the end of the pandemic has seen industrial operations, travel, and other human activity return to pre-pandemic levels, causing emissions to go up in some areas. In addition, COP27 saw the largest presence of fossil fuel interests of any previous COP meeting. At COP28 there will be an even larger presence given that it is being held in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates. Moreover, the appointment of the Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ANDOC) as the COP President has drawn the ire of some countries, along with climate and human rights activists.

The Stakes are High — IPPC’s Call for Urgent Action

Global conferences are nothing new. They make for interesting events, but often accomplish little in terms of catalyzing action. But this conference is different. The stakes could not be higher. COP28 attendees will take stock of the commitments made in Paris in 2015 to limit increase in global temperatures to 1.5 C and must forge commitments on a path forward. Decisions and accountability cannot be pushed to a future COP.

In March 2023, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released its latest report on the progress being made towards curbing carbon emissions to achieve the Paris goals, and the findings were dire, but not hopeless. In short, the UN noted, the IPCC report concluded that unless the global community acted very quickly to make significant reductions, the chance to keep emissions below 1.5C increase were in serious jeopardy.

The report highlighted the damage that is already being done and that will continue “hitting the most vulnerable people and ecosystems especially hard.” Aditi Mukherji, one of the report’s authors, noted that “almost half the world’s population lives in regions that are highly vulnerable to climate change.” She went on to note that “in the last decade, deaths, droughts, and storms were 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions.” The report noted that temperatures have already risen 1.1 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

According to the IPCC, if temperatures are to stay below 1.5 degrees increase, deep and rapid emissions reductions are needed in all sectors. The report concluded emissions must be cut by 50% by 2030.

While certainly a dire picture, the IPCC opined that there was still time to achieve these goals if action was quick and decisive. The IPCC proposed a “climate resilient development” approach and an increased focus on finance and finding ways to protect the most vulnerable. The UN called for an “Acceleration Agenda” and urged an immediate end to coal burning while achieving net-zero electricity generation by 2035 for all developed countries and by 2040 for the rest of the world.

IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee noted that “the report underscores the urgency of taking more ambitious action and shows that if we act now, we can still secure a livable sustainable future for all.”

But his words of caution ring particularly true for this conference, when he observed that “transformational changes are more likely to succeed where there is trust, where everyone works together to prioritize risk reductions, and where benefits and burdens are shared equitably.”

A Firestorm of Controversy

Can the attendees at COP 28 rise to meet the moment, trust each other, and work together to prioritize reductions and have the benefits and burdens shared equitably, or is COP28 doomed to failure? The controversies and skepticism of the parties leading into COP28 suggest a difficult path forward.

The decision to hold the COP28 in Dubai caused controversy for a variety of reasons, notably because of the dominance of the oil industry in the country, inequitable treatment of women, and limits on expression of political dissent. A new furor erupted in June when the Sultan Al Jaber’s appointment was announced.

Environmental activists and others were outraged and called the appointment a clear conflict of interest. The LA Times editorial page wrote: “Putting an oil executive in charge is not only a bad look, but it also stands to undermine important and urgent negotiations and further erode public confidence in summits that have been criticized as little more than high-level venues for greenwashing.”

Climate activists also roundly condemned the appointment. Al Jaber’s appointment “poses an outrageous conflict of interest” and takes the presence of fossil fuel lobbyists at the UN talks “to another dangerous and unprecedented level,” said Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International. Over 130 members of Congress and the European Parliament called for the removal of Sultan Al Jaber. There has also been significant concern about the limitations on protesting in the country. According to the Financial Times, COP28 organizers told speakers not to protest or criticize corporations, Islam, the UAE government or individuals.

Some leaders rallied to Al Jaber’s defense including US Climate Czar John Kerry who called the Sultan a “terrific choice” because his company knows it needs to transition.” EU Climate chief Frans Timmermans defended the UAE’s decision, asking people to “look at his impressive track record.”

Despite all the controversy, most countries and even most environmental organizations are still attending. Cherelle Blazer, senior advisor with Sierra Club’s climate group said it was “vitally important” that the members of civil society groups attend despite its being held “in a place that is hostile to protesting.”

In a rare interview the Guardian, the Sultan addressed concerns saying: “I decided I want to go and engage with everybody. I want everyone to be heard, and I want everyone to have face time with me. So, I travelled the world, and I even met with those who attack me publicly. I made it a point to go and see them.”

In further response to criticisms about hostility to protesting and concerns over inclusion and equality, on August 1, the UAE and the UN Climate group issued a joint statement trying to allay some fears on inclusiveness and the ability to protest:

“[W]e want to express our commitment to making COP28 and inclusive and safe space for all participants… We will work together to make CO28 the most inclusive UN Climate Change Conference to date.”

They sent a letter to all parties urging “increased participation and meaningful engagement of youth, women, and local communities, and Indigenous People … in climate decision making, policy and action.”

It went on to say, “In line with the UNFCCC guidelines and adherence to international human rights norms and principles, there will be space available for climate activists to assemble peacefully and make their voices heard.”

Only time will tell.

What is on the Agenda?

Sultan Al Jaber issued a strong call to action to the parties on the need to take strong and vigorous action:

  • We must unite and seize the moment of the Global Stocktake to put the world on the right track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
  • We need tangible progress, this year, on reform that will unlock far more concessional finance, mitigate risk, and attract more private capital.
  • We must be laser focused on phasing out fossil fuel emissions, while phasing up viable, affordable zero carbon alternatives.

The Global Stocktake will be the first COP to undertake a process designed to examine the degree to which countries have been successful in taking measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a comprehensive way. The data gathering has been ongoing over the past year, but in Dubai the parties will evaluate the results. In other words, it will in theory provide a mechanism to hold countries accountable for their actions or inaction.

In conjunction with the call to action, the Presidency also established the agenda and themes for each day. The themes include:

  • Health/Relief, Recovery and Peace — Focusing on “investments that protect lives and support community resilience and stability.”
  • Finance/Trade/Gender Equality/Accountability — Finance and trade mechanisms will require transformational change to achieve the climate goals. The focus will be on scale, access, and affordability. Programs will address mechanisms to ensure accountability so that help turn promises into results. Also discussed will be gender-responsive policy-making and better access to finance in the pursuit of true advancement of gender equality.
  • Energy, Industry and Just Transition — A focus on the various strategies and mechanisms to obtain massive decarbonization and just transition while accelerating economic opportunity and job growth, while also addressing universal energy access and the needs of workers across the energy sector transition.
  • Multilevel ActionUrbanization & Built Environment/Transport — A key focus will be on government action at all levels — not just national governments. Mayors, governors, and others will be featured, with a particular focus on challenges in building resiliency in urban areas related to the built environment and transportation.
  • Youth, Children, Education, and Skills — Younger generations will be most affected by climate impacts and engagement, inclusion in policy decision making, and adapting education to develop skillsets aligned with climate action among those groups is critical.
  • Nature, Land Use & Oceans — Critical to Paris Climate goals are the sustainability of nature, land use, and oceans. Delivering climate and nature co-benefits through a range of financing mechanisms will be discussed. Attention will be given also to managing carbon sinks and biodiversity hotspots. There will also be a focus on increasing private equity investment to nature-positive accountability frameworks.
  • Food, Agriculture & Water — Feeding the planet is critical and food supply is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Moreover, the food and agriculture industry are significant contributors to man-made climate emissions as well as water resources. This will focus on innovation and investment, regenerative agriculture, and related financing mechanisms. Freshwater restoration, conservation and infrastructure discussions will also be an area of focus.

Woven into all days will be four key topics: Technology & Innovation, Inclusion, Frontline Communities, and Finance. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, swirling around all this activity will be the formal negotiations by the government leaders over a new agreement.

Can COP28 Succeed?

Even in the best of circumstances, the ability to reach consensus across the global community on any issue of significance is daunting. COP28 will face tremendous headwinds given the lack of significant progress since 2015, the sheer complexity of the issues, the vast difference between countries in terms of development, the lack of trust among parties and stakeholders, and the controversy over the host country and the leadership of COP. The stakes are high for our planet and everyone on it. If the parties recognize what is truly at stake and the magnitude of the challenges, and if they can find a way to trust and put personal agendas aside, it can be successful.

It is a tall order, but our future depends on it. The world will be watching; and hoping.

TAGS: Purpose & Social Impact, Environment