No quick climate techno-fixes at Cop28

November each year sees the annual gathering of the Conference Of the Parties, or Cop, to discuss and agree steps at Intergovernmental level to address climate change. This year’s set piece conference, Cop28, took place in the oil-rich state of the United Arab Emirates. I filed the below piece as the first in a short series for the Irish Examiner just ahead of the opening of the Dubai meeting.

EARLIER THIS week, amid media fanfare, a jet aircraft left London’s Heathrow Airport for New York, a journey that would, according to the UK’s Department for Transport, “make guilt-free flying a reality”.

This is the first such flight, powered entirely by ‘sustainable aviation fuels’, a combination of technologies the industry hopes will help to clean up its image as a major polluter and allay growing public disquiet over sky-high aviation emissions.

The flight was fuelled by around 50 tonnes of substances including tallow and cooking oil, and its timing, just ahead of the opening of the Cop28 intergovernmental climate conference in Dubai on Thursday, was no coincidence.

With 2023 already almost certain to be the hottest year in recorded history—and quite probably the hottest in around 125,000 years—and devastating extreme weather events being witnessed all around the world, the heat is on corporations as well as governments to show that they are, finally, getting serious about tackling the unfolding climate emergency.

In that sense, the Heathrow flight is the perfect metaphor for where we now stand. All the ‘sustainable’ aviation fuel available worldwide would, in total, provide barely one tenth of 1% of the fuel needed for global aviation, and scaling this up dramatically is, experts believe, next to impossible.

But what really matters here are the optics. Images and articles about this supposed ‘breakthrough’ have been published all around the world, allowing the industry to claim that technology will solve the problem of ever-expanding aviation.

You will hear a lot of talk over the coming days from Dubai about techno-fixes for our most acute climate, ecological and biodiversity problems, yet how many sectors are prepared to address the central reality, which is that humanity is over-consuming finite resources and, in the process, heating up the planet dangerously while creating an epic global pollution crisis?

Confidence in this year’s Cop process has not been improved by the fact that the meeting is being hosted by a major oil exporter, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has appointed Sultan Al Jaber, chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, as president of Cop28.

While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has mandated countries to agree measures leading to an overall 43% reduction in emissions by 2030 (Ireland remains an international laggard, on track for only 29% cuts at most) it has been revealed that the UAE intends to sharply ramp up its oil production in the coming years.

This is hardly the most promising of backdrops for the hosts of Cop28 to be guiding global climate talks. And in recent days, plans by the UAE to use its role as host of the conference to negotiate new oil and gas deals were leaked to the BBC, leaving the distinct impression that the climate fox is now in charge of the henhouse.

The extent to which the global fossil fuel industry is a massive obstacle to climate action is underlined by the recent revelation that just 1% of global investment in renewable energy comes from this sector, despite its vast wealth and energy expertise.

Last year, amid war in Ukraine and soaring energy prices, the fossil fuel industry reported record revenues of $5 trillion, while welching on previous ‘green’ promises. The irony for oil-rich countries such as the UAE is that, if climate action fails, much of the Middle East is projected to be too hot for human habitation later this century.

Despite these formidable setbacks, the Cop process, which has been running every year since 1995, is still critically important in the battle to tackle the climate emergency. This annual meeting is by far the largest intergovernmental gathering, and it serves to put climate change firmly on the political and media agenda at least once a year.

While some Cops produce little of substance, there are also breakthrough years. The last and most significant was in 2015, with the signing of the Paris Agreement. This saw the nations of the world commit to keeping global warming to “well below” the dangerous 2C level, and to work to limit the increase to 1.5C.

These new and much lower emissions limits reflect advances in scientific understanding around the sensitivity of the global climate system to even seemingly minor temperature increases.

One of the key instruments created in Paris was the ‘global stocktake’, a mechanism to assess each country’s progress towards meeting its emissions targets. The first formal evaluation takes place as part of Cop28, and will be used to shape new and more ambitious ‘nationally determined contributions’ from each country.

A United Nations report published in September confirmed that the world is still not on track to meet the Paris Agreement targets on limiting emissions. While this might suggest that the Cop process is a pointless annual jamboree on the scale of Electric Picnic, in reality it has made some concrete achievements.

A decade ago, the IPCC calculated that the world was on track for calamitous warming in the range of around 4C by 2100. This, in simple terms, would be apocalyptic for humans and most of nature. This warming estimate has since been reduced to around 2.5C as a result of actions and commitments made since Paris in 2015.

Without doubt, this remains an extremely dangerous level of global warming, but it is still much less severe than previously feared. Without the Cop process, it is almost inconceivable that progress on this scale could have been achieved.

However, the hellish extreme weather conditions experienced this year across multiple continents, with average global temperatures this year at just under 1.5C, underline how much risk lies ahead as temperatures ratchet to beyond 1.5C and towards 2C in the coming decade and more.

Rising temperatures combined with extreme weather are already pummelling global food production, with around one third of output at risk in the coming decades, according to recent research. For the first time, this year’s Cop will have a full day dedicated to food, water and agriculture.

Global food systems are also among the chief drivers of climate breakdown, with impacts accounting for at least a fifth of total global emissions. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is expected to call for significant cuts in meat and dairy production and consumption in wealthier countries such as Ireland.

No less than cutting fossil fuels, the massive hoofprint of the livestock sector, in terms of land use change, nitrogen pollution and methane emissions has to be significantly trimmed if crucial climate stabilisation and biodiversity goals are to be met. As with the global energy sector, a formidable agri-industrial lobby has to be faced down in the process.

While success can be difficult to gauge in international climate negotiations, what we know for sure is that we cannot afford Cop28 to fail.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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