Winning slowly still means we’re losing

I filed my final Irish Examiner report on the Cop28 conference as it came to an end in Dubai. Next stop: Cop28 in Azerbaijan in November 2024 another petro-state, and yes, this event will also be presided over by a senior oil company executive. It is sorely tempting to just denounce the entire Cop process as a rolling farce, yet in the final analysis, it’s all we’ve got.

SEEING THE outcome of the Cop28 conference in Dubai unfold is reminiscent of watching a dog riding a bicycle. It may not be elegant, it may not be making much progress, but the real wonder is that it is happening at all.

Considering how difficult it can be to achieve political consensus even within a single country, it is bordering on miraculous that a global mechanism exists where around 200 sovereign states sit down together every year to try to thrash out an agreement on the climate crisis.

This strength is also the key weakness of the process. The Cop conferences require unanimity, and this allows vested interests to hobble proceedings and force them to move at the speed of the most reluctant participants.

It is mind-boggling to consider that it has taken almost 30 years for fossil fuels, the principal cause of global warming, to even be formally mentioned by name.

That this has at last happened in Dubai is significant, but can hardly be considered a seismic event. When it comes to climate change, winning slowly is ultimately the same as losing.

Tipping points in the climate system, from ice shelf collapse to permafrost thaw, AMOC shutdown (collapse of the Gulf Stream), or die-back of the Amazon rainforest respond not to politics, but to physics.

We either stay within critical planetary limits or we face near-term catastrophe, and there is simply no way of negotiating or wishing away these limits.

While an aspiration to “transition away” from fossil fuel usage makes its long-overdue first appearance in a Cop decision text this year, even that lukewarm phrase is further diluted by stating that this transition is to happen “in energy systems” only.

In practice, this completely ignores transport, which accounts for around a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. Critically, there are no mechanisms in place globally to in any way limit countries or corporations from continuing to explore for or burn fossil fuels.

In fact, the International Monetary Fund estimates that in 2022, fossil fuels received $7trn in subsidies, or $13m every minute, despite earlier calls to begin to phase these out.

Even within the EU, last year, fossil fuel subsidies doubled to around €300bn, as governments kept energy prices artificially low.

For hosts, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), presenting some kind of win was crucial as a face-saving exercise, having been humiliated by the revelation that it was using the Cop conference to conduct oil deals.

Their discomfort was increased by leaked comments from conference president Sultan Al Jaber which were dismissive of the need to ever limit fossil fuel emissions and disrespectful towards the Chair of the Elders, Mary Robinson.

When Al Jaber claimed “we have helped restore faith and trust in multilateralism, and we have shown that humanity can come together”, he may have been stretching the meaning of language to breaking point.

And lest we forget, Adnoc, the UAE state oil company that Al Jaber heads, is planning to massively increase oil production.

The oil-producing bloc, Opec, led by Saudi Arabia, accounts for over three-quarters of the world’s known oil reserves. It had fiercely resisted any meaningful or binding steps to put limits on fossil fuels.

The Saudi delegation expressed approval for the final Cop28 document, which includes a Swiss cheese of loopholes and opt-outs, secure in the knowledge that it means business as usual for its energy sector.

While Climate Minister Eamon Ryan fought the good fight to salvage a better deal as the EU’s climate finance negotiator, his description of the outcome in Dubai as “historic” but “not perfect” oddly summed up the conference’s many contradictions quite well.

Failure to reach any form of agreement would have been a body blow to the whole intergovernmental climate process, which is based on incremental baby steps nudging towards consensus.

For me, the most puzzling Irish contribution to Cop28 came from Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) chairwoman Marie Donnelly, where she claimed that Ireland is not a climate laggard and is “keeping pace with other countries”.

A Central Bank report last month showed that Ireland’s per capita emissions are now a whopping 23% higher than the EU average, because of our high emissions agriculture sector, adding that “by global standards, Ireland is an emission-intensive economy”.

It is more than a little surprising that the chair of the CCAC, the very agency charged with leading Ireland on a low-emissions pathway, does not appear to even accept that we have a problem to begin with.

Globally, what ultimately matters is whether tangible progress has been made at Cop28 on the pathway towards keeping global average temperatures increases to below 1.5C and well below 2C.

The short answer is “no”, but in a world riven by conflict and divided by the rise of populism and authoritarianism, it remains more vital than ever that we persist with the only mechanism in existence that allows humanity to take a truly global approach to address our ultimate global challenge.

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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