The COP climate talks, held every year since 1995, is the only international event where a concerted effort is made by almost every government in the world to reach consensus on reducing the emission of gases, namely carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, that are the cause of global warming. Given the mistrust, animosity, competition and real sense of historical grievance felt by many of these countries towards each other the fact that COP exists, and is well attended year after year, is a tangible success.
That said, it is apparent from COP27, recently held in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt, needs to be radically reformed. At COP27 there were 636 participants with links to the fossil fuel industries. A size that outnumbered the combined representation from Indigenous communities and the ten countries most affected by climate breakdown including low-lying island states whose whole way of life will likely be erased by the ravages of climate breakdown.
The intention of the representatives from the fossil fuel industries and most of the major oil and gas producing countries was transparent, which was to lobby hard against any meaningful agreement to reduce the world’s consumption of fossil fuels. They succeeded.
An item of contention was the commitment of the host country to the aims of COP. Egypt is not only a dictatorship that prohibits dissent as its 6,000 political prisoners bear witness but it is also a close ally of Saudi Arabia. At the conference Saudi Arabia along with Russia fought hard to have the 1.5C ceiling abolished, which thankfully they failed to do. They did, however, manage to get the aim of phasing out the use of fossil fuels left out of the final text while the proposal to accelerate the development of “low-emission” energy systems, a euphemism for upscaling the use of natural gas, was added.
It was perceived by many in attendance that Egypt managed the proceedings in a way that hampered the realization of the positive outcomes that many countries hoped for. The disappointment of these delegates was perhaps best expressed by Alok Sharma, UK president of COP26, who said in his closing remarks.
“Emissions peaking before 2025, as the science tells us is necessary. Not in this text. Clear follow-through to phrase out all fossil fuels. Not in this text. And the energy text, weakened, in the final minutes. Unfortunately, it remains on life support.”
COP28 will be held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a major oil and gas producing country. Given that 30 per cent of its GNP comes directly from oil and gas and its tourist industry is oil and gas dependent through reliance on aviation, air-conditioning and desalination plants can the world expect it to fervently work towards phasing out fossil fuels? This is as implausible as a tobacco company hosting a conference to persuade the participating tobacco companies to agree to cease to do business. Likewise with COP29 which is likely to be held in Australia, a major exporter of coal.
There is widespread agreement that one of the few positives that came out of COP27 is the setting up of a loss and damage fund that will help those countries most adversely affected by climate breakdown. A committee composed of representatives from 24 countries will in the coming year work on deciding exactly what form the fund should take, which countries should contribute and how the money should be spent. It is envisaged that aviation, shipping and the fossil fuel companies will be asked to make significant contributions. This is not unreasonable as they on average have earned a $1 trillion a year, ever year for the past 50 years.*
A number of European countries have collectively pledged $300 million to the fund. This might seem a sizable amount but it is insignificant in comparison to the hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of damage per year that the most vulnerable countries suffer as a result of climate breakdown. In late August 2022, for example, flooding in Pakistan displaced 33 million people, killed 1,500 and caused at least $30 billion worth of damage. Like many poor countries its large international debts prevent it doing very much to make good its losses.
Sceptics will point out that it is easier to agree to contribute to the fund than actually contribute. Here one is reminded of Greta Thunberg’s comments about COP26 in Glasgow:
“Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah, blah, blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah.”
The point is that in 2009 the wealthy countries, including the EU and the United States, agreed to make $100 billion a year available by 2020 to help poor, vulnerable countries prepare for the effects of extreme weather events as well as put renewable energy projects in place. Little of the money materialized. In the case of the United States, it is highly unlikely that Congress, which will be in the control of the Republican party, will approve donating money to the loss and damage fund. Without the lead of the largest economy in the world pledging money, many other countries are unlikely to.
In a nutshell the outlook for the health of the planet is not good. This is something we can’t divorce ourselves from as the life of each one of us eight billion humans, rich and poor, is directly dependent on having a healthy biosphere. A major ecological meltdown could erupt in multiple wars, from which even the wealthiest would not escape harm. This is demonstrated by Putin’s war in Ukraine where nuclear power stations are viewed as military assets, and therefore can be bombed. This is perhaps no different from the UK and the USA carpet-bombing Dresden in Germany during the Second World War. The factories, railway network and communication facilities were considered legitimate targets as were the people who worked in them.
With regard to future COPs, Simon Stiell, the UN climate chief, will scrutinize the COP process to ensure transparency, their smooth running and that they are less susceptible to the interests of the fossil fuel industries. On the basis that the fossil fuel industries peddle what the world urgently needs to wean itself off they should be banned from attending future ones.
COPs should also have strict guidelines about who their sponsors are. In the case of COP27 it was Coca-Cola, which produces more than 100 billion plastic bottles a year. Much of this plastic, which is made from oil, ends up discarded causing serious ecological problems. Such sponsors undermine the integrity of COP.
* Kevin O’Sullivan, Burning of fossil fuels relegated to side issue, The Irish Times, 21 November 2022.