COP28 gets off to a fast start, but a showdown on fossil fuels looms
– Washington Post
In a quick start to a summit that usually starts slow, nations at the United Nation Climate Change Conference struck an agreement on an unprecedented fund aimed at helping vulnerable nations hit by climate emergencies.
The decision, coming after years of contention, provided a much-needed, bestcase example of how the summit can work when facing a narrowing window to divert the planet from its disastrous path.
“We have delivered history today,” said Sultan Al Jaber, the president of this year’s conference, known as COP28, adding that never before had countries adopted a decision on the first day.
But for all the early momentum, there are doubts about whether the event – taking place during the hottest year on record – can carry on smoothly, particularly as countries confront even more divisive issues.
One of those pertains to fossil fuels, with most scientific projections calling for a swift phasedown of the use of oil and gas. But this year's COP's president, who happens to be an oil CEO, kicked off the ceremonies yesterday by opening his arms to the oil and gas industries – some of the world's primary polluters – saying that they can “lead the way” in the energy transition.
Moments later, Simon Stiell, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, told delegates that it was time to “signal the terminal decline of the fossil fuel era as we know it”.
That back-and-forth reflected that this is a COP of profound contradictions – which conference attendees could see on the train ride from downtown Dubai to the sprawling conference centre hosting the talks. The route passes dozens of shimmering skyscrapers, two golf courses kept green in the desert heat, and a long row of giant oil-burning power plants against an azure ocean.
Now the UAE is in the global spotlight, hosting an annual gathering that has ballooned into the largest UN event of the year – a grand and somewhat bewildering blend of science and activism, business and diplomacy, urgency and inertia.
Some of that urgency played out behind the scenes in the weeks leading up to COP, as Al Jaber and other officials homed in on the idea of greenlighting what is known as the “loss and damage” fund on the opening day as a momentum-building move, and tried to rally support among regional groups.
One person familiar with those discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said past COP presidents might have preferred to let countries openly deliberate a fund with a design that had potential shortcomings. But Al Jaber’s approach was “I’ll gavel and let people moan a bit” after the fact.
“So it’s like, ‘I am in charge, stop messing around, bring me a solution’ – clearly setting the tone,” the person said.
Although the idea of a fund was approved last year at COP27 in Egypt, that agreement came without any specifics about how it would work and who would pay for it. Those details were left to a committee that met periodically during the past year to hash out some of the details, in sessions that turned testy. The group nonetheless managed to deliver a proposal that was voted on.
The fund will initially be held at the World Bank – an idea developing countries accepted reluctantly, because they see that organisation as issuing loans rather than disbursing grants, and as overly influenced by wealthy nations including the United States.
Developed countries are urged, rather than obliged, to contribute to the fund, and there is no target for its size. Adopting such language proved too controversial.
Immediately after the agreement, some countries made initial pledges, including US$245 million (NZ$398m) from the European Union and its members – US$100m (NZ$162m) of that coming from Germany – and an additional US$100m from the UAE.
The UAE’s pledge could put pressure on other oil-rich states to follow suit. US special climate envoy John Kerry, said the nation would “work with our Congress” and pledge US$17.5m (NZ$28.4m). Other pledges could come later during the climate talks, with world leaders convening over the weekend.
It will take longer to assess whether the fund can become meaningfully large, as those first pledges are expected to be far less than the annual cost of climate-related damage in developing countries. One commonly cited study estimates that annual climate-related loss and damage will range between US$290 billion and US$580b by 2030.
After world leaders convene for two days, negotiations will begin in earnest – a period likely to bring to the surface tensions about fossil fuels.
Al Jaber has portrayed the UAE as a regional leader of the energy transition, using its wealth for green projects domestically and abroad. But the host country is also expanding its oil capacity and investing some US$150b (NZ$243b) in its operations, a move that scientists say works against the world's goal of limiting warming to 1.5C.
Dubai’s Expo City, which opened in 2021 to host a world expo delayed by the pandemic, is dotted with dozens of pavilions where countries and businesses alike seek to burnish their green credentials, including a company touting hydrogen-powered superyachts. Golf carts carrying dignitaries slowly nudge through crowds of lobbyists, activists and journalists as they hurry between meeting rooms air-conditioned against the 27C-plus midday heat.
Among the activist crowd, there are ongoing questions about whether this COP is more about gimmicks than substance.
Attendees this year can try out the air in domed pollution pods, or admire a racing car made of recycled iPhones and computer motherboards. But can they be certain that their attendance is making a difference?
That contradiction doesn’t appear to have been lost on the organisers.
“Yes, this is the biggest COP yet,” Stiell said at the opening ceremonies, “but attending a COP does not tick the climate box for the year. Science tells us we have around six years before we exhaust the planet's ability to cope with our emissions.”