By Patrick Donati, Founder of Terrawatt
The latest COP, officially number 28, hosted in Dubai, has been the subject of intense scrutiny and media coverage, surpassing earlier editions of the Conference of Parties. The inaugural Conference of Parties was held in 1995 in Berlin, following the 1992 signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
This historic convention marked the first international commitment to combat the adverse effects of industrialized humanity on the climate. Over the years, the conference has been instrumental in setting the journey of humanity in the fight against climate change. Notably, the Kyoto Protocol introduced in COP 3 was a groundbreaking treaty in which participants agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, COP 2 saw the signing of the Paris agreement, aiming to limit global warming to 2 degrees, with an aspirational target of 1.5 Degrees.
It is clear that COP holds significant importance as the forum where global policies are shaped, leading to tangible changes on a global scale. Indeed, for many of us, this is the first COP where we have unequivocally felt the effects of climate change in our own lives. The year 2023 set a record for global temperatures, with averages surpassing 1.4 degrees above pre-industrial levels on certain days. Arctic ice sheets are rapidly diminishing, and meteorological events are becoming more extreme, as seen with hurricane Otis, devastating the coast of Acapulco in Mexico, with wind speeds increasing by 115MPH in 24 hours.
Scientists are sounding alarms about a number of “global tipping points” which when passed could cause irreversible change to our climate and ecosystems. Indeed, the current consensus is that the commitments that countries have made to reduce their emissions, and their subsequent implementations, are not enough to keep warming below 2 degrees. The IPCC warns that every additional degree of warming above 1.5 will lead to exponentially worse outcomes for the environment and human economic activity.
If we accept the scientific consensus attributing these changes to the emission of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels for energy, skepticism arises regarding the effectiveness of COP 28 in achieving stronger emission reduction commitments from member states. The UAE, one of the largest global producers of oil in the world and an OPEC member, hosts one of the largest oil refineries in the world in Ruwais, and the president of COP is the minister of industry and advanced technology, head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. More broadly, this COP reported a record number of attendees representing global Oil and Gas companies, though part of this increase could be explained by new rules requiring greater disclosure of attendees’ employment. Indeed, leaked documents seen by the BBC reported that the UAE intended to use its role as COP host to negotiate oil and gas deals. This pessimism seemed to be confirmed when, during a video call, the COP president claimed that there is no scientific basis for the claims that phasing out fossil fuels would be necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.
Not long after this news emerged, the COP president openly and clearly stated that he saw a “phase out and phase down” of fossil fuels as inevitable. Scientific consensus has for some time been that for emissions to be reduced, our energy generation must shift from one based on the burning of fuel for electricity to models that do not produce greenhouse gases as a byproduct. The only way to do this, with currently available technology and without compromising economic output, is to build greater energy production capacity through solar, wind, hydroelectric, and nuclear to replace the energy that is currently being generated through coal and gas-powered plants.
However, a notable breakthrough occurred at COP 28 with a commitment from 118 countries to triple renewable energy capacity, double energy efficiency by 2030, and, for the first time in the history of COP, “transition away” from fossil fuel use. Current global energy consumption is around 25,000 terawatt-hours. In 1980, that number was closer to 6,000 terawatt-hours. On average, a kilowatt hour of fossil fuel burning produces c. 1kg of CO2 emissions. A written commitment to transition away from burning these fuels, however weak, is a giant leap forward, considering the signatories included OPEC countries whose economies rely heavily on oil exports.
However, the text for the COP 28 deal remains controversial. While a consensus has been reached that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced, there is a lot of disagreement about how this reduction must be reached. The current proposal does not include wording binding countries to the reduction in the use of fossil fuels by a certain date, but instead focuses on the reduction of emissions. This implies that countries can continue to burn fossil fuels, as long as they reduce emissions through technologies like carbon capture and other such offsetting initiatives. In reality we find ourselves in an impasse – while offsetting projects can have some benefit, the technology to effectively remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere does not yet exist in a form that is scalable on a global level. This does beg the question, in practice, of what global leaders expect to happen as greater renewable capacity is installed, and the world shifts away from internal combustion engines. Demand for oil and natural gas must fall as more energy generation is shifted towards green forms of energy.
One possible solution that has taken foot at this COP is a “Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty”. Basing itself on the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, which was successful in bringing together world powers to step back from the brink of mutually assured destruction presented by nuclear weapons, this treaty would provide a way for countries to map a way out of the reliance on fossil fuels through voluntary action and crucially stop the expansion of new oil and gas extraction programs.
However, navigating the transition away from fossil fuels poses challenges for a global economy heavily dependent on oil and other non-renewable energy sources. While the free market has directed investments toward renewables and energy storage, transitioning to a cleaner grid will require time and concerted effort. Despite potential hurdles and uncertainties surrounding COP 28, various global players, including governments and private enterprises, are actively addressing the challenge, and acknowledging the imperative of sustainable energy transitions – even in the absence of a formal COP agreement.