More hot air from another COP conference

‘Saying the right thing – and not a moment too soon’, was the headline of the editorial in The Guardian newspaper on the agreement of the final text of the UN sponsored COP28 summit in Dubai, this year’s latest round of global jamborees to discuss the (lack of) response to the looming climate crisis.

The ‘historic’ Paris agreement of COP25 committed national governments to aim to reduce the average increase in global temperatures to 2C above pre-industrial levels by cutting greenhouse gas emissions. This was tightened up at the COP26 summit in Glasgow in 2021, aiming for an upper limit of 1.5C which had been just an ‘aspiration’ at Paris. However, the mechanism discussed at those conferences to achieve these cuts was for governments to come up with their own ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ (NDCs) to the target. These were voluntary and non-binding targets – and in the event, when they were released, even if fulfilled would cumulatively lead to global temperature increases reaching 3C.

This impasse is a product of the division of the capitalist elites of the world into competing nation states, seeking to protect the interests of their own capitalist classes and their businesses. No capitalist nation state wishes to be in a position where it agrees with policies that will put its own capitalists at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the capitalists of competing nation states.

Even the location of the next COP summit was not decided until during COP28. Under UN protocols it was due to be held in Eastern Europe, but the political consequences of the wars in both Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh meant that this became a fraught issue. Russia blocked any European Union state from hosting in retaliation for their stance in relation to Ukraine, while Armenia and Azerbaijan, who had fought over Nagorno-Karabakh, blocked each other from hosting, until finally Azerbaijan was agreed to host COP29.

So was the ‘landmark’ deal reported by The Guardian a real step forward in resolving the outstanding issues?

Even the editorial described the final text as “stating the obvious” and that “the climate emergency needs better than this”. Far from hitting the current 1.5C target, UN projections ahead of the summit showed the likely temperature rise to be almost double that at 2.9C.

So whilst the headline commitments from Dubai of a tripling of renewable energy generation and doubling the rate of energy efficiency sound welcome, the question is really whether such measures can be delivered. And it is here that a number of wordings in the summit text throw a considerable amount of doubt over how much progress was made.

The most ‘historic’ part of the summit agreement is in regard to moving away from fossil fuels, the first time a COP gathering has agreed to this. However, the final text includes this as a vague commitment to “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems”. This is weaker text than the ‘phasing out’ wording which had been supported by 130 countries. And the text also limits this to ‘energy systems’, which is wording used to refer to power and heat supplies.

“Transitional fuels” are also referred to, legitimising burning gas on the basis it is supposed to be less polluting than coal (although due to methane leaks from gas, it can actually have a bigger impact on greenhouse emissions). Many fossil fuel giants have invested heavily in liquified natural gas in recent years, particularly in the US, the biggest oil and gas producer in the world. The liquified natural gas market has also expanded as well as a result of European countries seeking to limit their dependence on Russian-produced gas as a result of the Ukraine war.

The text also promotes the utilisation of Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS), allegedly at the behest of states like Saudi Arabia whose economies are dominated by fossil fuels. But CCUS is likely to only play a limited role, in sectors like cement production which have difficulties switching from fossil fuel usage. Current technology models fail to capture all emissions, struggle to operate at scale, and are very expensive. According to a report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, 28m out of 39m tonnes of currently captured carbon is used in enhanced oil recovery, to push oil out of the ground. In other words, emissions are racked up both to sequester the carbon there, and from utilising the oil that it pushes out.

The spokesperson of the 39-country Alliance of Small Island States, Samoa’s Anne Rasmussen, whilst not objecting to the final text, stated that it contained “a litany of loopholes” and that “the process has failed us”. Their statement on the global stocktake of emissions commented that “we have made an incremental advance over business as usual when what we really needed is an exponential step-change in our actions and support”.

But such watering down is hardly surprising when the chair of COP28, Sultan Al Jaber, is the Chief Executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. The chair of COP29, next year’s event in Azerbaijan, is Mukhtar Babayev, who spent 26 years working for the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic. Lobbyists for the oil and gas industry were at record levels in Dubai, at least 2,456 according to the Kick Big Polluters Out coalition, four times the numbers at last year’s COP27 summit in Egypt.

One issue spilling over from previous conferences on which progress was claimed to have been made was the question of compensation for countries in the neo-colonial world facing economic and non-economic losses due to climate change. COP28 was able to raise $700m, more than twice the £262m agreed when the ‘loss and damage fund’ was established at COP27. But this is still just 0.2% of the amount needed. The UK government pledge of £60m was a recycling of previously pledged money!

This lack of commitment by the Sunak government to this question is in tune with a general backsliding on measures to tackle the climate crisis. Whilst Sunak has continued to refer to the idea of Britain being a world leader in the battle against climate change, the reality has been a backsliding away from previously announced measures, including delaying bans on petrol and diesel engines and gas-fired boilers whilst still claiming that the UK was still on track to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Notably, the government’s own Climate Change Commission body to recommend policy on these issues has had no chair since the middle of last year, leading to speculation this is a deliberate measure to avoid Sunak’s climate policies facing criticism in the run up to a general election.

Even The Guardian editorial was forced to conclude that “while the UN process continues, the world’s fate rests on a wing and a prayer”. Whilst capitalism exists, then the profits of the multinational companies that dominate national and global economies will come first. Only by working class struggle to overthrow the capitalist governments assembled at Dubai, bringing the big companies that dominate economies into democratic public ownership so their resources can be utilised as part of a democratic plan to meet the needs of people and stop climate disaster, can serious measures be taken to halt the increase of global temperatures.

Iain Dalton