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Adam Morton reports that Cop28 has officially recognized fossil fuels as the primary contributor to climate change, but questions whether leaders will take effective action in response.


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From the beginning, Cop28 was seen as too absurd to be mocked. Approximately 100,000 individuals involved in politics, diplomacy, lobbying, business, investing, activism, science, policy, and journalism from around the world gathered for a two-week conference on climate change, held by an authoritarian nation known for its oil production, in a city renowned for its tall buildings and excessive consumerism fueled by energy consumption.

Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, the leader of the summit, holds the position of chief executive at the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. This company has proposed a US$150bn expansion in the oil and gas industry. The United Arab Emirates is also making investments in renewable energy, with their Noor Energy 1 concentrated solar thermal plant being larger than 6,000 football fields. However, the most notable feature in central Dubai is the world’s largest gas-fired power plant.

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Is there any potential for issues with this arrangement? As it happened, a couple of things did go wrong. However, there were also some positive outcomes. The overall assessment of the outcome may be influenced by initial expectations.

The location for the event was a specially constructed venue designed for the recent World Expo. It was perfectly suited for a large trade fair, which is now the main purpose for most attendees at the yearly climate conference. Over 150 leaders from around the world attended the beginning of the conference, with some arriving via private jets and only staying for a short time. Anthony Albanese, facing challenges back home, was not in attendance. Neither were Joe Biden or Xi Jinping. However, this was primarily not a gathering for world leaders.

Despite all the hype, the Conference of Parties (Cop) had a significant objective: to facilitate discussions among representatives from almost 200 nations on how to intensify the worldwide reaction to a worsening climate emergency. The end result – as is customary for climate conferences – was reached after a few restless nights and well past the planned cutoff, and it presents a combination of successes and shortcomings.

The good news was that, for the first time, the summit accepted fossil fuels were the main climate problem. There was a “supermajority” of countries supporting a phase-out of fossil fuels, but no consensus as required under the UN process. Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Opec oil cartel were the most obvious opponents, but other major emitters were happy to hide in the shadows behind them.

The revised version urged countries to support a shift towards renewable energy sources in a fair, organized, and fair manner, expediting efforts in this crucial decade to reach net zero by 2050 in accordance with scientific evidence. Australian climate change minister, Chris Bowen, played a role in reaching this compromise, proposing it during a tense plenary meeting.

The concluding statement may seem obvious to some, but just a few years ago, it was unimaginable that a climate summit would openly criticize and denounce fossil fuels, such as oil and gas. This marks a moment of advancement.

While not requiring any specific action, this should serve as a catalyst for governments and major institutional investors to take further steps in determining where and when to allocate trillions of dollars. Similar to the Paris climate agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, this move indicates the need for growth in the green energy market. It is another move towards that direction.

Unfortunately, the agreement falls short in adequately addressing the pressing need to prevent further damage from climate change. Additionally, the inclusion of certain language may provide support to those who wish to postpone or ignore taking action.

This year has experienced the highest temperatures ever recorded. It has also been marked by severe weather and heat-related catastrophes that have greatly impacted people’s lives and livelihoods on multiple continents. While there has been significant growth in renewable energy investments, it has often been implemented alongside fossil fuels instead of replacing them. As a result, global emissions from coal, oil, and gas have continued to increase. Petrostates are still moving forward with plans for extensive expansion of fossil fuels. Inger Andersen, the executive director of the UN Environment Programme, accurately called out governments for their conflicting words and actions.

The main topic of discussion in Dubai was a worldwide evaluation of advancements which revealed that the planet is not on course to achieve the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C. The “UAE consensus” agreement acknowledges this and outlines the actions needed to tackle the issue. However, much more effort is required for this possibility to actually be achieved.

On Wednesday, during the final plenary, Anne Rasmussen, the lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States consisting of 39 members, expressed that although some progress has been made, it is not enough. She emphasized the need for a significant and rapid increase in our actions and support, rather than small incremental improvements.

Unfortunately, the reality is that the Cops process operates in this manner. Multilateralism can be a difficult and slow process, especially when there is no consensus. Typically, a powerful country advocating for the least common denominator approach will come out on top. However, in the case of the UAE’s agreement on fossil fuels, it is a noteworthy accomplishment that no one attempted to weaken it during the final plenary.

The individuals likely assumed it was unnecessary since the agreement contains sufficient escape routes for those who pollute to rely on. These clauses mention carbon capture, utilization, and storage, which is a struggling technology primarily used in Australia and other places to defend the expansion of fossil fuels that will release significant amounts of greenhouse gases into the air. Additionally, the term “transitional fuels” is being pushed by Russia and the fossil fuel sector as a code for increased use of gas.

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Despite being the largest contributor to global emissions growth in the past decade, this reference was still included.

Unfortunately, there are some harmful provisions mixed in with commendable initiatives, including a proposal from the UAE to increase global renewable energy by three times by 2030. This adds an element of a choose-your-own-adventure aspect to the agreement’s overall goal of transitioning to more sustainable practices. However, the pressing issue is that we cannot afford to waste time on this.

How does this impact Australia? Bowen was actively involved in Dubai, managing a coalition of nations, including the US, UK, Canada, and Japan. He raised concerns about the Pacific region and received positive feedback from those who typically criticize the Albanese administration’s climate policies. Vanuatu’s minister for climate change, Ralph Regenvanu, expressed satisfaction with Australia’s statements, noting a significant shift in their stance.

Bowen was clear about what he believed the summit had decided: “All nations of the world have acknowledged the reality that our future is in clean energy and the age of fossil fuels will end.”

The transition towards renewable energy as a replacement for fossil fuels in the country’s power grid is already underway and must happen rapidly to maintain a reliable electricity supply as older coal plants close down. Gas plants will only serve as backup, and unlike in other nations, there is no convincing argument for nuclear energy to contribute. The task at hand is to effectively manage this significant shift.

The primary concern is the impact of Australia’s extensive fossil fuel exports on the climate crisis. The government will face increasing pressure to clarify how they plan to transition from supplying coal and gas to Asia, to exporting sustainable energy.

While it may be difficult to navigate politically within the country, Australia will be held accountable for contributing significantly to climate finance. Wealthy nations have long pledged to assist developing countries in transitioning to sustainable practices and strengthening their ability to withstand the effects of the climate crisis. The recent agreement in Dubai to implement a fund for loss and damage signifies a commitment from affluent nations to cover the expenses incurred by the most vulnerable communities in recovering from disastrous events caused by emissions.

The total cost will be in the trillions. A portion of the funds will need to be obtained from private sources, but Australia is expected to exceed the $150 million it pledged in the UAE.

One last aspect to discuss is the goal for reducing emissions. The deadline for setting new targets for 2035 is 2025. The Cop28 agreement outlines the required action: a worldwide reduction of 60% from the levels recorded in 2019.

Australia, which started measuring in 2005, would need to reduce emissions by 67%. Due to developed nations’ past responsibility to lead, Australia may be urged to make even greater reductions. Bowen, speaking on behalf of the umbrella group, advocated for the 2035 target.

Over the next 18 months, the effectiveness of this will be put to the test. The three largest states in the country have each committed to reducing emissions by at least 70% by 2035. However, Western Australia presents a challenge. The Albanese government must decide whether to advocate for a target and implement necessary policies, despite pushback from fossil fuel-influenced parts of the political and media landscape.

The outcome will reveal Australia’s commitment to maintaining the 1.5C limit, supporting its allies in the Pacific, and capitalizing on the potential economic benefits that are frequently mentioned.

Source: theguardian.com