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Cop28: what could the climate conference achieve?

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If current growth in renewable energy continues, and if countries take action on cutting greenhouse gases such as methane, then next year could be the year in which greenhouse gas emissions at last reach their peak.

These are big ifs. The finding, from a respected group of scientists, is heavily hedged. Renewable energy rates could falter, fossil fuel companies will continue to seek to expand, and countries may fail to take the action needed.

But if the long-awaited peak can be reached, and if emissions continue to fall in the following years, it would mark a watershed moment for humanity.

Since the industrial revolution, the amount of carbon poured into the atmosphere has risen steadily. On only a handful of occasions – the financial crisis of 2008-09, the lockdowns that followed the outbreak of Covid-19, and in more distant years depressions, wars and oil shocks – has the upward march of annually rising emissions reversed, and in all those cases it quickly recovered. In 2022, carbon dioxide emissions rose to their highest ever level, so even if this peak comes about, it will be much higher than hoped.

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But the implications of a potential emissions peak for the next global meeting on the climate crisis, the Cop28 UN summit, which begins in Dubai on 30 November, are profound. “This [potential peak] would represent a momentous moment for climate policy,” says Joeri Rogelj, a professor of climate science at Imperial College London, and co-author of the emissions peak research by Climate Analytics.

It would be unprecedented, welcome – and yet perhaps already too late.

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Global temperatures also broke records this year, which we already know will be the hottest ever recorded, perhaps the hottest in 100,000 years. An unprecedented ocean heatwave was described as “gobsmackingly bananas” by one scientist, and several days surpassed the important threshold of 2C above pre-industrial levels.

El Niño conditions started this year that are likely to bring hotter weather in the short term. We will be uncomfortably close to the 1.5C limit governments have committed to, and next year could surpass it. It would need to be sustained over several years to prove the trend, but we are fast nearing the 1.5C threshold, which scientists fear could bring us past tipping points in the climate that may lead to irreversible impacts.

This means a peak in emissions is not enough. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to stay within 1.5C, global emissions must roughly halve this decade, compared with 2010 levels. But the climate responds to the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere, not the emissions of a single year, so if the peak is in 2024 or later, emissions will have to fall much faster in the remaining years, potentially by about 20% a year. That is a tough proposition.

Fossil fuels and renewable energy

As well as the background of rising temperatures and extreme weather, Cop28 also takes place in unpromising geopolitical circumstances with the war in Ukraine and the conflict in Israel and Gaza.

And Cop28 takes place in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates – one of the world’s largest exporters of oil and gas. The man in charge of the summit, Sultan Al Jaber, the minister of advanced technologies in the UAE government, is also chief of its national oil company, Adnoc.

This dual role is a clear conflict of interest, according to campaigners, who have repeatedly asked for him to resign from his Adnoc role. Al Jaber’s response is adamant: he believes his oil industry background is an asset, enabling him to take a more pragmatic role and engage with financiers and company leaders. He told the Guardian: “Never in history has a Cop president confronted the oil industry, let alone the fact that he’s a CEO of an oil company. Not having oil and gas and high-emitting industries on the same table is not the right thing to do. You need to bring them all. We need to re-imagine this relationship between producers and consumers. We need this integrated approach.”

Adnoc is also planning a massive increase in its production capacity, even though the International Energy Agency has warned that no new oil and gas exploration and development can take place if the world is to remain within the 1.5C limit. An investigation by the Guardian also found that flaring of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, appears to be taking place frequently at several of the company’s fields.

The UAE told the Guardian that flaring was carried out only for safety reasons. Previously, Al Jaber has said the company’s oil was lower carbon than those of its rivals. He added: “We are a very progressive, advanced energy company. We’ve transformed, we’ve decarbonised, and this came at a cost, but we did it … ensuring that Adnoc is fit for the future.”

Holding a Cop summit in an oil-producing country is not unprecedented. One was held in Qatar just over a decade ago, and many have taken place in countries, such as Canada and the UK, that are fossil fuel producers, though at a smaller scale than the UAE.

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And Al Jaber is hoping to lead a “global decarbonisation alliance” at Cop28, which would bring together dozens of oil and gas producers, both private sector and, crucially, some of the world’s nationally owned oil companies (NOCs). NOCs are responsible for about 70% of fossil fuel production around the world, but their operations are frequently opaque. This alliance of oil- and gas-producing companies could take major steps on cutting their own emissions, for instance by updating their technology and practices. But this would not be enough – the emissions associated with extracting oil and gas are tiny compared with the emissions from burning them, meaning companies must seriously address moving away from oil and gas to renewables, or winding down operations altogether.

Some Cop veterans argue that Al Jaber can bring Middle Eastern oil producers to the table in a fruitful engagement. The economist Nicholas Stern said: “I know that Sultan Al Jaber personally takes this very seriously. I am very clear about his personal commitment to building a much cleaner world.” A diplomat from one developed country told the Guardian: “I want him to deliver the oil sector.”

Even Greenpeace voiced qualified support. “Cop28 in the UAE emerges not only as a historical opportunity but also as a stage to demonstrate the UAE diplomatic power,” said Shady Khalil, the regional campaigns lead at Greenpeace MENA (Middle East and North Africa). “With the world’s attention focused on the UAE presidency, there lies a unique chance to facilitate a meaningful dialogue and foster commitment among nations … towards climate action.”

Al Jaber says that as well as his Adnoc role, he was also in 2006 the co-founder of Masdar, a renewable energy company, with UAE government backing. At an early stage, Al Jaber also set his sights on a new goal for clean energy at Cop28: to triple global renewable energy capacity. In a speech in February, he said UAE, despite its oil wealth, was embracing a renewable energy future. “We believe that game-changing solutions can be achieved, if the collective will is there. It certainly is from the UAE. We in the UAE are not shying away from the energy transition. We are running towards it,” he said.

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High oil and gas prices have spurred “explosive” growth in wind and solar energy in the past two years, and a tripling of global renewable energy is achievable, according to the analyst company BNEF. But it will require governments to take further action, to remove bottlenecks such as grid connections and capacity, ease supply constraints, and promote a mix of green energy. “Solar is cheap and easy, and the world could triple capacity using solar alone. But leaving other renewables behind wouldn’t be a good outcome for climate impacts,” said Jenny Chase, a solar analyst at BNEF.

A related goal of doubling energy efficiency globally is also likely to be adopted at Cop28, and should be similarly effective. Weaning the world off oil and gas will require the electrification of transport and heating, ramping up electricity demand, so using power more efficiently is essential.

Increasing renewable energy capacity is one thing; cutting fossil fuel use is another. Currently, around the world, the surge in solar and wind generation has not been accompanied by much of a fall in coal, oil and gas consumption. Clean energy is being added to existing dirty sources rather than displacing them.

So the biggest fight at Cop28 will probably be over the role of fossil fuels. Although fossil fuels are overwhelmingly the culprits behind rising temperatures, global climate talks have largely skirted the issue since they began in 1992.

That changed in 2021 when the outcome of Cop26 in Glasgow included a reference to phasing down coal for the first time. It was bitterly fought over, but the final outcome was hailed as a major step.

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Last year, at Cop27 in Egypt, many countries tried to build on this. At least 80 of the 198 signatories to the Paris agreement pushed for a commitment to phase out fossil fuels. But it was omitted from the final text after pressure from oil-rich nations.

This year, they will try again. Al Jaber has already signalled UAE’s willingness to engage. “Phasing down fossil fuels is inevitable and it is essential: it’s going to happen,” he said.

But a phase-down is not the same as a phase-out. And some countries also want to insert another qualifier: they want to talk, at most, of a phase-down of “unabated” fossil fuels. This means that, for instance, power plants fitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology could continue to burn gas and coal. CCS, and related technologies called carbon dioxide removal, are currently not used at scale, are extremely expensive, and there may be limits on how much storage is geologically feasible. Scientists forecast only a small role for these technologies in the future.

For some campaigners, a commitment to phase down unabated fossil fuels would be too great a weakening of the commitment. Romain Ioualalen, the global policy manager at Oil Change International, said: “Abatement technologies such as CCS are the fossil fuel industry’s favourite tool to distract from the need for a full phase-out of all fossil fuels. A Cop28 decision that legitimises abatement technologies, and justifies it as a substitute to a full fossil fuel phase-out, risks leading to even more fossil fuel lock-in [and] further climate disaster … We need a full and fast phase-out of all fossil fuels. We have had enough of endless delays.”

Others argue that a strong commitment on fossil fuels must also include provision for a just transition for poor countries – that is, assistance to help them move away from fossil fuels and grow in a low-carbon way, while protecting jobs. Rwanda’s environment minister, Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya, said: “Many developing countries want to make the transition, but need the time and technology to make it a reality.”

Targeting methane

In November, the US special envoy for climate, John Kerry, met his counterpart, China’s Xie Zhenhua, for talks at Sunnylands, a diplomatic retreat in California. The two men have long enjoyed a friendly rapport, but relations between their countries have been strained for some time.

The pictures released from the meeting show the pair smiling and relaxed, and Kerry and Xie emerged from the talks with a declaration that, though short on specifics, will brighten the mood between the world’s two most powerful economies when they meet again in Dubai.

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China is the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gases, responsible for more than a quarter of global emissions, and its economy is highly dependent on coal. Under the current five-year economic plan, more new coal-fired power plants are planned. If such a large expansion continues, the rest of the world could cut its emissions to near zero and the global carbon budget would still be exhausted within a decade.

Lauri Myllyvirta, the lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, believes the new plant proposals are a distraction. A rise in renewable energy capacity and changes in the Chinese economy could mean that China’s emissions reach a peak next year, according to his forecasts. “This is because – for the first time – the rate of low-carbon energy expansion is now sufficient not only to meet, but exceed, the average annual increase in China’s demand for electricity overall,” he said. “If this pace is maintained, or accelerated, it would mean that China’s electricity generation from fossil fuels would enter a period of structural decline – which would also be a first. Moreover, this structural decline could come about despite the new wave of coal plant permitting and construction.”

This is not a given. China’s coal interests could rebound, the renewable energy increase could falter, and there are many uncertainties surrounding China’s economic direction, compounded by the lack of transparency in China’s government. But if it happens, it would be another boost to the chances of causing global emissions to peak.

China, after the Sunnylands talks, also made an important change to its emissions plans: for the first time, non-CO2 gases will be included. This is highly significant as China is also a major source of methane, which escapes from coal-mining operations and agriculture. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with about 80 times the warming impact of carbon dioxide, though it breaks down in the atmosphere far faster, within about 20 years. So methane has the potential to be a clear win for Cop28.

On the first weekend of the Cop28 talks, the UAE will hold a global methane summit. China, the US, the EU, the UK and more than 100 other countries are expected to take part. They will discuss targets for cutting methane, but also how to implement them quickly.

Because of methane’s potency, cutting it has more impact than reductions of carbon dioxide. But emissions of methane are rising fast, partly from oil and gas operations – methane is the main component of natural gas, and it leaks or is flared from fossil fuel extraction operations – and also from agriculture, chiefly animal husbandry. Rapid cuts to methane could reduce global temperature rises by nearly 0.3C, scientists estimate.

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This makes methane essential to any hope of staying within 1.5C, believes Durwood Zaelke, the president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. “Methane is the blowtorch pushing the planet from global warming to global boiling. Turning it off is the best thing we can do for the planet,” he said.

Paul Bledsoe, a professorial lecturer at the centre for environmental policy at the American University in Washington DC, believes Al Jaber could help to bring about significant change. Saudi Arabia is a longtime ally of UAE, and is supposed to be present at the methane summit. “Saudi Arabia has long been the single worst actor at Cops,” said Bledsoe. “If they agree to take steps on methane, it would be an entirely new departure, the first time they had agreed to do something so positive. This would be a watershed moment.”

1.5C: how far off track are we?

At the core of the Cop28 talks will be an exercise known as the global stocktake, which stipulates that now, and every five years, there should be a comprehensive assessment of the progress – or lack of it – the world has made towards the 2015 Paris agreement. Crucially, the global stocktake will also be forward looking – countries will be required to consider how much further they need to cut their emissions in order to stay within 1.5C.

Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who oversaw the Paris summit in 2015, now co-founder of the Global Optimism thinktank, said the message governments should take from the global stocktake was that the world needed transforming, to shift the economy globally to a low-carbon footing, rather than tinkering at the edges.

“The global stocktake will confirm that we are not on track [to stay within 1.5C],” she said. “We have to change our way of thinking. If we were on track, we could stay with incremental or marginal thinking. But we cannot afford that any more.”

Simon Stiell, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the top UN official who will oversee the Cop summit along with Al Jaber, said: “We are moving too slowly. But, procedural as it sounds, it will now be an obligation [as a result of the stocktake] on parties to come back with enhanced commitments.”

Major emitters must be held responsible for their high carbon output, historically and today, said Arunabha Ghosh, the head of the Indian thinktank Council on Energy, Environment and Water. “Assigning accountability is crucial, and we must address the lack of progress on pre-2020 commitments. Developed nations must fulfil past obligations before focusing on the future,” he added.

Climate finance still the key focus for many

For poor countries, the key focus of Cop28 is climate finance. Many are already spending a large chunk of their budgets – more than they can spend on education, health or other services – on repairing the damages of the climate crisis. Floods devastated Pakistan last year, causing billions of dollars of harm and leaving 20 million people dependent on aid. Drought in the Horn of Africa, also climate-related, still threatens tens of millions of people with severe hunger.

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More than a decade ago, at a Cop in Copenhagen in 2009, rich nations promised that poor countries would receive $100bn a year in climate finance to help them cut emissions and cope with the effects of the climate crisis. Though money did start to flow, it never reached $100bn – in 2020, it stood at about $80bn, well short of the target.

Earlier this month, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development produced a report showing the target was finally being met. Though some in developing countries were concerned at the preliminary nature of the data, and the uncertainties in the analysis, it was broadly taken as a positive sign.

This is only the start, however. The most vulnerable countries are already experiencing consequences from the climate crisis so severe that no amount of adaptation effort could have prevented them. These severe impacts are referred to in the talks as “loss and damage” from the climate crisis, and after more than a decade of talks, finally a fund to address them is to be set up at Cop28.

Countries forged a compromise agreement in November that would require the fund to be hosted by the World Bank, despite the misgivings of developing countries. Funds would be disbursed to the most vulnerable developing countries, with contributions to come from traditional industrialised countries and emerging economies, which could include China and oil-rich Gulf states, including the UAE.

The settlement represented a workable compromise that should be accepted at Cop28, according to Avinash Persaud, an adviser to Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados. “This was a challenging but critical outcome. We now have for the first time an instrument that will operationalise an international fund for grant-based financing of reconstruction, rehabilitation and relocation after extreme weather or slow-onset events. This is an important step forward and will bring positive momentum to other climate actions.”

There are many ideas for funding a loss and damage facility, including: a levy on shipping; a windfall tax on oil and gas companies’ bumper profits; a levy on frequent flyers; and contributions from the sale of carbon offsets.

Eamon Ryan, Ireland’s environment minister, who leads on loss and damage for the EU, said any of these were likely to require years of work to be fully up and running, but that Cop28 could make a start. “We need a mosaic of different types of finance,” he said. “If we can get nearly 200 countries at Cop28 to agree a direction, a principle, that will be an important step.”

Although the $100bn is now set to be delivered, the amount the poorest countries receive to help them adapt to the impacts of extreme weather is likely to remain a small proportion. This is a longstanding grievance. Macky Sall, the president of Senegal, said: “In Africa, we are already losing up to 15% of our GDP growth a year to the destructive forces of climate change – a problem we did not cause and we are powerless to stop … We now have a very narrow window to put coping mechanisms in place but with the right support we can build a stronger and greener future for the continent. It is urgent that all countries make good on climate funding pledges.”

Patrick Verkooijen, the chief executive of the Global Centre on Adaptation, said: “The reality is that current levels of climate finance are not only too small, they are also distributed unevenly and inefficiently. Creditors must realise there is also a ‘win-win’ opportunity to restructure debt to drive towards a more prosperous future.”

Harjeet Singh, the head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International, said far too much of the finance was still coming in the form of loans, adding to the debt burden of developing countries, instead of the grants that are needed. He said: “While developing countries are pressed to ramp up their emission reduction efforts, they are deprived of substantial and genuine assistance. This ‘support’ mostly comes in the form of loans, exacerbating financial disparities. In a stark contradiction, rich countries continue their heavy investments in fossil fuel expansion, the root cause of the climate crisis. This paradox underscores the gross injustice at the heart of global climate policy.”

According to research by the economist Vera Songwe and Lord Stern, published at Cop27, above and beyond these existing commitments more than $2tn (£1.6tn) a year will be needed for developing countries, to set them on a low-carbon development path, to adapt to the likely changes in the climate, and repair the damages of extreme weather.

Trillions sounds like a lot of money, but the economist Mariana Mazzucato says companies already invest trillions around the world, only most of it goes into high-carbon activities or dirty energy and infrastructure. “There’s so much finance out there. There is no finance gap, no lack of finance. We just aren’t directing it in the right way,” she says.

Are countries ready to go further than ever before?

Will progress on these key fronts – fossil fuels, renewable energy, methane and climate finance – make a substantial difference to the climate crisis?

The problem is that they are not enough to change the destructive course the world is still on. Renewable energy is vital, but it must displace fossil fuels, rather than be used alongside them. Forecasts that emissions will peak next year are contingent on so many factors, and in any case are only the beginning – the peak must be followed by reductions in emissions far steeper than have ever been made before in human history, if the frightening weather seen this year is not to be followed by a far worse future.

Deep and urgent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from all the G20 countries are the only actions that will make the “course correction” the UAE hosts have called for. To hold true to the 1.5C limit, the “north star” of these negotiations as Al Jaber has called it, all nations – particularly the fossil fuel producers - will have to come to Dubai prepared to go much further than any have ever done before.