Najib Saab. 30/11/2023

Perhaps the most important thing that will be discussed at COP28 in Dubai is the first Global Stocktake (GST) report, which the Paris climate summit (COP21) in 2015 decided to compile every five years, starting in 2023. The aim is to provide an interim review of the state of greenhouse gases emissions and adaptation measures to deal with the impact of climate change, in addition to financing options. The GST is supposed to be a basis for reviewing the preliminary nationally determined contributions (NDCs), standing for the voluntary pledges made by countries to reduce emissions.

Although the official announcement will take place next week, the results have become known, and they show shortcomings in all areas, proving that current commitments to reduce emissions are insufficient, even if fully implemented, to limit the temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The situation becomes grimmer in light of the failure of most countries to even implement the minimum declared goals. Continuing at the current pace will lead to temperatures rising to above 1.5 degrees long before 2050, and above 3 degrees by the end of the century, with all the catastrophes this will create. The only solution is to accelerate the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide and methane.

Measures to confront those unstoppable effects of climate change, known as “adaptation”, are also inadequate, according to the stocktake findings. This is due to deficiencies in planning at the national level and the absence of appropriate funding, which brings us to the foremost point of contention: who will pay the bill for climate action?

Two weeks before the Dubai Summit, climate financing reached $100 billion for the first time, three years behind schedule. In 2009, rich countries promised to support climate action in developing countries with an amount that will gradually increase to reach one hundred billion dollars annually in 2020. Although the method of calculating this amount is still unclear, whether it represents entirely new commitments or is part of traditional foreign development aid, reaching the $100 billion goal takes the debate about the “promised” one hundred billion dollars to a new stage.

The most important issue in climate finance remains the establishment of clear mechanisms for the Loss and Damage Fund, which was agreed upon last year in Sharm El-Sheikh. The details of its mandate and work are to be determined during the Dubai Summit. The primary goal of the fund is to help poor countries confront the effects of climate change, with measures that include infrastructure, building systems, agriculture, transportation, tourism, and health, to deal with water scarcity, rising sea levels, and extreme events such as hurricanes, heat waves, and drought. But disagreements continue over the nature of the fund: Is it to help poor countries, voluntarily and as a charity, as stipulated by the industrialized countries led by the United States? Or is it to compensate for the damages caused by these countries due to their historical accumulated emissions, which were the main factor triggering climate change? Who determines which countries are eligible to receive aid? Who bears the burdens? Will the aid be in the form of loans, grants, or project financing, and who will supervise implementation?

Countries come to Dubai with different agendas. The United States expects greater contributions from China, and requires strict supervision of the disbursement of funds to developing countries and periodic monitoring of the actual progress achieved. China insists on continuing to be treated as a poor country, hiding behind developing countries in demanding that Western industrialized countries bear the responsibility in reducing emissions and financing climate action. Will the recent US-Chinese summit contribute to a consensual solution? On their part, oil-producing countries are trying to reconcile climate commitments with protecting their main sources of income, by diversifying their economy in preparation for a smooth transition that does not hastily eliminate fossil fuels. However, others consider that this does not adequately respond, in a timely manner, to the existential challenges posed by climate change.

Poor countries remain the most affected by the complications of climate change, especially the 39 member countries of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). They demand immediate and decisive measures to stop emissions rather than waiting for the net-zero date in 2050, because rising seas may lead to their disappearance 

As European Union countries try to play the role of climate mediators, they come to Dubai burdened by the economic and geopolitical repercussions of the on-going war in Ukraine, with a pledge to triple renewable energy production by 2030, and boost financing for climate action in poor countries. Although the EU decided at the beginning of this month to set limits on methane emissions, whether they come from cow farms or industry, major challenges still remain. The most recent of these challenges was demonstrated in the results of the Dutch elections this week, as a populist Eurosceptic party, opposed to most climate measures, gained most votes, largely on an anti-immigration platform.

The most prominent items on the Dubai Summit agenda include increasing and expediting emission reduction targets, adaptation and financing plans, to redirect the course based on the results of the GST. Therefore, countries must provide new pledges in all of these areas in preparation for a second review in five years, to determine the extent of progress towards achieving the 2030 goals, on the road to 2050. The message is now very clear that the response must be strengthened and accelerated.

What is required, first and foremost, is to reduce emissions at a faster pace, and this means reducing fuel burning, in parallel with enhancing efficiency measures, rationalizing consumption, and developing technologies to capture, sequester, or reuse carbon safely. The goal is to stop emissions at the required time, by any means possible. COP28 President-Designate, Sultan Al Jaber, was clear when he announced, commenting on the inventory, that the gradual reduction of fossil fuels is an inevitable option. In addition to strengthening emissions mitigation targets, the Dubai Summit, in response to the results of the GST, will need to approve increased contributions to the Green Climate Fund and the Adaptation Fund, as well as sizeable early pledges to the Loss and Damage Fund.

Finally, consultants claiming to promote sustainability must help governments and the fossil fuels sectors prepare for changes that may come faster than expected, instead of selling illusions, as some are doing. The narrative embraced by a certain international consulting firm is a blunt example of this behaviour, as it considers the temporary increase in demand for oil and gas from specific regions, due to the war in Ukraine, to be a permanent and lasting situation, leading to recommending long-term planning on that basis. Its reports further promote carbon capture and storage as a definitive solution, which will allow indefinite burning of fossil fuels, without considering an alternative plan B, in case results are late or short of expectations. This approach disregards the fact that the Russian-Ukrainian war, which led to higher oil and gas prices, led on the other hand to the acceleration of renewable energy and efficiency programs, to reducing dependence on imported oil and gas, in addition to the requirement of reducing emissions. This will enhance the chances that many countries might reach zero emissions ahead of the set date in 2050. It also disregards the fact that carbon capture and storage technologies need time before they are proven to offer an economic and practical solution for large-scale applications, while other technologies are already widely available and applied at cheaper costs. Moreover, hydrogen, as energy carrier and storage medium, is in a more advanced stage of development and might replace natural gas in distribution networks of some countries as early as 2030. What will those consultancy firms, that falsely claim advancing sustainability principles, advise their clients in the face of this prospect? Isn’t it time to separate technical consultancy work from public relations?

Certainly, international consultants cannot claim to be more concerned about protecting fossil fuels than some of the biggest exporters of oil and gas, who seem to better understand the challenges. We all recall the ground breaking statement of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, President of the UAE, when he announced, back in 2016, that his country was preparing for the moment when it will celebrate exporting the last barrel of oil. Saudi Arabia, likewise, is undertaking the world’s biggest initiatives to diversify its economy and transform its energy sector, with the promise to become the biggest global liquefied hydrogen exporter.

It remains to be seen whether COP28 will be a gathering of rhetoric or action, and how the unfolding wars will reflect on its deliberations and outcome. A significant occurrence on the verge of the climate summit is the adoption of a resolution by the European Parliament last week to consider environmental destruction a form of genocide. But such a stance loses moral ground when these same governments continue to deny human rights and remain silent in the face of the unfolding Palestinian genocide. If governments that support the annihilation of the Palestinian people do not change their standpoint before they come to Dubai, anything they say about environment and climate will be deceptive and empty rhetoric.