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False Transitions and Global Stocktakes: The Failure of COP28

The time has come to treat the sequence of UN Climate Change Conferences, the latest concluding in Dubai, as a series of the failed and the abysmally rotten. It shows how a worthless activity, caked (oiled?) with appropriately chosen words, can actually provide assurance that something worthwhile was done. Along the way, there are always the same beneficiaries: fossil fuel magnates and satirists.

COP28, which featured 97,000 participants, including the weighty presence of 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists, was even more of a shambles than its predecessor. Its location – in an oil rich state – was head scratching. Its chairman Sultan Al Jaber, taking advantage of the various parties who would attend, had sought to cultivate some side business for the United Arab Emirates, notably for the state oil company ADNOC.

This did not deter UN climate change bureaucrats and negotiators, who seemed to equate climate change policy with an account of goods held by a business. Consider the wording of the COP Agreement released on December 13: “The global stocktake is considered the central outcome of COP28 – as it contains every element that was under negotiation and can now be used by countries to develop stronger climate action plans due by 2025.” It was a “global stocktake” supposedly signalling the “beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era, to be facilitated by “laying the ground for a swift, just and equitable transition, underpinned by deep emission cuts and scaled-up finance.”

These words have been treated as sacerdotal by many of its participants, the be all and end all, the event’s great culmination. But long hours of deliberation can confuse effort with achievement, and this proved to be no exception. Tinkering with meaning can be taken as a triumph. Recognising words such as “fossil fuels” and “science” can make delegates weak at the knees. Promises to set targets for a Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA) make others swoon.

It was such tinkering that led to the call for a “transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly, and equitable way with developed countries continuing to take the lead.” The emphasis here is on a “transition away” from their use, not their “phase out”, which is what 130 of the 198 participating parties were willing to accept.

The term “phase-down” was used regarding “unabated coal power” while “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” would be phased out, presumably leaving the question open as to what, exactly, efficient subsidies might look like. Parties were also “encouraged to come forward with ambitious, economy-wide emission reduction targets, covering all greenhouse gases, sectors and categories and aligned with the 1.5°C in their next round of climate action plans (known as nationally determined contributions) by 2025.”

Jaber was in a gleeful mood at the outcome. The naysayers’ warning that the summit would be an unmitigated failure had been disproved. “Together, we have confronted realities and we have set the world in the right direction. We have given it a robust action plan to keep 1.5°C within reach. It is a plan that is led by the science.”

US climate change envoy John Kerry thought the document convincing: it sent “very strong messages to the world” providing a much firmer statement on preventing global warming from exceeding the 1.5°C limit. Danish Climate Minister Dan Jørgensen seemed to angle for praise in noting that his country, being “an oil rich country surrounded by oil countries that are now signing a piece of paper saying we need to move away from oil” was “historic”.

The agreement had an eager audience desperate to identify signs of progress. Prof. Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization called the COP28 agreement “historic in that – for the first time – it recognizes the need to transition away from fossil fuels for the first time.” Even the Scientific American made the observation that none of the previous 27 climate change conferences had even mentioned fossil fuels and its link to a rise in global temperatures.

A good gaggle of climatologists and geophysicists were less enthused. “The lack of an agreement to phase out fossil fuels,” opined Michael Mann of the University of Pennsylvania, “was devastating.” To use such an expression as “‘transition away from fossil fuels’ was weak tea at best. It’s like promising your doctor that you will ‘transition away from doughnuts’ after being diagnosed with diabetes.”

An editorial in Nature was also steely in rejecting the way science had been manipulated at the summit, noting Jaber’s own declaration on November 21 that there was no scientific basis that would necessitate phasing out fossil fuels to restrict global warming to the agreed limit. While the editorial had gone to press before the release of the final agreement, the journal was correct in assuming that it “would not include language on phasing out fossil fuels. That is more than a missed opportunity. It is dangerous.”

The dangers are considerable, given the number of transitioning states. They include, for instance, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who seeks the expansion of renewable energy while building coal-burning power plants, and the current US administration, whose Bureau of Land Management approved more oil and gas leases on federal lands in the first two years and seven months than the previous Trump administration did over the equivalent period. In the usual doublespeak of the Biden administration, such a policy could comfortably exist alongside its overall green strategy.

As weak tea as the document is, it’s not even binding. Countries can still pursue fossil fuel projects, at the behest of strong coal, gas and oil lobbies, even as they claim to be pursuing abating technologies that supposedly minimise emissions. In Australia, opposition spokesman for climate change and energy Ted O’Brien provided something of an exemplar of this. “While the final communique names fossil fuels, it also promotes carbon, capture and storage as abating technology for such fuels along with nuclear energy which can be a zero-emission substitute.”

The record of actions taken to such agreements is not promising. For one, COP28 seemed riddled with pledges and gestures, a matter of theatre. The heralded “loss and damage fund” received commitments to the total of US$700 million, but this is wretchedly meagre when compared to the annual US$200 to US$400 billion required by Africa alone, let alone the US$400 billion a year for climate change adaptation.

Debates of herculean obstinacy over word changes in a text can spell the doom of its object. In future experiments in hot air summitry of the sort witnessed at Dubai, the powerful and wealthy will have room to stretch and delay meaningful change, adopting that famous plea by St. Augustine: “Please God, make me good, but not just yet.”


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  1. RomeoCharlie

    Nicely pricking the bubble of the self-congratulatory rhetoric, Binoy. Not even ‘weak tea’ but weak as piss. I saw pictures of exhausted participants dozing in chairs after the mammoth expenditure of hot air full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

    What an extraordinarily expensive waste of time.

  2. andyfiftysix

    Well that lot of hot air fell in a heap , didnt it. From its inception, its been nothing but greenwashing. Once the head of this talk feast confessed his true feelings, it was all over rover. then the facts on how many fossil fuel delegates turned up really sealed the deal.
    They protested that its better to have the fossil industry in the tent. All the while denying that the industry had taken over the event.
    Why do you invite the fox family to our chook dinner?

    But i do beleive they have over played their hand, completely obliterating any credibility COP28 ever had.

    That puts the onus completely back on us to do our part. And although it looks dire if you look at our outputs, i do beleive we are about to turn the corner. Just as we all thought capitalism was a dead horse, the cost of everything has put a spike right through the system. People are starting to vote with their wallets, solar panels, EVs and batteries are starting to take over. We are no longer at the start of the disruption but starting the exponential growth. In a very short time, we shall see the world transitioning away from costly fossil fuels to possibly negative value renewables. As Tony Seba says, super abundant cost free “super power”.

    Cop28 will thus be seen as an attempt to “remain in the game” by the fossil fuel industry. Just like Morrison’s much ridiculed gas lead recovery. Market realities blew that clear out of the water. And the fossil fuel industry is just ripe for total disruption. They are their own worst enemies creating destruction and enormous wealth for themselves. The scramble for these resources has allowed some pretty unsavoury human behaviour, especially in the middle east. Their only salvation has been the lack of an alternative………and guess whats coming……

    You may have thought i was a raving marxist, trashing capitalism mercilesly at times. But no i am not. I happen to think there is some benefit to capitalism. I just think we need to harness its power instead of being whipped by its tail on its way through.

    For a start, asserting that the board’s only responsibility is to the share holders needs to be made an inprisonable offence.
    Society needs to be an equal partner with shareholders. So your not going to go out and make stuff that is a burdon on society like pollution, poisons, theft etc etc. Cases in point cigarettes, manufactured stone, asbestos, coal / gs power stations. And you wont go lobbying governments to reduce emission controls on cars…….you listening stone face TOYOTA? Neither is it right to help spread lies about EVs because you cant make them at a profit….isnt that right TOYOTA.

    Nuclear energy got a gong too. “….officially called for accelerating the deployment of low-emission technologies including nuclear energy to help achieve deep and rapid decarbonization, ” oxymoron, right there. After 80yrs of development, nuclear still has unresolved issues. As soon as one is planked up , another jumps out…..all the while the costs keep rising. Their big arguement that its safe comes at a substantial premium.
    And That door is rapidly closing. The only countries supporting new nuclear have very compliant populations, ie communist or dictators. That is not a sustainable industry. No finance company worth anything would invest in nuclear, nor will any insurance company cover any part of it. No government on its own can finance its growth. DEAD MAN WALKING

    so what did cop28 acheive? opened people’s eyes just a touch. Our government has well and truly stated where it stands ( even if we think its a very light touch). The libs want to go nuclear. Situation normal…lol

  3. andyfiftysix

    seems my comment has disappeared up my clacker……….never mind.

    cop28 and all these talk fests are full of hot air. To get a true indictation of whats going to happen check out what the solar panel uptake is, then look at what the EV uptake is. they are going to profoundly hurt the fossil fuel industry.

    We are already in the “vallet of death” for ice powered cars in a lot of countries. Yes we are slower in oz, but thats purely a supply issue.

    Once this low hanging fruit has been tackled we can move on to more pressing areas of CO2 reduction. Its that last 15-20% that will really tax us.

  4. Roswell

    Found it, andy.

    It was stuck out the back. Have retrieved it.

  5. Andrew Smith

    Recent analogy for the COP event and fossil fuel lobbyists, is like Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in a pub…..

  6. wam

    COP usually comes with OUT.
    However climate change has no fear for any nation, with access to coal, gas and oil.
    Energy is the universal need.
    The white world got rich on coal; and oil. Our white societies and economies demand total access to them.
    How are the 7 billion non-whites going to use to power their development?
    Renewables or fusion. QED

  7. andyfiftysix

    wam, its easy. when renewables cost less to set up, coal and gas become redundant. If your in an impoverished nation with no infrustructure, are you going for gas or renewables? Beleive me, poor people know when they are paying more than necessary.
    Its a no brainer unless corruption is involved.

  8. LambsFry Simplex.

    Echoes a thought:

    if fossil fuels are phased out, what need of Levantine gas and oil”

  9. Clakka

    It was to be guaranteed the term ‘abatement’ would wheedle its way into the FF word-salad.

    When used on that side of the atmospheric carbon ledger, it’s the pinnacle (or should I say depths) of greenwashing. It is unalloyed bullshit, but unlike bullshit, it won’t readily be converted to a nutriment for the good.

    The greenwash was cast in the future narratives by that jabbering masked arsehole Al Jaber when he pronounced, “there is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5C” The same desperate gobbledegook initiated by the tobacco industry and taken up by many others such as Monsanto et al.

    The accumulative and acquisitional obsessions of commercial interests throughout the industrial era have seen ordinary folk, and the environment, bombarded with around 78,000 deadly and persistent toxins. These toxins have been liberated from nature’s control mechanisms, purely for the convenience of bling and the abatement of loss of power, control and feckless gain by the mindless peddlers of the global death cult.

    Its mindless lunacy insists on the sacrifice of fecundity, innocence and children, and the elimination of opponents, doubters and old wise heads. Desperate and corrupted politicians have by their hubris have fallen foul to the availability of gobbledegook and the death-dollars by simply ensuring that the deadly status quo remains in place, after all they wouldn’t want to disrupt the vox populi, nor stimulate the madding crowd.

    Yet realities have a way of revealing themselves, and exerting themselves on our consciousness. With the naturally exponential rise of cancers, virus and bacterial morphing, mental illness, autism, ecological destruction and animalian extinction, the pool of demand is moving away from the products of the embittered retributive nihilists of the ineffable death cult.

    As the politicians aligned to the death cult are more and more becoming seen as bald-faced liars, the other side of the ledger continues to fathom the economics of the path to paradise, or risk seeking to define the constitution of paradise, even as it stares them in the face.

    Such are the schmooze of COP-OUTs, and the travails of babble.

  10. B Sullivan

    Wam, ‘ However climate change has no fear for any nation, with access to coal, gas and oil’

    A very anthropocentric view. Do you really think climate change doesn’t matter for those nations with access to fossil fuels, or even alternative renewables?

    What about the effect of climate change on all the other living things on the planet that are incapable of either tolerating climate change or of adapting to it fast enough as a species because it is happening so rapidly? Corals with die if the water they live in gets just a a few degrees too warm for their tolerance. When they die the whole ecology of the coral reef collapses, the most diverse environment in the ocean. The effects of these collapses on the rest of the ocean and the land species that also depend upon them functioning properly will be just as devastating. The ripples through the ecology will be like seismic tsunamis. Millions of years of evolved species will be terminated in the geological blink of an an eye by the mass extinctions caused by just one species’ indulgence and stupidity.

    The effect of climate change on humans is as nothing compared to the ecological collapse that it will bring about to life on earth. It is the mass ecological damage that will kill us off, no matter what we do to keep the air conditioners working, or whatever ingenious solutions we invent to cope and protect ourselves against the unpredictable and extreme weather or the floods and fires and blizzards that will accompany it.

  11. paul walter

    B Sullivan is a little hard on Clakka, but what this writer is talking about is something that has bothered scientists for a while and that is the increasing opportunity for something akin to the K2 and Permian extinction events.

    I wonder what the planet will look like eventually.

    Don’t they care wat sort of toxic world their kids inherit?

  12. Clakka

    C’mon PW, B Sullivan was giving wam a little toast without butter.

    Mine remains untouched – even though it is somewhat anthropocentric.

    Correct attributions can be important to context. 🙂

  13. andyfiftysix

    B Sullivan, it does no one any favours to over exaggerate. “mass ecological damage that will kill us off, ….”

    No it wont kill us all off, a decent cull yes, kill off, not likely. The only think that will kill us off would be total cloud cover, ie, meteor strike. Mass extinction of large mammals like elephants , rhinos yes. Humans , not so much. Those who are technology poor and living in harsh environments will deffinely go. Those of us in the rest of the world will have to regroup.

    My issue is that i think there will be mass migration on a scale never seen before, way way before we see humans die off. ” we will decide ..” will be seen as a such a stupid statement when dealing with 10,000 refugees. What happens when 10 million turn up on our back doors? Nauru, PNG solutions look pretty stupid. Oh my goodness, what shall we do……..

    Thats not saying its not going to be devastating. Its good to be discussing the possible outcomes so that we can do something to lessen the blow but total chicken little talk helps nobody. Scientists will tell you the great unknown is how hard it will affect us…..1.5-3 degrees is an educated guess at best. We know the extreems well and seen enough disaster movies.

  14. paul walter

    Clakka, good stuff from B Sullivan but..

    andyfiftysix, gloves off, now it is a good discussion,

    Could be deckchairs on the Titanic. Not straightaway but eventually. Politics is strangling what chance was left of a substantial moderation and besides it seem very few of us have much power anyway, What do folk think the middle east just now is about?

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