The climate summit must have got something right

Signs were not good leading up to the 28th global climate summit. Held in Dubai and attended by close to 2500 fossil fuel lobbyists, it was chaired by a leading player in the host country’s profitable fossil fuel trade. 

Meanwhile warnings about accelerating climate change are getting louder. A leading scientist described warming since the start of this year’s northern spring as “gobsmackingly bananas”, and by a wide margin 2023 will be the hottest year in all 150 years of instrument records. 

The summit was in danger of collapsing in an expensive heap when vulnerable island states said a draft COP28 resolution supported by the big fossil fuel exporters was their “death certificate”. 

Former US vice-president Al Gore’s breezy optimism about humanity’s future, a trademark of his long campaign for strong action, vanished in Dubai. He let fly at the first draft, describing it as “obsequious” and reading as if fossil fuel interests “dictated it word for word… even worse than many had feared [and] deeply offensive to all who have taken this process seriously.”

But as usual last-gasp diplomacy came up with an agreeable outcome. For the first time in three decades of climate talks, the final version targeted fossil fuel use. It asserted that a transition out of coal, oil and gas needed to accelerate quickly over the 2020s to reach net zero emissions by 2050, but didn’t say how this might occur, except that it had to be “just, orderly and equitable”.

While supporting more nuclear power, COP28 also committed its 198 participants collectively to triple their renewable energy, to cut emissions from air conditioners, and to recognise agriculture’s contribution to climate change.

A sustainable finance expert offered more room for optimism. Gloomy predictions based on “doomed” UN reports had ignored positive signs identified by his policy think-tank in a global study of policy and technology developments since 2021.

Jakob Thomae, a leading global authority on long-term financial risk, argued in the magazine New Scientist that UN analyses ignored an accelerating trend in new policies which had effectively lowered the world’s warming pathway from over 3.5C to 2.4C within a decade. 

He also criticised an over-emphasis in official circles on top-down commitments and projections – those imposed by government policy – at the expense of bottom up changes such as changes in consumer behaviour.

His London-based project group, Inevitable Policy Response – itself an outcome of a UN initiative called Principles for Responsible Investment – concluded that while there would still be some backsliding, the decarbonisation trend was accelerating. 

Passage of the climate-friendly US Inflation Reduction Act and creation of Europe’s carbon border adjustment mechanism, said Thomae, were a sign of forward movement, as was China’s probable achievement of meeting its wind and solar targets five years ahead of schedule. 

“This accelerating pace is set to continue both this decade and beyond,” he said. The impact of these and other changes means that emissions are likely to fall 80 per cent by 2050 and hit net zero by 2080, causing temperature rises to peak between 1.7C and 1.8C.”

I hope there’s something in what he says, but no-one, not even international experts, can be sure what the near or distant future will be like. We should understand the limits of anyone’s knowledge in this all-encompassing debate, while also taking account of the caveats that start piling up as soon as we begin to think about today’s world.

Taken separately, each of today’s big political crises – major wars in Ukraine and Gaza, multiple geopolitical, racial and religious issues elsewhere, and instability at the heart of Western power in Europe and the US – presents an impediment to any policy to cut carbon emissions. Taken together, they appear insurmountable.

It’s plain as day that “fuel” for sun and wind power is free of charge but it does need backup support from other technologies, and switching out of fossil fuels means ditching long-established infrastructure and widely-held mindsets. Without official sanction the fossil energy market would remain strong.

Australia doesn’t do official sanction. To the contrary, the Albanese government’s $1.5 billion support of gas extraction and processing, set to grow as the Darwin gas hub comes on line, reflects a heavy reliance on gas exports. Squaring all that with COP28’s requirement to accelerate transition away from fossil fuels will require public policy contortions bordering on the miraculous.

Was it a success? Island states say no because there’s no deadline for abandoning fossil fuel. Oil, gas and coal say no because they now have targets on their backs. Between those opposite poles, the meeting must have got something right.

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