Once again, the world has gathered to discuss the ever-shortening window to mitigate the increasingly devastating effects of climate change, but despite the glossy picture they try to portray, the truth is that we are still divided. The Conference of the Parties gathers once a year in a selected host country where experts deliver their remarks, world leaders give rousing speeches, business and technological moguls set their sights on new methods to combat climate change, and countries sign pledges that will supposedly be honored in the coming years. However, just like all the others, COP28 has fallen flat over disagreements surrounding fossil fuels. This comes at a time where we are on the verge of a true disaster.
It’s the same dance but with a shrinking stage that leaves us less room to perform it, exposing the increasingly fatal flaws in our movements that become more apparent to the world as millions watch. Each year, countries gather for the Conference of the Parties where the latest dialogue on climate change will be shared with the goal of establishing a unified stance to address this crisis. It’s showered upon by the media, activists, scientists, politicians, tech, and business leaders alike who go in feeling absolutely confident that solutions will be found. However, the only moves to this choreographed malarky are simple but alarmingly trite: 1) talk, 2) draft, 3) pledge, and 4) take two steps back. Rinse and repeat.
Are these events important? Yes, they are! They are a chance for the world’s biggest players to finally get their heads out of the sand and truly start taking action, especially when developing nations contribute the least to the climate crisis but suffer the most from its cascading effects. It’s an opportunity to no longer see ourselves as mere countries but as one people, one species whose future endeavors will shape the fate of our planet for good or ill. Certainly, those knowledgeable and passionate for lasting positive change would utilize all the tools in our arsenal to make the most of it, right? Alas, it’s more complex than that as is the case of the human species in general.
The Conference of the Parties was flawed from the very beginning, and we’ve actually been burning more fossil fuels since the first time one of these events took place. The first Conference of the Parties assembled in Berlin, Germany in 1995 which was seven years after the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by the United Nations. This panel of experts assembled to publish the most up to date research on climate change and the portentous future that lay ahead if the world didn’t strive to reduce emissions to pre-industrial levels. Michael Oppenheimer, who was a guest writer in Greta Thunberg’s “The Climate Book,” has served as a long-time author for the IPCC and evinced some harsh truths about the world’s earlier reactions to the crisis.
He stated, “The mitigating steps we took were too slow and too small. Countries did come together to sign the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The aim of the treaty was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by the year 2000. However, the agreement was toothless because its emissions reduction obligations were unenforceable.” This has been a recurring problem over the last few decades. Powerhouses like the U.S. and China should have the most stringent requirements considering that they emit a disproportionate amount of the planet’s emissions each year. All participating countries should work to lower their own emissions, of course, but how do we expect to obtain real results if those most at fault don’t do their part and then some?
According to the Global Carbon Budget for 2023, China led with a 30.68% share of global carbon emissions, the United States came in second with 13.61%, India was in third with 7.62%, the European Union came in fourth at 7.43%, and down at the bottom followed Canada at 1.47%, Brazil at 1.30%, South Africa at 1.09%, and the United Kingdom at 0.86% (CO2 emissions — Our World in Data). This alone is appalling and must be shrewdly dealt with if the world is to have a chance at a brighter future. At around the time that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change met in 1992, the Clinton Administration attempted to implement an energy tax, but it was fervently attacked in Congress which led him to withdraw the plan altogether. Then, in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol took place in Japan in hopes of rebounding from the failed expectations of the previous meeting.
Like the first one, it didn’t require emissions reductions from developing nations and had no real plan to enforce those obligations. Not only that, but it was met with resistance, including the United States. President George W. Bush withdrew the nation’s signature from it, so it was never ratified in the U.S., a similar action that President Trump took when he was in office to withdraw us from the 2015 Paris Agreement. Michael Oppenheimer declared, “Science lost the battle because of the political influence of corporations that produce fossil fuels as well as those firms that heavily consumed them. Many of these firms and their various trade associations had established effective disinformation campaigns involving so-called think tanks, while some politicians from regions that produced fossil fuels promoted distortions and outright lies about the science.”
In what appeared to be a slap in the face to all who warned us about what was coming, carbon dioxide emissions in parts per million (ppm) skyrocketed from about 355ppm in 1992 to around 424ppm in 2023, a drastic change from the nearly 320ppm in 1960 to the world’s first climate conference in 1979 where it was about 335ppm (“The Climate Book”). Our emissions have actually increased faster when we were more knowledgeable about climate change than we were before! It’s a true testament to the amount of disinformation, dark money, and lobbying that fossil fuels and special interest groups have contributed.
So now that we know what happened in the past to get to this point, let’s talk about how this year’s Conference of the Parties turned out (COP28) in the United Arab Emirates. If there’s any indication of where this is heading, the appointed President of this year’s COP is Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber who happens to be the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Surprise, right? In one of the most prolific oil producing countries, why wouldn’t the UAE appoint someone who represents big oil? Anyone with a modicum of awareness would already recognize this immediate red flag. Allowing someone who represents fossil fuels to speak for the COP is like lighting a cigarette next to a gas pump. No good will ever come out of it.
Before the height of the discussions, Sultan claimed that there was “no science” to support the need to phase out fossil fuels in order to stave off further warming. He added that doing so would hamper sustainable development “unless you want to take the world back into caves.” These comments came when he was responding to Mary Robinson, chair of the Elders group and a former special envoy of the UN for climate change (Cop28 president says there is ‘no science’ behind demands for phase-out of fossil fuels | Cop28 | The Guardian). While impoverished nations are still lacking the critical energy sources that are needed for them to catch up with the rest of the world, there are still opportunities to assist them through renewable energy. Not only that, but it’s fossil fuels that are putting us in harm’s way despite the undeniable progress we made with them.
In the same article published by The Guardian, Dr. Friederike Otto of Imperial College London was interviewed and responded to Sultan’s comments. He shot down the idea that fossil fuels were necessary for the development of poorer countries by citing the latest IPCC report. He explained that the report “shows that the UN’s sustainable development goals are not achievable by continuing the current fossil-driven high emission economies. [There are] massive co-benefits that come with changing to a fossil-free world” (Cop28 president says there is ‘no science’ behind demands for phase-out of fossil fuels | Cop28 | The Guardian). Figures like Sultan are those that renowned climate activist Greta Thunberg has been warning us about for the past few years as she has become famous for calling out the failures of these conferences to actually get any real work done.
In the past, perhaps when these kinds of events first started, the term “phase-down” would have been suffice given how much CO2 was in the air at that time. If we had started to decrease our usage of fossil fuels as soon as possible, we wouldn’t be having to play catch up now with this narrowing gap. Researchers have specified what remains of the global carbon budget, and if what’s happening now isn’t scary enough, this could push the most alarmed straight over the edge. According to Carbon Independent, the remaining global CO2 budget to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius was given as 400 billion tonnes CO2 in the IPCC report of 2021. An average country’s share of this global budget will run out in just 7 years while those of higher CO2 emitting nations will run out in about 2 years (The global CO2 budget runs out in 7 years (carbonindependent.org)).
This aligns perfectly with the 2030 deadline to reduce all emissions nearly in half (or 43%) and eventually to net-zero by 2050 to avoid breaching 1.5 degrees Celsius. There are only seven years left to make it happen, and with everything that’s going on, it’s looking more and more likely that we will fall short on this too. Thanks to Sultan’s input and conflicts of interest, there is now a scramble to try and salvage what’s left of the talks, namely by debating the language of the published texts. Tragically, the International Energy Agency is calling the products of COP28 insufficient to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The language contained in the pledges only consists of “phase down” and not “phase out”, an ominous sign that this will be yet another failure of world leaders to finally stop current fossil fuels and keep others in the ground.
The new pledges seek to triple renewables and decrease methane emissions, which are more potent than carbon once they reach the atmosphere, but they won’t be enough. Currently, 130 countries have agreed to triple renewables while 50 oil and gas companies have pledged to reduce methane emissions and stop routine flaring by 2030. Per the IEA, “If everyone delivered on their commitments, it would lower global-energy related greenhouse gas emissions by 4 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2030” (COP28 pledges so far not enough to limit warming to 1.5C -IEA | Reuters). Undoubtedly, there would be some progress if these pledges are honored, but “some” is not the word we want to see here.
The numbers that the IEA reported above would only amount to a third of the emissions gap that has to be closed in the next six years to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (COP28 pledges so far not enough to limit warming to 1.5C -IEA | Reuters). There’s too much at stake to fool around with this type of data or for people like Sultan to blow smoke up the world’s rear in hopes of making everything look fine. We are at the precipice of history, a path that’s leading us to destruction, displacement, and despair. The fork in the road is rapidly approaching, but we have to decide here and now which direction we are to take and whether or not if we’re prepared for the consequences of choosing the wrong one.
Besides phasing out fossil fuels, another drastic need is to shift our agricultural needs in a way that increases both productivity and nutrition to feed a growing population whilst reducing emissions. Bodies of research highlight the damaging effects of consuming high levels of meat and how much emissions we could reduce if we radically changed our diets to include more fruits and vegetables. At this year’s conference, more than 100 world leaders pledged to make farm and food systems critical components in the fight against climate change, but, similar to the fossil fuel industry, special interest groups in the meat industry came out to protect it despite the sector accounting for about a third of emissions (Agriculture gets its day at COP28, but experts see big barriers to cutting emissions | AP News). It’s not only our health that’s being jeopardized by the outrageous amounts of meat we consume, but ecosystems are being altered and biodiversity are dwindling which decreases the natural services that are offered.
Outlets like The Guardian and DeSmog reported that the meat industry was planning to have a large presence at COP28 with the Global Meat Alliance touting messages like meat can help food insecure nations while grazing livestock can help maintain healthy soils (Agriculture gets its day at COP28, but experts see big barriers to cutting emissions | AP News). In reality, allowing livestock to overgraze can lead to increased erosion, reduced nutrient content, and ecosystem breakdown as natural flora and fauna are reduced in once thriving natural settings. It’s already bad enough that human development and increased urbanization have caused global harm, but taking the open green areas that the world has left and dedicating them to such unsustainable agricultural practices is no better. A study published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change found that only between 2% and 3% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface can be considered to be ecologically intact, demonstrating how far we’ve gone to terraforming the planet how we see fit (97% of Earth’s land area may no longer be ecologically intact (frontiersin.org)).
In both the United States and Europe, animal farming receives significantly more financial support and lobbying than meat alternatives according to a study from Stanford University (Agriculture gets its day at COP28, but experts see big barriers to cutting emissions | AP News). However, big meat supporters are instead talking about increasing productivity and nutrition content rather than reducing the enterprise as a whole. The agriculture declaration that world leaders signed at COP28 was not even binding, so we should take any pledges or enthusiasm on their end with a grain of salt. Whether or not they follow through with these pledges doesn’t change the fact that we must keep fighting for climate justice in all facets of our society.
Despite what may come (or not) of this year’s Conference of the Parties, most people will go on living their lives as if nothing is happening. With the threat of more intense storm systems, longer droughts, more severe heat waves, rising sea levels, melting ice caps and permafrost, greater global displacement, and worsening food insecurity, average people would only glance at them and think nothing further. Life is undeniably hard without climate change being factored in, but we can’t afford to keep our eyes shut to the facts. This is it. We only have one chance to get this right as the time to do so keeps slipping away.
My first article about climate change was published five years ago, and much to my dismay, not enough people are heeding the warning signs. I had hoped that, as the years went by, the world would get serious about our emergency. Virtually nothing has changed since the Paris Agreement except that our plight has only intensified. This makes it extremely hard to not give in to nihilism. However, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, we need to remain in the fight. The bell for the final round has started and, bruised and weary, we stumble toward our opponent. We have taken many shots in this now lackadaisical dance and are, for now, still standing. We have gotten up many times, but will we deliver that one good punch to win this fight and walk off in that brilliant sunset? Only our remaining time will tell.