Will COP28 be another cop-out?
The Dubai edition of the annual UN climate summit will do well to hold a mirror to the persistent failure of these grand conferences
The hottest years on our 4.5-billion-year-old planet occurred over the last decade. Since 2014, the mercury has been rising steadily. The year 2016 was recorded as the warmest globally and 2022 as the fifth-warmest. With this October recorded as the hottest month in history, experts fear that 2023 is likely the hottest year, ever. Period.
Not surprising even for those unaware of the fact that in the last 30 years, since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the level of carbon dioxide has increased by as much as 60 per cent.
In short, the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement of COP 21 — which saw nearly 200 countries taking the pledge to limit ‘global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees’ — has failed. What then might one expect from the 28th session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in Dubai between 30 November and 12 December?
A recent paper with the explicit title ‘How We Know that Global Warming is Accelerating and the Goal of the Paris Agreement is Dead’ by Prof James Hansen warned that global warming of 2 degrees Celsius is inevitable, as early as 2030. "The 1.5 C degree limit is deader than a doornail," wrote Hansen.
The mountains of reports and papers generated by previous climate change conferences seem to be high on rhetoric and short on facts. Conspicuous by their absence is the mention of the military-industrial complex on the one hand and the fossil fuel industry on the other. Yet, the failures have much to do with both these sectors.
The pressure exerted by their powerful lobbies have cast a long shadow over past conferences and Dubai 2023 is unlikely to be an exception. As British climate scientist Dr Kevin Anderson pointed out, "The fossil fuel industry has now completely corrupted the COP process."
War and defence-related industries are not discussed at COPs. This, despite widespread recognition that wars, military measures and manoeuvres, and testing of newer, deadlier armaments collectively constitute the biggest single use of fossil fuels, which are responsible for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which are in turn responsible for global warming. A vicious cycle perpetuated by the increasingly powerful and profit-hungry military-industrial complex.
Preventing war and establishing peace is crucial if we are to check climate change and control GHG emissions. The war in Ukraine, as well as the continuing bombardment of Gaza by Israel, are contributing towards this losing battle against emissions, but are unlikely to receive serious attention at COP28.
At every COP in recent years, the hot topic is a ‘justice-based approach’ to climate change, one that prioritises production of essential goods over luxury goods and services. Justice is also the buzzword in the context of the Green Climate Fund (GCF), where contributions by richer countries are supposed to help developing countries tide over the transition to renewable energy.
GCF has persistently fallen short of the actual requirements, and its progress has been slow, thereby further denting faith in the fund’s capacity to make a significant contribution.
The concept of ‘differential responsibility’ that animates GCF has only been reluctantly accepted. Since developed countries have historically been more responsible for creating the current crisis, it seems logical that their liability to contribute to its amelioration should be proportionately higher.
The facts are stark. The carbon footprint of the US, for instance, was five times higher than that of China and over 15 times that of India, according to the Human Development Report 2007-08.
In Ethiopia, the average per capita carbon footprint is estimated to be 0.1 tonne of CO2 compared to 20 tonne in Canada. A calculation by PR Ehrich and AE Ehrich in their book The Population Explosion demonstrated that the life of one US citizen represented twice the environmental burden of a Swedish citizen, three times that of an Italian, 13 times that of a Brazilian, 35 times that of an Indian and 280 times that of a citizen in Chad or Haiti.
It has been relatively easier to deal with the depleting ozone layer than with the fossil-fuel lobby. The ozone layer is the atmospheric shield that absorbs most of the ultraviolet radiation from the sun. The thinner it gets, the more radiation reaches Earth’s surface, and the more harm done to humans and other living things, including entire marine systems. And these are not the claims of climate crazies.
Ultraviolet rays can indeed damage DNA, and a seemingly mild annoyance like sunburn can increase the long-term risk of problems such as skin cancer.
Banning CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) — a family of chemicals used widely in refrigeration and propellants in aerosol cans — under the Montreal protocol had the desired effect of slowing down the depletion of the ozone layer.
The fossil-fuel lobby, however, has resisted attempts to reduce its use even after it was identified as a major factor in global warming. Leveraging its political clout and resources to tamp down on disruptions, the lobby has tried everything from minimising potential threats to outright denial.
Overwhelming scientific evidence has forced the gradual and grudging acceptance that replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy is no longer an option — it’s a must.
With all the practical difficulties of the switch, and the challenges of scaling up alternative energy sources in a short time, a new race is on to grab sources of renewable energy, giving rise to a slew of new problems.
It has also become increasingly clear that fossil fuel is used too extensively to be replaced entirely by renewable energy sources. The only viable option would be to drastically reduce the production and use of harmful and inessential products, thereby optimising energy use.
Such proposed solutions have threatened other lobbies to the extent where they have joined hands with the fossil-fuel lobby in downplaying climate change.
The tragic fallout of climate change is that it has exacerbated inequality worldwide. Poorer countries suffer as trade, patents, agriculture, investment, debt, taxation etc are rigged to perpetuate an exploitative system. COPs have failed to address these burning socio-economic issues.
More importantly, COPs have failed to agree on a justice-based response to the crisis and ensure that the most vulnerable people receive higher priority on the survival scale, rather than pandering to the rich and powerful.
While island nations and people living in coastal areas are more obviously vulnerable to climate change, the poorest people everywhere, from landless farm workers to migrant construction workers, are the ones who feel climate change most directly, as they toil to put food on their (and our) tables.
Big business interests have been emphasising technological fixes, making exaggerated or even false claims about their efficacy. There is not nearly enough transparency. After decades of promoting large dams and hydel projects, which have their own adverse impact on the environment, it is not yet known whether the renewable energy being generated by them will indeed be able to feed the monster (i.e., replace the never-ending demand for fossil fuel).
Big reservoirs with rotting vegetation emit methane, a greenhouse gas that is much more damaging than carbon dioxide. In some reports, replacement of thermal plants by nuclear plants is being shown as environmental progress, despite the serious problems and high risks associated with them.
COP28 will indeed do well to hold a mirror to its own failures. Rather than another bagful of rhetoric, the convention will render a signal service by acknowledging the severe limitations of the framework within which it has worked so far.
An unfortunate aspect of the fight against climate change and global warming has been the undue emphasis on the finances required to make change happen. Much less importance has been given to the role of people. Making them aware of the hazards would be a large step towards enabling them to come up with solutions.
Experts pontificating on the world needing an investment of 200 trillion dollars (India is struggling to get to a five-trillion-dollar economy) is neither helpful nor realistic.
Instead, the focus should be shifted to aiming for a world without wars, for instance, and eliminating the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction.
Achieving these two goals alone will lead to a massive reduction of GHG emissions. Out of reach? Why not aim for some down-to-earth goals like encouraging rural settlements rather than urban ones, greening cities and re-envisioning urban infrastructure, city-planning, public transport and housing. Innovations in waste management and the protection of water bodies in urban areas would also help. Reducing daily work commutes cannot be an unattainable goal either.
Restricting the use of chemical fertilisers, diesel and pesticide, promoting organic farming and crop rotations are some of the other measures. Could taxation be used as a tool to discourage the manufacture of arms and the use of fossil fuels, while disincentivizing luxurious and wasteful consumption? Could COP 28 not be a cop-out?
(Bharat Dogra is honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now and author of Protecting Earth for Children, Planet in Peril and A Day in 2071)