CLIMATE SUMMIT FAILURES OP-ED: After 28 years of COPs, it’s time to go beyond just saying ‘blah, blah and blah’

More than 97,000 people attended the COP28 climate conference in Dubai in November and December 2023 – the most at any COP event to date – but progress in negotiations was still disappointingly slow. (Photo: Hollie Adams / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

 

By Jeff Rudin | Daily Maverick | 16 Jan 2024 


With the recently concluded COP28 being held in a prominent oil state, we now know that COP29 will be held in yet another oil state. Let’s spend 2024 learning the many lessons of COP28 so that we are better prepared for COP29. 


A good starting point in learning those lessons is a reminder of an event in 2018. This is when The Guardian published a letter signed by 60 leading climate change activists, writers, academics and politicians under the headline “Climate change is real. We must not offer credibility to those who deny it”. Their letter is so important it merits further quoting:

“We are no longer willing to lend our credibility to debates over whether or not climate change is real… We need to act now or the consequences will be catastrophic. In the interests of ‘balance’, the media often feels the need to include those who outright deny the reality of human-triggered climate change.

“Balance implies equal weight. But this then creates a false equivalence between an overwhelming scientific consensus and a lobby, heavily funded by vested interests, that exists simply to sow doubt to serve those interests. Yes, of course, scientific consensus should be open to challenge – but with better science, not with spin and nonsense…

“Fringe voices will protest about ‘free speech’. No one should prevent them from expressing their views, whether held cynically or misguidedly. However, no one is obliged to provide them with a platform, much less… to give the misleading impression that there is something substantive to debate. When there is an article on smoking, newspapers and broadcasters no longer include lobbyists claiming there are no links to cancer. When there’s a round-the-world yacht race we don’t hear flat-Earthers given airtime: ‘This is madness; they’ll sail off the edge!’

“There’s a workable model for covering fringe views – which is to treat them as such… We urge broadcasters to move on, as we are doing.”

The Guardian heeded the call. Many other newspapers have subsequently followed its lead, although not all have done so with any formal acknowledgement of their new position. Business Day seems to be among this latter group.

As a measure of progress – yes, progress! – it merits stating that Energy Governance South Africa (EGSA), a broad national network of energy specialists, academics and NGOs, objected to the prominence given to climate change deniers in an article from August 2015. The deniers claimed that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by opportunistic academics and NGOs for funding purposes. EGSA (of which I am a member) took the matter to the Press Ombud when Business Day defended its positionThe Ombud, acknowledging that:

“EGSA fully endorses the need to give space to minority views but in rare instances doing so is contrary to the public interest as it impedes the development of informed judgements,” nevertheless rejected EGSA’s submission that:

“Giving one-sided coverage to climate change denialism in the build-up to COP21 [in Paris] cannot be considered responsible journalism.”

EGSA sought leave to appeal this decision. Respected Judge Bernard Ngoepe, chair of the Appeals Panel, dismissed the application in October 2015. Among his reasons were, first, Business Day’s offer of publishing a letter from EGSA of no more than 250 words (!) and (b) that both sides of the climate change argument would have an opportunity to express their views at the forthcoming Paris COP.

Building on The Guardian’s precedent

We need to enlarge what The Guardian established in 2018. This means encouraging those climate activists who, COP after COP, are left despondent, frustrated, angry and increasingly feeling helpless by yet another useless COP, to demand more than just being observers. Submitting a widely agreed, comprehensive list of the exclusions and inclusions from COP29’s agenda could be part of such a beginning. Such an expression of our expectations would represent an important step forward in our exercising some agency over COP29.

If this intervention were to fail, it would challenge us to re-evaluate whether the COPs are a hindrance to climate change action rather than being the UN-sanctioned forum for internationally enforceable commitments for catching up with what science has been saying for a long time and with increasing urgency during the 28 years of COP failures.

Our new starting point would be where the orphaned expectations of COP28 leave us. In the same way that space is no longer given to climate change deniers, we ought, as a first step, to agree on a minimum list of outcomes and or practices to which we will not give credence in the build-up to COP29.

COPs

The COP28 climate conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on 30 November 2023. (Photo: Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

Journalists have a particularly important role to play here. Many of their articles in the build-up to COP28 repeated expectations that like “balance”, have been sufficiently discredited to no longer be endorsed by Daily Maverick journalists and those attached to similar platforms.

Mentioning these journalists by name is not helpful, because the challenge is a collective one rather than personal to a few individual journalists. More beneficial is to list some of the expectations they had for COP28, despite both the history of all the previous 27 COPs and the fact that this one was being held in one of the major Arabian oil states with the COP president being none other than the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc). Adnoc is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, with plans for new drilling amounting to the second-largest expansion of oil and gas production planned globally.

One journalist noted five expected outcomes from COP28. This serves as a useful beginning to my proposal. (To keep this article as short as possible, I will add my brief comments, in brackets, to the journalists’ expectations.)

After noting that it was the “most exciting time of the year for climate experts” as they prepare to gather in Dubai to “seek to address how the world can best tackle climate crisis issues”, the five issues were: Climate finance (despite the already known profusion of smoke and mirrors); loss and damage (with as little reason for it to be taken any more seriously than finance); early warning systems (that either don’t exist, are inadequate or don’t work); global stocktake of the national commitments made in Paris in 2015 (an exercise intended to give legitimacy to the evisceration of the science-based imperative of emergency action into the laissez-faire of each country deciding for itself the voluntary measures it would take to confront climate change – a decision condemned as a “direct subversion of both climate science and justice”); and, finally, the (increasingly discredited) Just Energy Transition Partnerships.

To these five issues we should add: (6) that the transition to renewable energy is more wish fulfilment than reality (see here and here); (7) blaming fossil fuel lobbyists for COP’s persistent failures; (8) gas, including methane, being the new coal (see here, and here); (9) acknowledging that even 1.5oC is not safe; (10) tolerating COP29 being yet another trade fair, along with the celebrity-studded rich who gather at such fairs in their private jets, which generate 100 times more carbon pollution per passenger than commercial jets; (11) carbon capture and storage and other fanciful measures to make coal clean; (12) green hydrogen; (13) that climate change is greed driven; (14) carbon markets; (15) various forms of green protectionism to defend the markets of the already developed countries; and (16) the hoary idea thought to be thoroughly discredited, but repeated by the oil-soaked, president of COP28, Sultan Al Jaber, who asserted that sustainable development along with a phase-out of fossil fuels would be possible only if the world agreed to be taken back to living in caves.

The 17th and final argument in our now-expanded envelope of COP29 “no-nos” is of African leaders seeking finance or other benefits in the name of addressing the real energy poverty of most of their people. They also make no secret of their eagerness to develop their newfound oil and gas reserves, not for their domestic needs, but to export to the lucrative European markets, which are expected to guarantee endless demand.

Continued expectations of journalists

We still expect journalists to report the claims being made both before and after COP29, no matter how fanciful they might be. What is new is the expectation that the journalists will go beyond just reporting the dangerous nonsense.

As specialist environmental writers, we expect them to expose the platitudes and critique the promises like – drawing from COP28 – the supposedly historic and lifesaving first-time acceptance that fossil fuels are harmful. Such is the desperation for good news, that even The Guardian carries headlines like: “COP28 has finally named fossil fuels as the climate problem.”

It’s like asking us to celebrate final acceptance of the fact that the world really is round. However, the article does at least additionally ask whether the political leaders have the will to act on this no-longer disputed fact. The very question acknowledges the often-overlooked vital reality that the answer is ultimately a political one, consistent with all systems being organically political-economic in nature.

After 28 years of the COPs, it is time for us to go beyond just saying “blah, blah and blah”, which was Greta Thunberg’s pithy summary of a recent COP. Besides a list of exclusions, a list of some essential inclusions on COP29’s agenda would be progress. This can best be done by turning into agenda items the still-to-be-agreed constituents of the “system change” many climate change activists and increasing numbers of academics say is the answer to climate change.

We need to see journalists as allies in this project in the same way that The Guardian did in 2018.

Fleshing out the system change, as the beginning of the final steps against climate change

We must acknowledge, as the exasperated UN climate chief Simon Stiell put it, that countries need to stop posturing, aim high and agree on a way to end the “fossil fuel era as we know it”. This is no easy task, even without the obstructions of the fossil fuel industry. “To reverse course means turning our backs on coal, oil and fossil gas. Our affinity for carbon makes this divorce difficult to comprehend or effect,” noted Nnimmo Bassey, one of Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment.

Bassey alerts us to another complication. The Anthropocene (implicitly) holds everyone equally responsible for climate change. Placing the blame on everyone is manifestly misplaced. He reminds us that the basic justice principle of the UNFCCC, the “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities” (CBDR), attempted to address the fact that everyone is not equally accountable.  

COPs

COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber speaks to the media after the opening session of the conference in Dubai on 30 November 2023. (Photo: Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

Given that this principle has effectively been dropped, the question becomes: Who, then, is responsible? This is a question made all the more important by the recognition that the rich and poor world is replicated within countries, as well as between them. With the privileged and poor being in every country, we need to move way beyond the easy binary of rich North, and poor South. Thus far, most of the leaders of the South represent the needs of their own rich.

How then does one best combine these considerations into the particularities of system change I’m suggesting as part of a campaign for inclusion at COP29? The following are my initial contributions. I’ve restricted them in this article to 10.

1 The persisting presence of plastic

COP28 was marked by the petro- or oil states often replacing the (private) fossil fuel industry as the defenders of climate change. Reporting on the ending of COP28, The Guardian was typical in this respect. Noting that a “transition away” from fossil fuels was the compromise term adopted, it added:

“The stronger term “phase-out” had been backed by 130 of the 198 countries negotiating in Dubai but was blocked by petrostates including Saudi Arabia.”

All but lost in the media coverage of COP28 is that the giant fossil fuel companies have not gone away. They have just been happy to hide behind the petrostates. In combination with them, however, they become an even more formidable obstacle to tackling climate change.

Plastic gives a real importance to the rise of the petrostates, along with the petrochemical industry now increasingly dominant in the Middle East. Plastic, having replaced many of the former natural materials used in construction and manufacture, is now essential for modern economies. And so far, oil is the only feedstock for plastic. While the focus on oil has mainly been transport-related, we need to recognise its much longer life in relation to plastic, regardless of how radical we make our system change. This is the first of the constraints.

2 Rare earths

Regardless of the radicalism of the system change we hopefully will agree on, rare earths, also known as critical or green minerals, are finite with a remaining maximum lifespan of about 100 years. Yet they are essential in the production of most green devices and equipment, including electric vehicles (EVs), windmills and solar panels. However, despite knowing that these minerals will be needed in volumes never known before – an annual 8% growth rate between 2022 to 2035 is needed – supply shortfalls are looming. The article I am mainly drawing on here describes this as “the tragedy on the horizon”. By which they mean:

“A significant problem that today’s leaders show little urgency to address because its impact will mostly be felt by future generations… Governments often lack the political will or policy savvy to jump-start these (risky) mining operations.”

The problem, however, turns out not to be the politicians but the market. Rare earth projects, the article subsequently tells us, are “given short-shrift” because they

“fail to meet the short-term financial-return objectives of investors… The extent of the technical issues – and the amount of effort and resources required to overcome them – has deterred investments in rare earth projects, particularly as prices for the elements have consistently failed to rise above the break-even target for mining them.”

The article says about 30 new rare earth projects are needed between 2023 and 2035, to avoid rare earth shortages. More than 20 are needed between 2023 and 2030, with an additional 10 projects by 2035. Yet, even the first 20 were found to be short of meeting demand by the end of the decade.

“This is because most are just completing their feasibility studies and have not yet secured funding, which is proving difficult given current market conditions. And even the projects that will be eventually greenlighted are still seven to 10 years from beginning their development.”

These market failures have been relatively detailed because they recur in a number of subsequent matters.

3 Renewable energy is a constrained part of the future – if humanity has a future

The restraints are both long-term and immediate. Renewable energy is dependent on a range of additional finite minerals, not only the rare ones. This limits the lifespan of renewable energy; a sobering reality for any long-term planning.

It is the now, however, that gives urgency to renewable energy. The “market” has no chance of delivering renewable energy at the scale and pace to give humanity anything beyond an ever-shortening future, as one scientific report after another alerts us.

Against short-term geopolitical considerations – like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (but not Israel’s latest destruction of Gaza) – addressing climate change is a low priority for much of North America, Britain and much of Europe. Fossil fuels are thus again back in fashion, with banks now eagerly financing new fossil-fuel developments. That this coincides with renewable energy projects having lost their market lustre is yet another market alarm bell.

As is the now widely recognised constraint of national grids not having the capacity to use the massive amount of renewable energy needed. The neglect is longstanding, as governments leave it to uninterested markets and with the renewable energy industry expecting grid availability to be provided for them by us, the public.

4 Electric vehicles greenwash transport

Again, apart from EVs’ dependence on a range of minerals – all of which have increasingly diminishing lifespans – they beguile us into deferring expectations of the transport solution. We all have just to wait and be patient until we, too, can afford an EV.

But EVs are no more short-term solutions than they are long-term ones. All they do in the short term is replace a few of the already irrationally large and very expensive SUVs along with the already small segment of equally irrational super-fast and even more expensive sport cars designed to break legal speed limits by two to three times and more.

It is only in the money-measuring market where these EVs are rational. Their irrationality includes the finite and excessive minerals and materials  six times more than internal combustion vehicles – that go into their construction. EVs do nothing to address already congested roads and, in most cases, add to CO2 emissions because the energy used to recharge the batteries is not renewable.

The greenwashing is part of the reason that the originally widely accepted notion that the climate crisis needs to get as many private cars off the roads has all but been washed away.

5 Energy efficiency

This measure has long been recognised as a (relatively) cheap and easy way of addressing climate change and for the same long period has effectively been ignored. Efficiency runs counter to the market logic of the endless selling of more and more of anything regardless of its impact on climate change. Moreover, in cases like Eskom, energy efficiency is madness when customer energy inefficiencies are a welcome boost to revenue. Like climate change, this is well known to governments; like climate change, knowledge does mean action.

6 The forgotten majority obscured by climate change

In addition to repairing the Earth System with its six planetary boundaries having already been crossed, we need constant reminding that most of the people most severely affected by 21st century climate change have still to experience the benefits of the 20th century. Most things like weather-proof houses with electricity, indoor toilets and safe hot and cold water on tap, along with schools with the same facilities and modern clinics and hospitals, with sufficient health staff and modern equipment on hand, are needed. As are rural roads, macadamised roads to make rural public transport possible, with a rail service also being a possibility.

7 A focus on creating jobs rather than minimising them in the name of market measurements of labour efficiency

Providing this infrastructure, with an explicit focus on labour intensity, will create millions of new jobs that will additionally lessen mass poverty. Doing this in the name of climate change equity is a most assured way of getting the thus far elusive popular support for climate action.

8 ‘An unsavoury appetite for wealth’

In a recent Daily Maverick article, Babette Gallard noted that “the motivation of our leaders in business and politics invariably seems the same: an unsavoury appetite for wealth”.

With the political economy in mind, it is good to see her including the political leaders as well as the business ones. However, what’s unsavoury to her – and probably most other people – is clearly not unsavoury to the rich. As I have argued elsewhere, the morality of the rich is the same worldwide: If it maximises profits and (preferably) is legal, the source of the wealth is of no concern to most of them.

She pertinently asks:

“We may criticise Jeff Bezos for his lack of social conscience, but we need to ask who gave him the power to exploit his employees, avoid tax obligations, destroy small businesses, disregard the environmental impact of his global distribution business.”

She answers her question with: “We did.” In a sense she’s right. But behind the “we” are the considerably more important enforcement agencies and the politicians who make the law, not only for the Bezoses of the world but for themselves; for what is good for business is also politically good for the rich, including themselves.

9 Climate change suicide

History is replete with business leaders and their investors putting their personal wealth before the lives of others, regardless of the numbers involved. Just think of the arms manufacturers, the cigarette industry, the pharmaceutical companies, the VW or Boeing scandals.

The only difference between the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries is one of scale. Spending fortunes over many decades to knowingly foster the denial, undermine and now delay for as long as possible the action they know must be taken to address climate change (“there is no science out there that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5°C”, according to the CEO of the UAE’s state oil company and president of COP28) is rational for them, even though it guarantees the suicide of our species, along with many others.

This was most clearly spelt out in a leaked letter from Opec. It is “unacceptable”, the letter announced, for “politically motivated campaigns [to] put our people’s prosperity and future at risk”. (Note the attempt to give it some morality by making the claim, with a very long history, that it is being done to protect “our people”.)

10 Naming the system that must be changed

Capitalism is a system that is easy to name. What is hard is: How? But, rather than my answers, which I have given elsewhere, are the answers of others; of you who have read the article to this point.

Allowing for capitalism’s many meanings makes broad agreement on the name of the system to be changed an essential first step. Recognition of the constraints, regardless of the radicalism of the would-be changers, is another essential. Above all, however, is the need to be proactive.

COP29 is 11 months away. Let’s use this time to agree on the demands – both the exclusions and inclusions – to put to our political leaders who supposedly represent us at the COPs. DM

*This Opinion Piece was first published by the Daily Maverick.

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