The Completely Predictable Crisis at COP28
Holding the big climate conference in Dubai was always absurd.
The biggest annual event in climate diplomacy is the Conference of the Parties. This year is the 28th conference — hence COP28. As I’ll explain below, such a conference is vital for many reasons. Heatmap’s own Robinson Meyer is reporting there on the ground.
But that importance makes it all the more deranged that this year’s conference is being held in the United Arab Emirates. The president of the conference, Sultan al-Jaber, is literally the head of the U.A.E.’s state-owned oil company. As TheGuardianreported, at an online event in November, he said: “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 1.5 C,” referring to the target of keeping warming under that figure. At the conference itself, Al Gore presented data showing that the U.A.E.’s emissions had increased by 7.5 percent in 2022, as compared to just 1.5 percent across the world. Leaked notes demonstrate the U.A.E. intended to use the conference to strike some oil and gas sales deals with foreign governments. Advocacy groups have counted more than 2,400 fossil fuel lobbyists at COP28 as well.
The idea behind COP, which has evolved into a rough system of global climate diplomacy, is simple and rational. As Brad Plumer writes, governments and scientists had previously tried to set up formal, binding treaties that would set firm caps for greenhouse gas emissions and penalize those who exceeded them. After all, this was the structure of the Montreal Protocol, which successfully phased out the use of ozone-destroying refrigerants. Hence the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 was based on that triumph.
Alas, Kyoto was a massive flop. Probably the biggest problem was that America did not sign onto the treaty, in part because our Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate to ratify one, and so just 34 senators (representing as little as 7 percent of the U.S. population) can block the process. But hardly anyone else was keen on reducing their emissions either. On the contrary, several developing countries, above all China, deliberately went for crash industrialization based on fossil fuel energy, and global emissions skyrocketed.
A binding treaty worked for a relatively small chemical sector where substitutes were readily available. But when it came to energy — one of the foundations of any advanced economy — where substitutes at the time were unavailable or expensive, it was a different story.
So in COP21 in Paris in 2015, diplomats came up with a new approach. Thanks to the plummeting cost of renewable energy on one hand, and the ever-more obvious risks and damages created by climate change on the other, simple self-interest would suffice to motivate countries. Everyone would have to set out commitments to cut emissions — the famous “Paris Agreement” was to keep warming under 1.5 Celsius — but there would be no penalties. The annual conference would serve as a “global stocktake” where records can be compared, information exchanged, and violators named and shamed.
This has worked a lot better. Now, hardly any country is taking action sufficient to keep emissions under 1.5 degrees. According to the Climate Action Tracker, a few countries like Norway, Costa Rica, Nigeria, and Nigeria are “almost sufficient,” while most of Europe and the U.S. are “insufficient.” (Canada, India, and China are “highly insufficient.”) Still, overall since 2015 global emissions have roughly stalled rather than skyrocketing, and in particularly responsible countries like Denmark they have fallen dramatically. Even in America emissions have fallen quite substantially. With ongoing crash investment into renewables in Europe, the U.S., and especially China, net global emissions reductions are coming soon.
But the worst offenders, rated as “critically insufficient,” are petrostates like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and — wouldn’t you know it — the U.A.E. And this exposes the big hole in the COP approach. Self-interest is a good climate motivation for Europe, China, and the U.S., because while their economies currently depend on fossil fuel energy, they also have a lot more going for them. Just electrify transportation, industry, and agriculture with zero-carbon power, and (a few carbon-producing regions aside) they will remain much as before — indeed, probably wealthier and healthier.
But that is not true of the petrostates. The Gulf monarchies in particular could not possibly exist without their massive fossil fuel profits. These absurd political dinosaurs have been out of date for decades, kept alive by an ocean of essentially free money to spread around to their populations. Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have attempted some modernization and reforms, to be fair, but these are much more in the category of “megalomaniac dictator mega-projects” rather than any serious effort to develop a new economy. If history is any guide, actually doing that would require a political revolution.
It’s unclear why the U.A.E. was selected as this year’s host. The conference rotates between various United Nations sub-groups, and back in 2021 it got unified support from the Asia-Pacific group of countries. (If I had to guess, I would expect the process was similar to how these countries get sports teams.)
Luckily, there is every sign that the world is going to wean itself off oil and gas eventually, if for no other reason than renewable energy is beating fossil power in the market, and will only continue to get cheaper. But in the meantime, it is just appalling to have the world’s most important climate conference — at which the future of humanity itself is being ironed out — held in a petrostate dictatorship. These countries, along with the big oil companies and their battalions of lobbyists, will cause untold devastation in their attempt to wring out every last dollar from their carbon reserves.
Holding the world's premier climate conference in Dubai was always an absurd idea.
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