‘The window is closing’: Cop28 must deliver change of course on climate

With six months until UN summit in Dubai, can its oil executive president bring unwilling countries into line?

Within the next five years, the world is likely to experience at least one year in which the global average surface temperature exceeds 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. That was the stark prediction of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) this week, in its climate forecast.

Straying beyond 1.5C could lead to potentially irreversible effects on the global climate system, scientists have warned, including the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, the abrupt melting of permafrost, rising sea levels and bleaching coral reefs. For these reasons, the 1.5C limit is at the heart of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which bound countries to hold global temperature rises “well below 2C” and “pursuing efforts” to 1.5C.

Breaching the 1.5C threshold in one or even two years will not be enough to invalidate the Paris agreement. The rise would have to be sustained over several years or more before such a judgment could be drawn, and the WMO has said it is still possible temperatures could fall back again slightly. But it would be a huge blow to global climate action and a terrifying reminder of how close we are to the precipice of irretrievable harm.

Changing course on the climate is still possible with concerted action, and governments will have the opportunity to do so in six months’ time at Cop28, the latest iteration of the annual UN climate talks. This year will mark a significant milestone: the first assessment since 2015 of how countries are faring against the emissions-cutting commitments they made at Paris, a process known as the “global stocktake”.

While we already know in outline what the stocktake will say – that we are well off track to make the emissions cuts needed to stay within 1.5C and meet the Paris goals – the setting out of our failures in detail could yet be the spur for action needed, optimists believe. Alok Sharma, the UK Conservative MP and former minister who led the Cop26 talks in Glasgow in 2021, says the task is clear.

“Cop28 must deliver strengthened emissions reduction targets, and a commitment to peak global emissions by 2025,” he said. “[There must be] a plan to turbocharge the clean energy revolution, and a commitment to phase out fossil fuels. And a meaningful agreement on how to scale up finance, both public and private, to support developing nations to decarbonise their economies – moving from the billions to the trillions.”

Tom Evans, of the E3G thinktank, said the exercise provided a lever to push recalcitrant countries to higher efforts: “The global stocktake will not tell us anything new – we have more than enough evidence of the large gap between what’s needed [in emissions cuts] and the reality – but the global stocktake is mandated under the Paris agreement, so parties have to respond with increased ambition.”

That is the theory. But even the most optimistic supporter of Cops may find their bright hopes ebbing in the face of Cop28.

The last UN climate summit, Cop27, ended in Egypt last November with some joy and much frustration: triumph for developing countries that demanded climate justice from the rich world, in the form of a “loss and damage” fund to pay for the ravages of extreme weather they are suffering; and frustration that few countries stepped up with concrete plans on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, preferring instead to prevaricate and procrastinate over the future of fossil fuels.

The sun sets near a coal-fired power plant on the Yangtze River in Nantong in eastern China’s Jiangsu province in 2018
A coal-fired power plant in Nantong, China. The climate situation has not improved since Cop27, with emissions continuing to rise. Photograph: AP

Sharma warned starkly in the closing minutes of Cop27 that the world would pay a high price for that failure, and other countries lined up to agree with him. They were angry that some countries had appeared to want to slow down agreement, unpick progress and water down commitments. A resolution to phase out fossil fuels, with the support of more than 80 countries, was discarded, and the final text contained only weak language on meeting the 1.5C goal.

Since then, the situation has not improved. Nations are still at loggerheads over the Ukraine war, geopolitical tensions between the west and China are high, and inflation and economic woes are afflicting rich and debt-ridden poor countries alike. Meanwhile, emissions are still rising.

Any Cop would be challenging under such dire circumstances. For Cop28, there is an added twist. It will take place in Dubai, hosted by the United Arab Emirates, a leading oil and gas producer. And the official chosen to preside over the summit – Sultan Al Jaber – is the chief executive of the country’s national oil company, Adnoc, which is planning a big expansion of production capacity.

A diplomat from one developed country said: “It could not be much worse.” Another said: “You could not make this stuff up.”

Jaber’s appointment in January was greeted with disbelief and dismay by climate campaigners and experts around the world. “If I were asked how to make Cop28 a success, I would not put the head of a fossil fuel company in charge of organising it,” said Friederike Otto, a senior lecturer in climate at the Grantham Institute, at Imperial College London. “I would not invite lobbyists from fossil fuel companies. I would try to see that everything was done to remove fossil fuels from the energy supply globally as soon as possible.”

Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin, Germany, on 3 May
Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber’s appointment as Cop28 president was met with disbelief and dismay by climate campaigners. Photograph: John MacDougall/AP

Since his appointment, Jaber has attracted further controversy. He has invited the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to the summit, to the outrage of human rights campaigners. He has also hired David Canzini, a former Downing Street operator who helped to kibosh renewable energy plans when advising Boris Johnson, and fanned Liz Truss’s enthusiasm for fossil fuels.

There have been whisperings of internal turmoil within the presidency: at least three PR companies that were working, or hoping to work, on aspects of the summit have had contracts terminated, and at least two high-ranking officials have recently left, one for personal reasons.

Most damagingly, Jaber was hit with a stinging broadside by the former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, one of the architects of the Paris agreement. In her Outrage and Optimism podcast, she accused him of imperilling Cop28 by appearing to favour carbon capture and storage technology, as a way of enabling fossil fuel use to continue.

“From a Cop president perspective, it’s very dangerous. I just don’t see most countries, and certainly not the vulnerable countries, being willing to support the Cop president on this because it is a direct threat to their survival,” she said.

For Jaber, the criticism comes as a surprise and a challenge, which he has responded to by embarking on a global listening tour that has taken in governments, civil society groups, scientists and industry, both the high and low carbon varieties. “Do not prejudge me,” he pleaded with his critics, arguing that as it is the fossil fuel industry that must change most to stave off the climate crisis, an oil industry insider was best placed to make that change.

“Proactively, I decided I want to go and engage with everybody,” he told the Guardian in a rare interview. “I am here promoting inclusivity for Cop28 – I want everyone to be heard, and I want everyone to have face time with me. So I travelled the world and I met even with those who attack me publicly. I made it a point to go and see them.”

The results had been encouraging, he said. “While I appreciate all the feedback I got from everybody, representing all sectors and all industries, I promise you, the best feedback I got and the best advice I got was the uncensored feedback, guidance and advice that I received from NGOs and civil society. Everywhere,” he said. “Starting from the UK, to France, to Germany, to Copenhagen, to India twice, to China, New York, Houston and Washington DC, twice.”

For proof of his intent as Cop president, Jaber said he was not a conventional oil industry executive. Although he was handpicked by the then ruler of UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, to lead Adnoc in 2016, Jaber started out quite differently. He was the co-founder in 2006 of Masdar, a renewable energy company specialising in solar farms and wind, investing globally and operating in 40 countries including the UK and US. Jaber is still chair of Masdar and has commanded a large rise in its production. “I am passionate about this [renewable energy],” he said. “I believe in it.”

On the issue of carbon capture, Jaber’s defence is that the technology will be needed and that countries should work together on all ways of reducing emissions and tackling the climate crisis.

“If we were just laser focused on reducing emissions, while investing in the acceleration of renewable energy, and investing in the acceleration and deployment of new and emerging viable zero-carbon emission new sources of energy, I think we’d be in a much better place. But to get there, we need to stop the fingerpointing. We need to stop this polarisation. We need to flip the page and start focusing on being optimistic, positive and working together in harmony.”

As well as persuading countries to come up with concrete plans on emissions cuts, in line with the Paris agreement goals, Jaber will have to find answers to the parallel – and just as tricky – question of financial support for the poor world.

Cop27 ended with a resounding victory for developing countries on the vexed issue of loss and damage. This refers to the catastrophic effects of extreme weather, which are already laying waste to many countries – such as the devastating floods in Pakistan last year, which affected 33 million people and wiped a third off the country’s GDP.

Vulnerable countries hit by such disasters need funds for rescue, relief and rehabilitation. But rich countries at Cop27 first strenuously opposed setting up a dedicated loss and damage fund, only relenting when faced with the scorn and anger of developing countries’ governments. Their victory means a loss and damage fund will be set up but there is still no agreement on how it will be filled.

Mohamed Adow, the director of the NGO Power Shift Africa, said: “Last year’s agreement on the loss and damage fund was a breakthrough, and showed the climate vulnerable countries that the UN process could actually deliver for them. But that moment will only be worth anything if the fund is set up quickly and money starts to flow. We need to see progress on that in Dubai.”

Rich countries may prefer to try to take longer over the fund, setting out only the structure of such a fund this year, without considering ways to provide the cashflows. Adow says that will not wash. “My big hope is that we get more than vague discussion on loss and damage. Not a single person living on the frontlines of climate change has actually been helped by leaders agreeing to set up a fund last year,” he said. “Only when money starts to actually reach those people to help them rebuild their lives will it mean anything. Rich nations must not be allowed to turn this Cop into a talking shop.”

Funds could be raised on a more permanent basis through mechanisms such as carbon taxes, or levies on high-carbon activities such as frequent flying, according to proposals tabled by developing countries last year. Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, has floated a 1% tax on the sales of fossil fuels globally. But none of these suggestions yet has widespread support among rich countries.

Another question is who should contribute. The UN framework convention on climate change, parent treaty to the 2015 Paris agreement, was signed in 1992 and many of the countries classed as developing then – and therefore not required to contribute finance – are now much richer, including China and oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia, and the host, UAE.

An Adnoc oil refinery in Ruwais, United Arab Emirates
An Adnoc oil refinery in Ruwais, United Arab Emirates. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Bernice Lee of the Chatham House thinktank said: “We are coming to the point where whoever is capable should find a way to contribute [to a loss and damage fund] and that should include all countries who can. Everyone knows some countries have benefited from high oil and gas prices recently. UAE should be corralling countries that have the resources to help.”

Jaber said UAE was not yet ready for such a call. “I’m not in a position to answer this,” he said. “That’s not my speciality.”

With six months to go before Cop28, there is not much time to bring recalcitrant countries into line, on emissions or on finance. Cop participants who spoke to the Guardian voiced rising concern that they are still not clear what Jaber’s plans for Cop28 will involve, and how he will prove UAE’s own carbon-cutting credentials.

Next week, countries will gather in Bonn, Germany, for two weeks of preliminary talks laying the groundwork for Cop28, the only scheduled negotiating session before Dubai. If Jaber is to win over his critics and pull off a diplomatic coup at Cop28, that is where he must start.

Rachel Kyte, the dean of the Fletcher school at Tufts University in the US and a longtime participant in Cops, said: “There is pressure on and scrutiny of UAE and Dr Sultan [Al Jaber] to prove their management of the Cop presidency is for the planet and not the energy status quo. They still have an opportunity to show oil sector leadership to accelerating the transition, but the window is closing. The presidency needs quickly to show where its ambition lies in ending the fossil fuel era and ramping up the era of renewables. They are uniquely placed to do so, but the world needs to understand the plan.”


Fiona Harvey Environment editor

The GuardianTramp

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