When the Paris climate pact was gaveled into existence at the COP21 UN climate summit in 2015, it was met with a standing ovation.
After more than two decades of talks, 196 countries had signed on to a climate pact requiring countries to set emissions targets and report on them, with the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 or “well below” 2 degrees Celsius.
Each subsequent summit hammered out the details of the historic agreement until, in Glasgow in 2021, COP26 President Alok Sharma declared the Paris “rulebook” complete.
“For the first time ever, we will be able to see that when a country makes a commitment,” he said after the summit, “whether or not they have stuck to those.”
Optimism soared after the Paris Agreement was established in 2015. But progress at UN climate talks since then has been incremental at best.
“There's nothing more to negotiate,” said Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and longtime fixture at the climate summits.
And yet, he said, “We're seeing no progress. We're actually regressing. We need to globally reduce emissions by 6-7% per year, and now, we're increasing [by] 1% per year.”
Even if countries slash emissions as much as they’ve promised, global temperatures are expected to increase by between 2.5 and 2.9 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels by the end of the century, according to the UN Emissions Gap Report released last week.
Rockström argues the system of countries setting voluntary targets and then reporting on their progress isn’t working.
“At least not so far,” he said. “So, there's a great and rising frustration. And the frustration is at a point of urgency.”
Faith in the ability of the UN process to deliver meaningful results on climate change has waxed and waned over the years. And this year, it’s at a low point.
Rockström and others have called for a rethinking of the COP meetings, shifting them from what he sees as a showcasing of best intentions to an exercise in accountability.
Rachel Kyte, a former World Bank climate envoy and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, argues the Paris Agreement is working, just not nearly fast enough.
“Governments have dropped the ball in many cases, or have struggled to pick up the ball, for countries with less capacity, since Paris,” she said.
The COP28 president himself has said the world is “way off track” and needs a “major course correction.”
But there’s added skepticism that this climate summit, in particular, can deliver meaningful results, in part because of who that COP28 president is: Sultan al-Jaber, the head of the United Arab Emirates’ state-owned oil company.
He argues that oil and gas companies need to be part of the solution and at the table during climate talks.
“This is a global challenge that calls for global solutions from every stakeholder,” Jaber said at an industry conference in May. “And this industry, in particular, is integral to developing the solutions.”
But critics have called his dual postings a conflict of interest. Environmental leaders have criticized his appointment, and more than 100 lawmakers in the US and EU called for his removal in May.
This week, leaked documents and reports published by the Centre for Climate Reporting show that Jaber was prepared to lobby for oil and gas deals in official COP28 meetings.
“I think these documents show that the United Arab Emirates is not playing a neutral, impartial role in the COP process, which is its job,” said Michael Jacobs, professor of political economy at the University of Sheffield and former climate adviser to the UK government.
One of the big debates set to happen at COP28 is whether to phase out fossil fuels.
“So, it’s really not appropriate for [the UAE], in the very same meetings that it is discussing the negotiations, which are aimed at phasing out fossil fuels, to be frankly trying to phase them up.”
Jacobs said to get nearly 200 countries with widely divergent interests to agree to anything, COP presidents must be seen as advocating for the whole world’s best interests, not just the host country’s.
“And it will be very difficult, I think, for many countries to trust the UAE if it's been doing this, if it's basically been promoting its own interests through this process.”
In response to questions from The World, a COP28 spokesperson wrote that the documents are “inaccurate” and “not used by COP28 in meetings.”
They did not respond to questions about whether oil and gas business was discussed in meetings set up for Jaber in his capacity as COP28 president.
Even with the controversy dogging this COP, there are some bright spots heading into the UN summit in Dubai.
The US and China are talking about climate change again, and this month agreed to work together on increasing renewables and decreasing methane, the potent greenhouse gas.
“It’s not yet real change, but it is, I think, a clear signal that both countries recognize that China and the US have to work together, or else, we will fail to achieve anything at COP that’s worth talking about,” said Gina McCarthy, a former US national climate adviser.
Meanwhile, former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres has warned of the “self-fulfilling prophesy” of despair and has been cheered by recent economic indicators.
“The cost of renewable energy has plummeted, meaning at this COP, countries can readily commit to tripling renewable energy by 2030,” Figueres said.
That’s on the table at COP28, along with a likely contentious debate about phasing down or out fossil fuels. Another key outcome to look for at the summit is how much money richer countries commit to a newly established loss and damage fund to help poorer nations deal with the devastation already being caused by climate change.
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