After a day-long climate ambition summit last week hosted by UN Secretary General António Guterres, countries have entered the final two-month stretch before COP 28 climate negotiations open in Dubai, with key issues like phasing out fossil fuels, tripling renewable energy production, and delivering climate finance to developing countries still very much in play.
In the weeks leading up to the summit, which coincided with last week’s UN General Assembly and New York Climate Week, Guterres had made solid progress on climate a pre-condition for countries to get a turn at the podium. “The move from fossil fuels to renewables is happening—but we are decades behind,” he told the opening session of the summit. “We must make up time lost to foot-dragging, arm-twisting, and the naked greed of entrenched interests raking in billions from fossil fuels.”
In the end, the secretary general “invited 34 countries to speak on Wednesday in recognition of their strong action on climate change, including Brazil, Canada, Pakistan, South Africa and the island nation of Tuvalu,” Reuters reports. Major emitters like the United States and China were left off the agenda, and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak chose to stay away, rather than being shamed for his controversial new plan to scale back his country’s climate and clean energy investments.
In the course of the day-long event, countries like Spain, Chile, Germany, Colombia, and the U.S. state of California pointed to fossil fuel extraction as the main obstacle to getting the climate emergency under control, with some of them calling for COP 28 to agree on a fossil fuel phaseout.
“The real goal that all countries should have is aiming for zero in terms of production and supply of coal, gas, and oil,” said Colombian President Gustavo Petro. “If we keep as we are on our current track, it will be suicide.”
“We call for a fossil fuel phaseout and demand that abatement technology not be used to greenlight continued expansion,” added Marshall Islands President David Kabua. “Fossil fuels are at the root of this crisis.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada expects to meet or exceed its targets for reducing methane emissions from the fossil industry, with regulations this fall expected to mandate a 75% reduction from 2012 levels by 2030, The Canadian Press reports. But Trudeau couldn’t get to the stage without the session facilitator pointing out that Canada is still allowing new oil and gas projects to move forward.
“Canada was one of the largest expanders of fossil fuels last year,” said UN under-secretary general for global communications Melissa Fleming. Trudeau acknowledge the point “obliquely”, CP writes, maintaining it had taken some time for the country to get its climate plans on track.”
“In 2015, Canada—a major oil and gas supplier—was far behind on climate action,” he said, taking listeners back to the year his government formed. “With hard work, we’ve been able to change that. Canada’s emissions are, in fact, trending down.”
Canada also brought a sharp sense of reality to the summit by inviting West Kelowna fire chief Jason Brolund and Halifax assistant fire chief Sherry Dean to talk about their experience with the year’s devastating wildfires.
“I want to take you back with me,” Brolund told the summit. “We were surrounded by fire, the wind was driving it down on us, the sky was orange. We were dug in. It was the fight of our lives. Four weeks ago, my community was devastated. A firefighter said to me afterwards, ‘it was like fighting 100 years of fire, all in one night.’”
But the ultimate purpose of the presentations and commitments at the climate ambition summit was to build pressure and momentum for a breakthrough at COP 28, the annual United Nations climate summit, which runs from November 30 to December 12 in Dubai. After the United Arab Emirates appointed the CEO of its national oil company, Sultan al Jaber, as COP 28 president, he distinguished himself by trying to separate an urgent call for emission reductions from the corresponding need to reduce fossil fuel extraction. That prompted a “remarkable rebuke” in May that had more than 130 members of the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament asking the United Nations and other key decision-makers to remove him from his position of influence.
In a virtual appearance last week at Climate Changes Everything, a climate journalism conference held in New York, ex-UN climate secretary Christiana Figueres expressed cautious optimism that al Jaber is up to the job of COP president.
“What is critical for me is not necessarily the sector the newly-minted COP president comes from, but rather whether the COP president is true to the mandate that is given to her or to him,” said Figueres, one of the chief architects of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. That mandate is “to separate him or herself from the national interest and be completely open to all different political perspectives, because that person needs to engage openly in order to bring people to common ground.”
In the first six months after al Jaber’s appointment, “I didn’t see that the COP President had actually understood that differentiation,” she added. But “lately, I have seen that he is moving in that direction,” and “has understood the international responsibility, the multilateral responsibility, that comes with that role.”
Al Jaber also gained a vote of confidence from Canada’s environment and climate minister, Steven Guilbeault, earlier this summer.
Last week, former U.S. vice-president and Climate Reality Project founder Al Gore told a New York Times event that al Jaber’s ascension to the COP presidency showed fossil fuel interests working to co-opt the conference and its outcomes. “That’s just, like, taking the disguise off,” Gore said. “They’ve been trying to capture this process for a long time.”
Earlier this month, DeSmog traced a US$6.4-million PR campaign from 2007 to 2009 to boost the UAE’s green reputation, culminating in al Jaber’s appointment as COP president, “even though the OPEC nation plans to invest $150 billion in new oil and gas production over the next four years.” Last week, as well, the Guardian reported that two communications executives from the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) had been assigned to provide “support” to COP 28, the latest in a series of administrative decisions connecting the state-owned fossil company with activities at a UN secretariat.