The question is whether the just-concluded COP28 meeting in Dubai was able to make any substantial progress with a sense of urgency. (Photo | AP)
The question is whether the just-concluded COP28 meeting in Dubai was able to make any substantial progress with a sense of urgency. (Photo | AP)

COP summits need to change to be effective

The question is whether the just-concluded COP28 meeting in Dubai was able to make any substantial progress with a sense of urgency.

Science is making it clear that human destruction of nature is forcing the planet to cross the Rubicon of climate stability—towards a point of no return. The fires, floods, droughts, heat waves and storms of seemingly apocalyptic proportions that have become the new normal exacerbate economic and gender inequality, food security, water availability and health challenges.

The question is whether the just-concluded COP28 meeting in Dubai was able to make any substantial progress with a sense of urgency. What we needed was a binding commitment for a 43 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to keep the average temperature rise at around 1.5°C and avoid a climate breakdown. At the COP27 in Egypt, governments were locked in disagreement over whether to phase out or phase down fossil fuels. That fight over the wording continued at COP28. The Dubai edition ended with a declaration that called for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade”. Although developed countries in the European Union, the UK and the US supported a phase-out, oil producers Saudi Arabia and Russia, and fossil-fuel-dependent countries such as India and China preferred a phase-down. What was so disappointing is that the text did not even stipulate a timeline for the phase-down.

Far from declining, global coal consumption has been at a record high this past decade. Five Asian countries—China, India, Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam—are investing in 80 percent of the world’s planned new coal plants. What is ironic is that these countries have also pledged to achieve net zero emissions between 2050 and 2070.

The language in the final declaration appears to have offered many escape routes for the fossil fuel industry. It also repeats the call on countries to “contribute” to global efforts to reduce carbon pollution in ways they see fit, offering several options for the transition. The major fuel in energy transition could be interpreted to mean ‘natural gas’, another carbon-emitting fuel.

The call for the adoption of carbon capture and storage is yet another let-out clause aimed at fossil fuel companies that are at the forefront of funding such controversial projects. It should have been apparent to the COP28 organisers that carbon capture and storage cannot be a practical solution, nor will it be able to grow to a global scale. It is a form of ‘green washing’.

Another key topic was climate financing or loss-and-damage funding required for mitigation actions. The mother agreement—the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), under which the COP summits have been taking place—required the rich countries to provide financial assistance to the poorer ones, because the rich world’s emissions over the last 150 years caused the climate problem in the first place. Vulnerable countries of the Global South are asking for billions more through a newly formed disaster fund, although the current pledges are only of around $700 million. The sum pledged at COP28 does not come even close to what is required. A 2021 analysis by the UNFCC standing committee shows that poorer countries need an investment of about $600 billion every year in mitigation and adaptation measures. Although much needs to be done to build the financial capacities, the operationalisation of loss-and-damage funds may be considered a silver lining—a longstanding demand of the Global South.

Carbon neutrality is the process of offsetting carbon sources with sinks through a process known as carbon sequestration. The main natural carbon sinks are soil, forests, wetlands and oceans, which together remove 9.5 to 11 billion tonnes a year. This has to be weighed against the annual emissions from fossil fuels—roughly 34.81 billion tonnes in 2020. This was not even a topic of attention at the COP meetings.

What is the track record of countries including India in protecting the natural landscapes that would act as carbon sinks? The Forest Conservation Amendment Act that came into force on December 1 could facilitate the destruction of larger tracts of forest land, including in the ecologically fragile Himalayas or the islands of the Great Nicobar. Climate summits, ideally, should be taking stock of each country’s performance in nature protection.

Meanwhile, the gap between carbon sources and sinks remains wide and is set to become wider. So we need to recognise the sources and sinks, measure the amount of carbon emitted, and then create a blueprint for development. Many countries that have violated these fundamental principles are becoming environmental basket cases.

Studies indicate that optimisation of land use can help cut down a third of emissions. The Luxembourg-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis identified 24 land management actions including a reduction in deforestation, peat land drainage and burning, restoring forests and coastal mangroves, improving forest management and agro-forestry, and enhancing soil carbon sequestration. This demands new business models of circularity, regeneration and social justice. So it is natural to ask if venues like COPs would care about discussing the current economic models based on unlimited consumption.

Back in September 2021, Greta Thunberg lambasted world leaders for their empty rhetoric at the Glasgow COP26. “Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders,” she said at the Youth4Climate summit in Milan. Did we do any better at the COP28? To answer, we may have to repeat Thunberg: “Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.” With no roadmap no timeline, the outcome of COP28 offers little hope.

(Views are personal)

C P Rajendran

C P Rajendran, Adjunct professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, and director, Consortium for Sustainable Development, US

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