COP28: Top world leaders talk of climate crisis, urge action over fossil fuels, overheating planet

Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, leaders of the two biggest carbon-polluting nations — responsible for more than 44% of the world's emissions — were glaringly absent.
World leaders pose for a group photos at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo | AP)
World leaders pose for a group photos at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo | AP)

DUBAI: International climate talks turned to a power game on Friday as dozens of world leaders took turns bemoaning the pain of an overheating planet, but two of the world's most powerful men — President Joe Biden of the US and China's President Xi Jinping — were glaringly absent.

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, a top oil producer, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, whose biggest cities are regularly choked under poor air, as well as Presidents Emmanuel Macron of France, Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey were among more than 170 world leaders set to address the United Nations climate conference in Dubai over the next two days.

The idea is to try to keep the planet from heating too much because of humankind's actions.

In a fire-and-brimstone kicking off of Friday's parade of VIPs, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, fresh from melting glaciers in Antarctica and Nepal said "Earth's vital signs are failing" and told leaders, "you can prevent planetary crash and burn."

He referred to inequality and conflicts, mentioning the return of bombing in Gaza Friday. "Climate chaos is fanning the flames of injustice," Guterres said.

"Global heating is busting budgets, ballooning food prices, upending energy markets, and feeding a cost-of-living crisis. Climate action can flip the switch."

Jordan's King Abdullah said it was impossible to separate climate change from the war in Gaza. "Climate threats magnify the devastation of war,'' the king said.

"Let's be inclusive of the most vulnerable Palestinians severely impacted by the war."

Still with all the problems of the world, "climate change stands out by far as the defining issue of our era," Kenya President William Ruto said. Ruto and many of the leaders repeated the major goals of conference organizers to triple renewable energy and double energy efficiency. Those goals aren't controversial, but what to do about fossil fuels is.

Guterres, a long-time critic of oil, gas and coal use that is causing climate change, fired his strongest shots yet against the industry, which includes the host country United Arab Emirates, saying, "we cannot save a burning planet with a firehose of fossil fuels."

In a direct contradiction to fossil fuel-aligned nations and even the presidency of the talks, he said the only way to limit warming to the goal set in 2015 requires eliminating oil, coal and gas use, saying "not reduce, not abate, phase out."

Britain's King Charles III warned of "a starker and darker world" unless leaders change course. "The hope of the world rests on the decisions you must take," he told leaders, urging them "to meet it with ambition, imagination, and a true sense of the emergency we face."

"The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth," Charles said.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, home to most of the world's biggest natural carbon-capture zone on land, the Amazon rainforest, said "the planet is tired of climate agreements that were not fulfilled" and he said he has had enough of "eloquent and empty speeches."

"In the north of Brazil, the Amazon region suffers one of the most tragic droughts of its history. In the South, we are facing tempests and hurricanes that lead to a lot of destruction and death," he said.

Lula, who a year earlier was treated like a rock star after his defeat of right-wing Jair Bolsanaro, called for climate justice for poorer nations that didn't cause the problem and railed against $2 trillion spent on weapons last year when the money should be spent on fighting hunger and climate change, not wars.

He said Brazil will stop Amazon deforestation by 2030.

But the leaders of the two biggest carbon-polluting nations — responsible for more than 44% of the world's emissions — aren't there to get the in-person message.

Xi and Biden are sitting out this COP, just weeks after announcing a bilateral agreement to help cut down on methane emissions. Their deputies, US Vice President Kamala Harris and China's First Vice Premier Ding Xuexiang, will be attending instead.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed that the South Asian nation, which is the world's most populous country, host the climate talks in 2028. India is the third biggest carbon-polluting nation.

The Indian leader also announced that his country will spearhead the green credits program.

While details are as yet unclear, the program will likely allow individuals and corporations to purchase credits on a dedicated website yet to be set up to offset their emissions.

Modi said India is one of the few countries on track to meet its climate goals and added that all developing countries should be given their "fair share" in the global carbon budget — the amount of carbon that can still be spewed into the atmosphere before the world warms to more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial times.

Many of the leaders speaking represent countries hard hit by floods, storms, drought and heat waves worsened by climate change from the burning of coal, oil and gas. Those include the islands nations of Palau and the Maldives as well as leaders of Pakistan and Libya, which have been devastated by recent floods that killed thousands.

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The New Indian Express