COP-out: Why the petrostate-hosted climate talkfest will fail

Nov 23, 2023
World map and oil.

After a succession of record-breaking months of record heat including 1.8°C in September, global warming for 2023 as a whole will likely tip 1.5°C, with 2024 even hotter as the effect of the building El Nino is felt more fully. Already hundreds of thousands have died and millions displaced, primarily in countries least responsible for climate change. The annual economic cost globally is in the hundreds of billions.

So what will the 28th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP28) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), starting 30 November in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), say about this? And in particular what will Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of the UAE state oil company ADNOC, who will preside over the international negotiations, say?

Probably nothing; instead there will be much blather about reaffirming the commitments at the Paris COP in 2015 “to hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”. And lots of “net zero” posturing based on sham Integrated Assessment Models, and farcical assumptions about bodgy carbon offsets, carbon capture and storage (CCS), bioenergy with CCS, machines to draw carbon from the atmosphere, and the like. All given unwarranted credibility by the Sultan’s advisers, Mckinsey & Co.

The private sector will doubtless be lauded for its efforts, despite the fact that the world’s largest companies’ net zero pledges are false promises, and Wall Street’s climate efforts are built to fail.

Meanwhile in the real world, provisional data from CopernicusECMWF shows 17 November 2023 as the first day above 2°C relative to the 1850-1900 baseline since modern humans evolved.

What definitely won’t be said is that the petrostates — including the USA, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Canada, Nigeria, and those across North Africa and the Gulf — are hell-bent on increasing oil and gas production, despite the disastrous consequences. The COP process is one of consensus decision-making, so each petrostate has the power of veto over all COP decisions, ensuring that the culture of failure will endure. And Australia, despite lofty rhetoric about climate leadership, is rushing to join the club.

In the aftermath of the 2022 COP27 meeting in Egypt being captured by the fossil fuel industry, there have been increasing calls for fundamental reform to the COP process. As oil prices have increased in light of the Ukraine conflict, major oil companies such as Shell, Exxon and BP have all reneged on their meagre climate commitments and intend to increase production, prompting condemnation for breach of trust. Yet fossil-fuel-producing nations and companies continue to swear undying commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

With emissions again at record levels, and projections that emissions by 2050 may be two-thirds or more of what they are today on current actions, the world will fly past 2°C faster than expected. In a recent communication, the eminent former NASA climate science chief James Hansen warned that: “The warming by 2030 will be about 1.71°C. Global warming of 2°C will be reached by the late 2030s, i.e., within about 15 years”. Some people say this is an outlier view, but Hansen has been conspicuously right most of the time over a distinguished career. In any case, the existential nature of the climate threat means that precautionary action should be taken now to avoid plausible worst-case scenarios.

When we look back in five, ten, fifteen years, is it likely that the average global warming trend during 2023 and 2024 will be seen to have been close to 1.5°C, with the rate of warming accelerating from now on? In our estimation, yes.

There are several reasons for this. First, the projections of continuing high emissions:

  • Carbon dioxide emissions reached a record high in 2022 and are projected to rise in 2023;
  • The UNEP “gap” report finds on current plans that emissions will be as high in 2050 as today, with petrostates planning huge expansion of fossil fuels; and the US (now the world’s largest fossil fuel producer) behind more than a third of global oil and gas expansion plans;
  • The US Energy Information Administration finds for that USA, energy emissions in 2050 will be 80% of today’s levels;
  • The International Energy Agency says that stated policies will result globally in oil and gas production in 2050 as high as 2020 levels, albeit coal is halved, but emissions show little change;
  • The OECD concludes that a world economy four times larger than today is projected to need 80% more energy in 2050, and without new policy action the global energy mix in 2050 will not differ significantly from today, with the share of fossil energy at about 85%, renewables including biofuels just over 10%, and the balance nuclear;
  • DNV sees stationary energy-related emissions cut 46% by midcentury, but the world is “less likely than ever” to meet Paris Agreement goals;
  • A study of three dozen national plans found 90% of targets were not credible and unlikely to be achieved.
Chart 1: Phasing down or phasing up? Emissions Gap Report 2023 projections for coal, oil and gas

There are also two compelling charts, which add weight to the likelihood of an acceleration in the warming rate. The first is the Earth’s Energy Imbalance — an indicator of the level of future warming — which is rising rapidly in part due to decreasing aerosols, suggesting that the rate of warming will increase:

Chart 2: Earth’s Energy Imbalance, based on NASA CERES EBAT-TOA All-sky Ed4.2 next flux data.

The second is the fact that heat is being taken down into the ocean at an accelerating rate, as explained in the paper: “Recent acceleration in global ocean heat accumulation by mode and intermediate waters”. Because 90% of the heat trapped by the greenhouse effect warms the oceans, this is a good indication of a fastening pace in the future:

Chart 3: Heat is being taken down into the ocean at an accelerating rate. (Li et al, NCC, 14:6888).

Many of the petrostates are highly dependent on fossil fuel revenue to fund their strategic ambitions, so there is every reason to believe they will pump all the oil and gas they can. So it is unsurprisingly that a new UN report says the world is heading towards 3°C and perhaps a good deal more, bringing down the curtains on contemporary civilisation.

Eight years after Paris, the evidence is overwhelming that “net zero 2050” was always a bad target, that there is no carbon budget left, and that major system tipping points have already been passed, or are now within range in the short-term.

COP28 will not produce a statement that says a word about any of this. If there is to be a modicum of truth-telling, front and centre of the COP outcome would be recognition that fossil fuel expansion is a death trap, that zero emissions fast is absolutely necessary, and that unprecedented interventions to mitigate 1.5°C climate overshoot are now required. That is the focus of another new report The Overshoot: Crossing the 1.5C threshold and finding our way back, from the Climate Crisis Advisory Group. The report again emphasises the need for a three-pronged strategy to reduce, remove and repair.

In the Gulf, petrostates are now installing floodlights on beaches and encouraging night-time use because it is simply becoming too hot to use during the day. “In a city where weather that would constitute a deadly heat wave in Europe is just a typical summer day, official ‘night beaches’ have become a popular way to cool down”, reports the New York Times. Perhaps the COP delegates could adjourn for a midnight skinny dip, and experience first-hand what the future holds.


The first in a two-part series on Whither climate change? The world and Australia.

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