The COP and climate change: a spent force

Feb 21, 2024
World map painted in green on the palms of a man. Top view.

The latest update by the ANU’s Institute for Climate Energy and Disaster Solutions has issued another frank, distressing prognosis. Professor Howden – a vice chair of the IPCC and director of the ANU Institute – warns that the annual Conference of Parties (COP) is not going to deliver global temperatures under 1.5C.

That is to say, we are way off track to deliver a peaking of emission by 2025 and then a reduction of GHG and methane of 43% and 34% by 2030.

That is confirmed by the IPCC’s own graph provided in the update.

Image: Supplied Source: IPCC 2023

The urgency with which we need to act on climate change leads Howden to a scathing analysis of COP28’s convoluted ambiguity riddled concluding consensus statement which “…calls on parties to transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science”.

For a start, Howden educates us to the fact that ‘calls on’ in treaty parlance poses practically no obligation on COP members, being the weakest of 7 forms of address: way below the first level ‘instructs’ and way below even the second level ‘requests’. He then points to the ‘completely ambiguous’ phrase “transitioning away”. No doubt for the carbon lobby this picks up on its achievement in having the COP recognise gas as a ‘transition fuel’ (the lifecycle of which which can produce roughly as much GHG as coal).

Howden draws further critical attention to the notion of a transition to be carried out in a “..just, orderly and equitable manner” which, he sees, as being deliberately designed to be open to a wide variety of interpretations. Such a fear is well justified: the wording was inserted by oil and gas dependent states opening up an escape route of freeway proportions for fossil fuel producers and states to determine the means and timing of their transition.

More generally Howden is critical of the serious lack of urgency which infests the consensus statement. The reference to ‘accelerating action’, he points out, is hardly the appropriate wording when time is of the essence and when radical action is immediately needed over the next several years. Equally, Howden calls into question the use of the phrase “in this critical decade” given we are already at a crisis point and it is what we do in the next several years which will be crucial to achieving the 1.5C and/or the 2.0C goals.

Dangerous complacency is also found in the reference to achieving net zero by 2050 – now recognised as manifestly inadequate if we are to keep to 1.5C. As projected by a recent study, if there is to be a 50/50 chance of keeping to 1.5C we need to achieve net zero as early as 2035. Thus, wording in the consensual wrap up ‘according to the science’ is just plain wrong Howden says.

The lack of urgency is further underscored by Howden drawing attention to the extraordinary sharp rise in the global surface temperate in 2023 – the first time we have achieved an annual 1.5C rise over pre-industrial levels. Moreover, this rise is shown to be way above any single year increase since records were available in 1850 and as Howden points out, this sudden increase is continuing into 2024.

Image: Supplied Source: Copernicus 2024

Modelling indicates that not all this rise can be attributed to known climate change variables such as the El Nino. Nor is it known whether it is due to a one-off event such as the Tongan volcano eruption of 2022 or a more enduring so far hidden cause. It therefore joins unexplained worryingly large increases in global methane emissions as reasons for growing concern.

Howden acknowledges that COP28 has put in place much needed financial mechanisms to assist developing countries but notes that their funding is far from what has been promised. On the brighter side it is noted the plunging cost of solar and wind power (rather than government action) is what is driving their rapid uptake and driving out coal and nuclear power.

Going forward, Howden admits we cannot rely on the COP process to deliver the goals it has set: any chance of keeping to 1.5C will need to be by way of countries bilaterally rapidly reducing GHG emissions. But globally – as indicated by the above IPCC graph – COP members’ implementation of national policies are way off track. On that score Howden reminds us that Australia remains very much part of the problem not the solution. That is, GHG emissions are almost identical to that of 2005 once we discount the land clearing fudge we engineered in that year.

An emerging wider problem is that individual countries’ regimes for reducing emissions – including Australia – depend to an important degree on a number of problematic tools embedded in the IPCC’s pathways to carbon neutrality. Their importance of course does not reflect a purely scientific consensus but also the bias of governments in the IPCC’s final reports. Not surprisingly then the continued large scale use of gas as a transition fuel is premised on the use of carbon capture and storage at scale but which remains unproven and without reliable costing. The other major escape route from directly reducing carbon emissions by GHG emitters – carbon offsets – are sparely regulated with a large majority acknowledged to be substantially ineffective. The use of biomass is also being questioned with studies indicating very poor outcomes for reducing GHG emissions. And while wind and solar are enjoying rapid uptakes in national strategies this belated rush is causing a growing NIMBY backlash and costly bottlenecks.

Finally, as Peter Sainsbury highlights (P and I, 18 February), country pathways to lowering emissions – such as that of the US – are being offset by national policies which promote very large increases in gas exports over the next few decades. No less so for Australia which, Howden reminds us, is set to contribute 4.5 billion tonnes of GHG emissions from rising gas exports.

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