COP28: Climate Change Produces No Real Political Change

January 3, 2024 Topic: COP28 Region: World Tags: COP28Climate ChangeNatural GasOilFossil Fuels

COP28: Climate Change Produces No Real Political Change

A call to “phase down” or “phase out” alleged planet-heating fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal failed.

The headline for the recently concluded United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP28) on climate change was that for the first time, the nations of the world had agreed to “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres claimed, “To those who opposed a clear reference to a phaseout of fossil fuels in the COP28 text, I want to say that a fossil fuel phaseout is inevitable whether they like it or not. Let’s hope it doesn’t come too late.” But words have meanings, and “transition” and “phase out” do not mean the same thing. COP28 was supposed to end Wednesday, December 13, but like previous gatherings, it took longer to craft compromise language, allowing each nation to do as it pleases. A call to “phase down” or “phase out” alleged planet-heating fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal failed. Thus, the outcome of COP28 was not much different than last year’s COP27.

UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell had to admit, “Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end. Now all governments and businesses need to turn these pledges into real-economy outcomes, without delay.” Yet, they are only “called on” to do so, making their own “nationally determined contributions,” which they have been asked to report on in 2025. The UN has tried since creating the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 to use this issue to acquire the authority for global governance. However, in reality, it is still a member organization where various coalitions and alignments of national governments sign documents, make pledges, and publish communiques. In the end, all nations reserve the sovereign right to create and implement their own policies. Their first duty remains improving the well-being of their people, with leaders desiring to stay in office by doing so.

National security remains part of the equation, with Russian aggression in Ukraine continuing and renewed fighting across the Middle East generating heightened concern for the risks inherent in the return of great power rivalry. For example, many countries, including the United States and members of the European Union, have increased their liquified natural gas trade to break dependence on Russian gas exports. Immediate strategic calculations in Washington have overridden the Biden administration’s designation of natural gas as a fossil fuel to be phased out. At COP28, natural gas was still proclaimed as a transition energy source in pursuit of lower emissions compared to unabated coal.

The Ukraine war has also boosted what was already a pressing global concern about food security. Pre-war Ukraine ranked among the world’s top five exporters of corn, wheat, sunflower seeds, barley, and fertilizer to aid farming elsewhere. Russia has pulled out of an agreement brokered by Turkey and the UN to keep shipments from both Ukraine and Russia moving through the Black Sea and has frequently attacked Ukrainian ports. Kyiv has managed to keep trade routes open by driving Russian warships away with missile and drone attacks, but world markets are feeling a pinch.

COP28 placed a significant emphasis on food security, trying to square the circle of “creating a world free of hunger by 2030” and meeting 2030 climate goals. With 735 million people facing “chronic hunger” and another 2.4 billion undernourished, the immediate need is to increase food production that delivers needed nutrition. This depends on increased cultivation of livestock, which activists (including within the Biden administration) want reduced due to high methane emissions caused by cattle herds. Yet, meat is in rising demand across the world, especially in the Global South, as living standards improve. Seaweed is not going to meet public expectations. Agriculture is just one major sector that will require more energy going forward to improve productivity and distribution to meet UN goals of efficiency and equity in the war on hunger. And politicians well know (or will quickly learn) that the public will not allow them to take bread or meat off their plates.

The actual emphasis of COP28 was practical. There were commitments to triple renewables capacity and double energy efficiency by 2030, and to make progress on adapting to any climate change that occurs rather than curtail (or even reverse) energy use and other human activities in an attempt to prevent climate changes. The favored approach is incremental and cost-conscious.

Much of COP28 was devoted to raising money to fund adaptation, resilience, and mitigation measures, which appear to be much lower in costs (both financial and societal) than tearing down and replacing the global energy system upon which modern civilization is built. Developing countries still dependent on cheap and reliable fossil fuels complained that there are no guarantees that they can afford any short-term transition to renewable energy.

A new “loss and damage fund” was established to help developing countries deal with distress from alleged climate change, but only just over $700 million was pledged when expected claims are predicted to run $100-540 billion. This wide range depends on how ambitious countries are in making claims. The United States pledged only $17 million. It had opposed setting up such a fund until last year because of credibility concerns. The $100 billion fund set up in 2015 to help developing nations transition from fossil fuels has never reached its goal, making calls to raise the target to $200 billion seem ludicrous.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency’s most recent projections, if the world can generate a high growth rate between now and 2050, energy demand will increase by 56 percent. Increased use of renewables can contribute to this rise in demand, but they cannot easily replace fossil fuels, which will continue to be the foundation of the world economy. Even coal, the main target for transition, will grow by 18 percent. Natural gas will be up 69 percent, in part as it continues to be seen as a substitute for faster coal expansion even though activists have now denounced it after having once heralded it as part of the transition process. Indeed, all energy sources will be needed to generate high growth, with the mix reflecting practical matters of reliability, affordability, and security more than fear of climate change. Even so, the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects the share of coal, oil, and natural gas in global energy will decline from 80 percent to 73 percent by 2030. This will not be enough to meet UN targets.

The IEA notes one of the real-world incentives to transition from oil and natural gas is national security for countries dependent on imports of these fuels. China, the world’s largest importer of energy, is also the leader in expanding domestic solar and nuclear power generation and the use of electric vehicles. It is, however, still expanding the use of coal because it is also an abundant domestic energy source.

In the long run, a more positive “first” at COP28 than the call to transition from fossil fuels was the endorsement of the rapid expansion of nuclear power in the final Global Stocktake agreement. In a separate statement, twenty-two nations (including the United States) declared the goal of tripling nuclear power capacity by 2050. The State Department stated nuclear power would serve both climate and energy security objectives. Even further in the direction of advanced energy technology,  U.S. special climate envoy John Kerry launched an international engagement plan involving thirty-five nations to boost nuclear fusion, saying the emissions-free source could become a vital tool in the fight against climate change. “There is potential in fusion to revolutionize our world,” said Kerry. China is also working hard to develop fusion power.

COP28 was an arena for competition as well as cooperation. At its conclusion, China’s Foreign Ministry declared “COP28 reaffirmed the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities” a term used at the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change which means all the burdens, restrictions, and costs are to fall on the developed countries while the developing countries (which Beijing still claims to be) are free to act in their “right to develop.” The real world does not abide by this principle. All countries are constantly developing, and all are free to do what they can to advance. Decades of overblown statements like Guterres’ claim at COP28, “We are living through climate collapse in real-time—and the impact is devastating,” have not served to place a theoretical future ahead of the tangible and immediate challenges faced in national policy-making.

William R. Hawkins is a former economics professor who served on the professional staff of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. He has written widely on international economics and national security issues for both professional and popular publications.