Blowtorching the planet

Despite carbon emissions hitting record highs, Cop28 has been yet another talking shop, writes Eddie Ford

Even by the low standards set by previous climate change conferences, Cop28 - this year’s UN climate summit in Dubai - has been especially perverse. It is a living symbol of failure, when the headlines are increasing about extreme weather, record temperatures throughout the world and soaring greenhouse emissions.

According to data published at the weekend by the Climate Trace project, oil and gas production in the US, and electricity generation in China and India, have produced the biggest increases in global greenhouse gas emissions since 2015, when the Paris Agreement was signed to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C above average pre-industrial levels - or, failing that, to 2.0°C. Emissions of methane - a greenhouse gas 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide - have also risen, despite more than 100 countries signing up to a pledge to reduce the gas described as a blowtorch that is boiling the planet. If you can turn it off, then you immediately turn down the heat. Indeed, cuts to methane and other short-lived pollutants could reduce global temperature increases relatively quickly by as much as 0.3°C, yet the reverse is happening.

To no great surprise, CT’s data showed that countries and companies are chronically failing to report their emissions accurately despite obligations to do so. On the other hand, CT uses satellite images and AI software to pinpoint the sources of emissions with a high degree of accuracy around the world, and has uncovered discrepancies between countries’ and companies’ reporting of emissions and their actual behaviour. Hence, we discover that coal mines from China were responsible for a large proportion of the increase in methane emissions between 2021 and 2022, though Beijing has signed a new pledge to include methane in its national climate plans for the first time. However, there was also some good news: deforestation is dropping in key regions, with emissions from the degradation and destruction of forests in the Congo Basin dropping by up to 19% in 2022, compared with the previous year.

But a report by the Global Carbon Project says that the world is on track to have burned more coal, oil and gas in 2023 than it did in 2022 - pumping 1.1% more planet-heating carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a time when emissions must plummet to stop extreme weather from growing even more extreme. Yes, growth in CO2 emissions has slowed substantially over the past decade, but the amount emitted each year has continued to rise and, if things continue at the current rate, in just seven years the world will burn through the remaining carbon budget that at least in theory gives us a tiny chance of avoiding the 1.5°C increase, and in 15 years the budget for 1.7°C will be gone too.

Even more alarming, another report says the planet is on the verge of five catastrophic climate tipping points and three more may be reached in the 2030s if the world heats 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures.1 These include the collapse of big ice sheets in Greenland and the west Antarctic, the widespread thawing of permafrost, the death of coral reefs in warm waters, and the collapse of one oceanic current in the North Atlantic. Yet everything indicates that the world faces temperature rises between 2.5°C and 2.9°C by the end of the century, with near immeasurable consequences.

Meanwhile, more than 160 heads of state and government arrived at Expo City in Dubai at the weekend, with nearly 100,000 registered delegates. On top of that, almost 400,000 visitors with free one-day passes are expected at the “green zone” area of business and technology exhibitions adjoining the summit.

Our fearless eco-warrior, King Charles III, gave the opening speech about how the world has embarked on a “vast, frightening experiment” on the natural world. Rishi Sunak eventually decided to turn up after vowing to “max out” the UK’s oil and gas reserves by granting new North Sea drilling licences and saying that his scaling back on net zero pledges showed he was “not in hock to the ideological zealots” - what leadership, Rishi!

Of course, the omens were bad right from the very start. Like holding the conference in the petrostate United Arab Emirates of all places, at a time when various states and oil companies are planning large expansions in drilling. This naturally includes Adnoc, the UAE’s national oil company which is one of the dirtiest and least responsible on the planet, which, naturally enough, has massive expansion plans for its oil and gas reserves. As of 2021, Adnoc has an oil production capacity exceeding four million barrels per day, with plans to increase to five million by 2030, and is projected to emit over 11 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases by 2048. Yes, Dubai is the perfect venue for a conference which is supposedly about saving the planet and human civilisation from the ravages of runaway global warming.

Then there is the fact, as calculated by the Kick Big Polluters Out coalition, that at least 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists have been granted access to the Cop28 climate negotiations. This is a record-breaking number … and for many NGOs a clincher. The fossil fuel lobby has ‘captured’ Cop 28, not the green lobby.

As before, a major line of disagreement is on which formulation to use - do we want to “phase out” or “phase down” the use of fossil fuels? More than 100 African, European, Pacific and Caribbean countries already support a phase-out of “unabated” fossil fuels - those where the resultant emissions are not captured - but whether the final Cop28 agreement calls for this or uses the weaker phrase is one of the most fiercely fought issues at the summit. Al Gore, the former US vice-president, has said that a commitment to phase out fossil fuels would be Cop28’s only measure of success. The issue of ‘phase out’ or ‘phase down’ is complicated by the two terms not having agreed definitions and by the highly uncertain role of technologies to actually ‘abate’ fossil fuel emissions at all, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) - which seems extremely dubious.

The UK, the US and the EU want relatively strong language in the final text on “phasing out unabated fossil fuels”, which would allow a limited role for using CCS technology. Others, such as Russia, Saudi Arabia and China, reject the call - wanting to weaken the pledge to ‘phase down’. Both options are on the table at Cop28, as well as proposals to only mention coal, or not say anything at all about fossil fuels. Cop26 in Glasgow in 2021 agreed for the first time to ‘phase down’ coal use, but this had been watered down from ‘phase out’ at the last minute, supposedly bringing the Cop26 president, Alok Sharma, to tears. But NGO climate campaigners would like to excise the word “unabated” altogether, as it muddies the waters - allowing companies to continue pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere on the basis that magical CCS technology will somehow make everything all right.

But at the end of the day it is just words. And what countries and companies say and what they do is often quite different. No less to the point, NGOs, such as Greenpeace, spectacularly fail to explain why this is the case. We are told, for example that the “causes and consequences of climate change have never been clearer.” The main problem, they say, is that the cause of climate change is fossil fuels … a circular argument which actually explains nothing. Nor does blaming hypocritical politicians and the army of fossil fuel lobbyists.

The root cause of climate change is the nature of the capitalist system itself. Unless capitalism, which by its very nature, is based on production for the sake of production, is superseded, the outlook for human civilisation is extraordinarily bleak.

The answer lies squarely with the left. We must break with the confessional sects and the politics of protest. Instead we must embrace the politics of power. The only way that can seriously happen is with the building of mass communist parties - real communist parties, that is, not Trotskyoid opinion poll driven name changes, or Stalinoid historical reenactment societies.

  1. theguardian.com/environment/2023/dec/06/earth-on-verge-of-five-catastrophic-tipping-points-scientists-warn.↩︎