With vicious conflicts in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere, this year’s climate change negotiations are occurring in a moment of intense international division — and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Under a blistering sun, more than 70,000 delegates are expected to gather in Dubai for the UN’s annual climate change negotiations, where phasing out fossil fuels, scaling up renewables and finding the cash to pay for the energy transition and compensate countries for climate damage will all be hotly debated. The conference runs from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12.
Since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, the annual summit has rocketed into the mainstream as the climate crisis deepens, and world leaders flock to the conference to show off their climate credentials. More than 140 heads of state are expected to attend this year, including U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (commonly called Lula).
Barring any last-minute changes, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is staying on the sidelines, having last attended COP26 in Glasgow in 2021. Canada’s delegation will be led by Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault, a veteran of COP spaces, having attended the very first COP nearly 30 years ago as an environmental advocate.
Because the climate crisis continues to get worse as global greenhouse emissions climb, the stakes of these international negotiations are growing.
This year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded a six-year evaluation of the latest climate science and found to prevent catastrophic warming, greenhouse gas emissions must be cut approximately in half this decade. If they’re not, the planet will continue to overheat and is more likely to cross dangerous tipping points that when passed, lock in major, irreversible damage.
Since that finding, climate disasters have continued. This year was the hottest on record, scientists predict. Canada saw unprecedented wildfires force thousands from their homes; the United States racked up over $70 billion worth of economic damage from natural disasters like wildfires and extreme storms made worse by climate change; torrential rains in Libya caused dams to collapse, killing more than 10 thousand in severe flooding; a record-breaking heat wave (called Cerberus after the hellhound of Greek myth) baked Europe with temperatures reaching 50 C in Italy — hot enough to melt powerlines.
In the face of this, UN Secretary General António Guterres hasn’t minced words. In July, he declared “the era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived.”
The annual UN climate change negotiations officially kick off in Dubai, and @NatObserver is on the ground to cover it. Here's what you need to know. #COP28
Speaking to reporters this week, Guterres said COP28 must be the moment to end the fossil fuel era if the world is going to limit global temperature increases to the Paris Agreement's goal of 1.5 C.
“We need a global commitment to triple renewables, double energy efficiency and bring clean power to all by 2030,” he said. “We need a clear and credible commitment to phase out fossil fuels on a time frame that aligns with the 1.5-degree limit.”
Many climate and nature-related issues will be negotiated, but this year will see a particular focus on commitments to phase out oil and gas, and operationalizing a fund to compensate poorer countries for climate-related loss and damages they experience. Last year, countries could not agree on terms to phase out fossil fuels, but did agree to launch a loss and damage fund that a year later still needs to be empowered to disperse cash to those who need it.
Civil society groups emphasize that for this year’s climate change negotiations to be considered a success, commitments to phase out fossil fuels are necessary. On top of that, a credible finance package that helps pay for the energy transition in developing countries and compensate them for damages is a necessary component, advocates say.
Civil society groups are also expected to push Canada to finally deliver on its promise to cap oil and gas sector emissions. In 2021 at COP26, Trudeau pledged to the world that Canada would limit oil and gas sector emissions and ratchet them down, but that promise has since been mired in political fights with right-wing premiers, chief among them Alberta Premier Danielle Smith. It’s unclear if Canada will announce it during COP28, but federal leaders have said they will publish draft rules to cap oil and gas emissions by the end of this year.
‘Marked by scandal’
While the stakes are high, the lead-up to this year’s summit has been marked by scandals.
The United Arab Emirates is the seventh-largest fossil fuel-producing state in the world (Canada is fourth), and it appointed climate envoy and fossil fuel executive Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber to serve as COP28 president. Al Jaber has faced intense criticism because he serves as the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc), the world’s 12th-largest oil company, casting doubt on the credibility of the climate talks.
Since his appointment, there have been successive scandals, including Paris Agreement architect Christiana Figueres calling Al Jaber’s focus on finding room for continued fossil fuel development “dangerous”; revelations Adnoc cracked into private emails sent to the UN relating to the conference; and in the immediate lead-up to COP28, the BBC in collaboration with the Centre for Climate Reporting published leaked documents showing the UAE intended to use the climate change summit to ink new fossil fuel deals with more than a dozen countries.
Meetings with Canadian officials are not specifically referenced, but one talking point for a meeting between the UAE and China discusses the possibility of jointly evaluating liquified natural gas (LNG) projects in various countries, including Canada.
A spokesperson for Guilbeault told Canada’s National Observer the minister has met with Al Jaber a handful of times over the past year but has not discussed any commercial interests of either country. Their talks were focused on the climate change negotiations, the spokesperson said. Guilbeault was tapped alongside Egypt’s climate minister to jointly and informally facilitate discussions in the lead-up to COP28 to help land an agreement.
The growing influence of fossil fuel interests on the climate negotiations has been increasingly documented. As previously reported by Canada’s National Observer, at least 636 fossil fuel lobbyists were in Egypt for last year’s conference, representing a 25 per cent increase from the fossil fuel representation in Scotland the year before. Other than the United Arab Emirates, which brought a whopping 1,070 delegates to COP27, the 636 fossil fuel lobbyists, if grouped under a single country, would be the largest delegation, according to the analysis conducted by advocacy groups Corporate Accountability, Corporate Europe Observatory and Global Witness.
Matthew Hoffmann, a University of Toronto professor and co-director of the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, said he’s observed more fossil fuel participation at COPs, and based on his expertise, he believes the fossil fuel industry has pivoted from simply trying to stop progress to an “insider strategy” to make sure it is shaping the decisions.
“There's chatter about the need for the fossil energy sector to play a role in decarbonization because of the size/expertise of the sector,” he said. “That's not an accident.”
Hoffmann added that he expects phasing out fossil fuels to be a big topic of discussion, but he suspects loopholes will feature heavily.
“I would be surprised if countries agree on consensus language unless the term 'unabated' is put in front of fossil energy,” he said. “They might get language about phasing out unabated fossil energy — fossil energy that's not offset through other means (like carbon capture).”
Alberta’s premier will be attending COP28 to push the province’s fossil fuel agenda, telling reporters she wants to use these international events to secure investment in the province. After unveiling a new carbon capture tax credit that amounts to a new fossil fuel subsidy this week, Smith is on a mission in Dubai to sell the role of carbon capture in the oil industry’s future. Similarly, Saskatchewan, which has consistently opposed federal climate measures, spent $765,000 buying its own pavilion space at COP28 to market itself to potential investors.
The Prairie provinces are in stark contrast to Quebec, which has used the UN space to join the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance and has pushed Canada to put fossil fuels in the rearview mirror.