News | Socio-ecological Transformation - Climate Justice - COP28 Tackling Root Cause or Peddling Pseudo-Solutions?

To mitigate climate disaster, we have to stop using fossil fuels — but this year’s COP is unlikely to help



Nadja Charaby,

Large oil tanker ship leaving the Dubai marina port
Large oil tanker ship leaving the Dubai marina port Photo: IMAGO / Pond5 Images

Climate change again demonstrated its destructive effects in 2023. No summer since records began was as hot as 2023’s. Asian countries — Laos, Vietnam, China — were hit particularly hard, but in the US and Europe people could feel the extreme heat too.

Nadja Charaby heads the International Politics and North America Unit and is an advisor on Climate Policy at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

At the same time, there was a recurrence of catastrophic flooding. The deadly consequences of such extreme weather events, especially for poor and crisis-wracked regions, were demonstrated by the tragedy that played out in the Libyan city of Derna. Torrential rains brought on by Cyclone Daniel caused two dams to collapse. At least 6,000 people were killed, 10,000 are missing. Forest fires also made the headlines, wreaking destruction around the world — the fires in Greece and in North America, for example.

The countries of the Global South are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, while simultaneously lacking the resources needed for adaptation or recovery from the damage caused. The international “loss and damage” fund for especially vulnerable countries, enacted at last years’ 27th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP27, can thus be seen as a great success in terms of the demand for additional payments by those responsible for the crisis. However, in light of the ever more massive effects of climate change and the worsening debt crisis in many countries of the Global South, the fund is likely to be little more than a drop in the ocean.

Governments Avoid Tackling the Root Causes

Given that the climate crisis becomes more palpable with each passing year, and the world community argues fiercely at UN climate conferences over the need to reduce greenhouse gases, over adaptation, and how to deal with climate change-related damages and loss, it seems absurd that the actual causes of climate change — namely fossil energy sources like coal, oil, and gas — still have no prominent place in the final documents and agreements drawn up at these climate summits.

To go by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the important thing is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — but nowhere are fossil fuels even mentioned. It took until the 2021 Glasgow climate conference for a COP final document to demand that states “phase down” so-called unabated coal power and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. So far, there has been not a word about oil and gas. Even the nomenclature of “unabated” coal should be critically examined. It simply hides the possibility of continuing to use (and further develop) coal power when this is accompanied by controversial solutions such as carbon capture, or even subsequent underground storage for later use.

For each fossil fuel, the production volumes planned by 10 high-income countries alone will exceed the global 1.5°C pathways by as soon as 2040.

The level of willingness to combat the real causes of climate change can be seen, sadly, in the fact that ceasing to use, or even simply reducing the use of, all fossil fuels — including oil and gas — was not agreed to at COP27 in 2022. Instead, more than 600 lobbyists from fossil energy corporations descended on the conference and evidently managed to garner significant support for their business interests.

Global Increase in Fossil Fuel Production

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) makes itself abundantly clear in its recently published Production Gap Report: global plans foresee the production of more than twice as much fossil fuel by 2030 than would be compatible with the target, agreed in Paris in 2015, of keeping global warming below 1.5°C. This tendency jeopardizes the possibility of a fair energy transition.

Overall, the plans and prognoses among the states considered in the report lead to an increase in worldwide coal production by 2030, and in worldwide oil and gas production by 2050 at the latest. This is in plain contradiction with their obligations under the Paris Agreement. These plans for increased production are also in contradiction with prognoses that worldwide demand for coal, oil, and gas will reach their peak this decade, even without measures to reduce their consumption. For each fossil fuel, the production volumes planned by 10 high-income countries alone will exceed the global 1.5°C pathways by as soon as 2040.

The UNEP report also shows that while global coal production will decline from 2030 in line with current plans, the production of oil and gas will continue to increase — even in 2050. Expectations are correspondingly high for the next climate conference in the United Arab Emirates. “We cannot address climate catastrophe without tackling its root cause: fossil fuel dependence”, said UN General Secretary Antonió Guterres when the UNEP report was published. “COP28 must send a clear signal that the fossil fuel age is out of gas — that its end is inevitable. We need credible commitments to ramp up renewables, phase out fossil fuels, and boost energy efficiency, while ensuring a just, equitable transition.”

UN Climate Conference in the UAE

The COP28, to be held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), certainly comes with plenty of question marks. The Emirates’ economy is itself dominated by oil production. Around 30 percent of the country’s GDP comes from the sector, despite increasing diversification. How is an oil state going to be the one to straighten things out?

The burning of oil is currently responsible for around 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Worldwide oil production continues to grow, and the oil industry made record profits in the past year. This is why the question of what influence the oil sector, and the political actors behind it, have on global climate policy needs urgently to be posed.

The questions surrounding Al Jaber’s appointment remain, and it is to be feared that this year’s COP will once again gamble away the future of our planet with fictional solutions.

The climate conference in Dubai will be headed by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the UAE’s minister for industry and advanced technology,as well as CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), the twelfth-biggest oil company in the world. Environmental groups harshly criticized his being chosen to head the COP, and 130 politicians from the EU and the US, in a letter addressed to the UN, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, and US President Joe Biden, cautioned against too great influence on the climate talks from the oil industry.

This changed nothing about the choice of COP president. Al Jaber himself publicly asserted that there was no conflict of interest on his part, and that he was counting on the fossil fuel industry as part of the solution. Research by the Guardian showed, to the contrary, that Al Jaber was not the only case of ADNOC meshing with the Emirates’ COP28 activities, but that this is the case for other ADNOC employees as well; moreover, there are infrastructural overlaps.

Pseudo-Solutions are Expected

The view that fossil fuel companies should be part of the solution appears to be catching on, at least at first glance. Al Jaber has brought together 20 top greenhouse gas emitters in the Global Decarbonization Alliance, whose members are meant to adopt obligations for climate neutrality by 2050 during COP28. Besides investments in decarbonization and the development of renewable energy systems, Al Jaber sees progress on controversial technologies —like and carbon capture and storage and carbon capture, utilization, and storage — as essential elements of climate policy.

With COP around the corner, other dubious approaches, such as emissions trading schemes, also seem to belong to the UAE’s overall strategy. Thus, the Emirates company Blue Carbon recently signed an agreement with Kenya over the protection of millions of hectares of land for the purpose of generating carbon credits This deal comes after other agreements made with Liberia, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, and which together account for a surface area of 24.5 million hectares.

The environmental and climate protection effectiveness of carbon credits is doubtful. They also often do not lead to the promised end of practices such as deforestation. Rather, they are frequently accompanied by expulsions and human rights abuses in the communities, often indigenous, living in the regions concerned. They thus more commonly tend to represent a license to pollute.

The destruction of the environment and the violation of human rights by oil companies and their advocates in government will not go unpunished, and will not take place without resistance.

A further, ambitious endeavour of the designated COP president is a health and climate ministerial declaration, to be signed off at the climate conference. A consideration of the public health consequences of climate change is an important and necessary step. But here, too, the Emirates seem to have difficulty clearly naming fossil fuels as the main cause of climate change and the associated damage to health. The document contains not a single mention of fossil fuels.

The questions surrounding Al Jaber’s appointment remain, and it is to be feared that this year’s COP will once again gamble away the future of our planet with fictional solutions — all in the interests of profit for fossil fuel companies. ADNOC itself is in any case planning to expand its oil production from around four million barrels a day to five million by 2027.

Resisting the Fossil Fuel industry is Possible and Necessary

In light of these developments, initiatives such as the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty are important approaches for supplementing the Paris Agreement. But in the context of the UN climate negotiations, it will remain an important task for civil society to continue drawing attention to the influence of fossil fuel lobbyists and demanding the exclusion of fossil energy corporations — as the Kick Big Polluters Out campaign is doing.

While here in Germany the struggle against coal power seems to have been won, and an exit from coal signed and sealed, developments in the oil and gas sector look rather different. With its massive build-out of infrastructure for the importing of liquid natural gas, the German government is communicating to the world that Germany remains a market outlet for fossil gas in the long term. This presents the threat of a so-called lock-in effect — large investments in fossil fuel infrastructure preventing the change of direction towards renewables that is necessary to achieve climate goals.

But there are also protests against the construction of liquid natural gas terminals. The oil problem, by contrast, so far seems to have attracted little attention here. Germany is primarily an importer of oil, and oil enters the country quasi-invisibly, via pipelines, and also through ports also used for other purposes. Simultaneously, none of the major oil companies is headquartered in Germany. Perhaps these are the reasons for the lack of mobilization against the oil industry.

In the places where the oil is extracted such as Nigeria or Ecuador, oil production and its destructive consequences have provoked broad resistance. The successful lawsuits by Nigerian activists against the oil company Shell, and the recent successful referendum against planned oil extraction in Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park, give reason to hope. They show that the destruction of the environment and the violation of human rights by oil companies and their advocates in government will not go unpunished, and will not take place without resistance.

Translated by Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective.