The IPCC’s climate report has drawn the battle lines for Cop28: oil profits or a livable future | Simon Lewis
Yesterday the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a new synthesis report. The document is important because 195 governments commissioned it and the summary was agreed line by line. It is accepted fact by nations worldwide, and a shared basis for future action.
The report’s conclusions are terrifying and wearily familiar. Every region is experiencing “widespread adverse impacts”. Almost half the world’s population is “highly vulnerable” to climate change impacts. Expected repercussions will escalate rapidly. It concludes that there is a “rapidly closing window of opportunity” to secure a livable future.
The report also details what we need to do now. The UN secretary general, António Guterres, called it a “guide to defuse the climate timebomb”. Again, the message is familiar: immediate and deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors – reaching net zero carbon dioxide emissions by the early 2050s – using known “feasible and effective” solutions.
Nevertheless, what use is another report? It is, of course, a good stick with which to beat governments and corporations that are not doing enough on climate – whether at the ballot box, legally, or in the court of public opinion.
But this report will also form part of the preparations for the next UN climate negotiations to be held in the United Arab Emirates in November and December, known as Cop28. These are crunch-time talks, for two reasons.
First, they are hosted by a petrostate and the Cop28 president is Sultan Al Jaber, whose day job is being the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. With an oil state and an oil man in charge, the credibility of the entire UN process is on the line, unless there is a robust agreement that is consistent with the new synthesis report. Cop28 is set to be a global showdown of oil interests versus a livable future, with a clarity the world has never seen before.
Second, countries made a commitment to periodically assess their collective progress towards achieving the Paris agreement goals. The first “global stocktake” is to be finalised at Cop28. It will cover progress on emissions cuts, adapting to the impacts of climate change and the finance needed for these efforts. Cop28 will show whether the world’s governments can publicly confront the obvious failures that will be revealed – and change course.
What hope is there for a breakthrough? Within the confines of the UN talks, there has been movement. At Cop26 in Glasgow, a “phase out” of the use of coal was included in the final text. In the closing moments, India and China, rightly in my opinion, objected to this, given they use more coal to generate electricity, whereas the US and EU are using more fossil gas. The compromise was a weaker “phasing down” of coal use (unless its emissions are captured).
This episode might seem arcane and feeble given the magnitude of the climate crisis. Yet, after 26 years of negotiations, the genie of actually publicly naming fossil fuels as the problem was finally out.
Last year, India arrived at Cop27 calling for a “phase down” of all fossil fuels. While not included in the final agreement, inside the closed negotiations I heard close to 80 countries agree to this proposal. This year at Cop28 it is possible that enough countries can corner the rest into agreeing a phase out of all fossil fuels as the only credible response to the warnings of scientists. Central to such a pact will be global civil society loudly calling for this as a key demand.
Practically, this would mean Cop28 demanding that countries submit improved climate plans covering now to 2030 – and for plans that cover 2030 to 2035 being consistent with rapidly phasing out fossil fuel use before 2050.
The second possible breakthrough is on finance. The Cop27 talks in Egypt were remarkable in one respect: the global south stood together like never before. The so-called G77 plus China group demanded that the global north pay for the destruction caused by extreme weather events driven by climate change. By sticking together, they got a loss and damage fund. The global south could do this again on financing the energy transition.
The sequencing here matters. Finance must come first. There is huge mistrust across the global south that sufficient finance to ensure a rapid and just energy transition will materialise. Critically, the ratio of clean to dirty energy investments is currently 1.5 to 1, but needs to be 9 to 1 by 2030.
Next month in Washington DC, at a meeting of the Coalition of Finance Ministers for Climate Action, we will see how serious the global north is about generating the trillions needed. Will the US, EU and UK push hard to transform the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and wider international financial architecture to mobilise resources on the scale needed?
The UN climate talks are only one part of the solution to the climate crisis. Indeed, what goes on elsewhere is one of the few ongoing sources of hope. Millions are fighting fossil fuel developments in so many ways, from direct action to legal cases and climate diplomacy. Every fraction of a degree matters. As yesterday’s synthesis report says: “The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years.” Let’s make those actions count.
Simon Lewis is professor of global change science at University College London and University of Leeds