COP28 climate change summit is a bloated sham that risks condemning future generations to life in hell – Professor Bill McGuire
Back in 1992, when the United Nations launched an international treaty called the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), I was a young(ish) researcher, pleased that this growing problem was finally being addressed and optimistic about the future. But that was then. Today, I’m old enough to qualify for a free bus pass, the optimism has evaporated, and our world's once-stable climate is falling apart before our eyes, as three decades of failure to cut greenhouse gas emissions has super-charged global heating.
In 1995, the UNFCCC gave birth to the first Conference of Parties (COP) meeting. Held in Berlin, it was attended by 2,000 scientists, politicians and others, keen to “combat dangerous human interference with the climate system” by stabilising the level of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Jump forward to today, and an estimated 70,000 delegates are descending on Dubai for the latest COP, number 28. The size of the conference has ballooned over the last decade or so, its numbers swollen by representatives of fossil fuel corporations and others hell-bent on ensuring that no meaningful agreement is reached. And boy have they been successful.
At the time of COP1, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 361 parts per million (ppm), up from 280ppm before the industrial revolution. On the eve of COP28, it was 422ppm, fully 50 per cent higher than at the end of the 18th century – and the situation doesn't seem likely to improve any time soon. In fact, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere last week was more than 5ppm higher than at the same time last year, a record increase that was twice as much as the average rise for the last decade.
When it comes to global heating, and our efforts to rein it in, the amount of carbon in the air marks the bottom line and, by this metric, the whole COP process has clearly failed abysmally. This is reinforced by a similarly huge hike in total carbon dioxide emissions, which shot up from 28 billion tonnes in 1995 to a little over 40 billion in 2022.
Don't expect COP28 to buck the long trend of inefficacy. Choosing a major petrostate, whose economy is completely invested in the fossil fuel sector, to host this climate summit, was a farcical decision; having the head of the national oil company preside over proceedings was pure absurdity. It was no surprise when documents were leaked revealing that the UAE plans to make full use of the event to put together new oil and gas deals.
The corollary of all this is that the COP process is not fit for purpose. It has become the world's biggest talking shop and a travesty; a monstrous jamboree that travels the planet, setting up in a different location each year; a media circus wherein politicians can preen and pose and give the impression that they actually give a damn about the climate emergency, while back home doing little to slash emissions as the science demands.
These demands are now colossal. Sultan al-Jaber, conference president and head of the Adnoc oil company, has predicted an “unprecedented outcome” for COP28 that will keep alive the goal of staying this side of a 1.5C global average temperature rise (compared to pre-industrial times) – widely regarded as marking the dangerous climate change guardrail. This is nothing less than duplicitous tripe. To have any chance of staying below 1.5C, emissions need to be near enough cut in half within six years. It just isn't going to happen.
This year is virtually certain to be the hottest on record, and quite probably the hottest for around 125,000 years. As of October, the global average temperature rise was 1.43C, and it would be no surprise if, next year, the planet breached the 1.5C guardrail for the first time, something that could be permanent as soon as 2026.
So what to do? Our civilisation is facing its greatest-ever threat, and the only stratagem designed to tackle it simply isn't working. It’s too late, now, to prevent perilous, all-pervasive, climate breakdown that will insinuate itself into every aspect of our lives and livelihoods, but we desperately need serious and effective action to prevent this mutating into a full-blown climate cataclysm. We also don't have the time to dismantle the moribund COP process and start afresh, so the only option is a reboot that will enable it to do the job it was designed to do.
I’m on record as calling for something smaller, more manageable, and more focused on the key issues, which can operate outside the media spotlight and away from the fossil fuel sector’s malign influence. I am happy to admit I’m far from expert on matters of negotiation and consensus-building, but I have long felt that a possible way forward could be to have separate task forces working year-round, each addressing a critical area, like energy, transport, agriculture, deforestation, loss and damage, perhaps others.
Each body could have the power to negotiate with national representatives, and draft agreements that could come into effect once a sufficiently critical mass of nations was on board. There could still be room for a smaller annual COP, essentially rubber-stamping exercises at which world leaders could bask in temporary, unearned glory, while signing off on agreements hammered out during the previous year.
COP28’s failure to bring home the goods – and make no mistake, it will fail – must mark the end of these bloated shams. This may be our last opportunity to change tack and build an emissions reduction framework that actually does the job of bringing global heating to heel before it's too late. Miss it, and we leave, to our children and their children, a blistering hell-hole from which there will be no escape.
Bill McGuire is professor emeritus of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London and author of Hothouse Earth: an Inhabitant's Guide
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