Let’s face reality. Fossil fuel interests have destroyed the Cops – we need something new

20 01 2023 | 08:18Bill McGuire / THE GUARDIAN

It beggars belief that the UN thought it a good idea to allow an authoritarian petro-state to host an already compromised Cop28

There is a battle raging over the heart and soul of the UN Cop conferences, which have taken place every year since 1995. On one side are the climate scientists, policymakers, and representatives of countries most under threat from global heating and of nations that simply “get” the disastrous effects of the climate crisis. On the other side is the fossil-fuel industry.

The battle has largely been fought under the radar, but it has been going on for some time. And those who fly the fossil-fuel flag are on the brink of victory. The attack began seriously to gain ground at Cop25. First Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil withdrew its offer to host the event, then stand-in Chile pulled out due to civil unrest. The Spanish government stepped up at the last minute, and so did its fossil-fuel corporations. The Spanish energy giants Iberdrola and Endesa – the latter one of the country’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters – paid wads of cash to become major sponsors and buy the right to have their logos plastered all over the conference venue.

At Cop26 in Glasgow in 2021 the fossil-fuel invasion continued, this time taking the form of more than 500 delegates representing oil, gas and coal interests. These were lobbyist shock troops charged with ensuring that their industry wouldn’t be hindered in its quest to use more fossil carbon. Last year, at Cop27 – hosted by Egypt at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh – the fossil-fuel sector consolidated its position by hiking its contingent to a whopping 636 delegates.

The 2023 climate conference, Cop28, will be held a few weeks before Christmas in the United Arab Emirates, and the fossil-fuel lobby already knows it is getting the best present it could ever wish for. Last week, the chief of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc), Sultan Al Jaber, was paraded as the president of Cop28, making the triumph of the fossil-fuel sector complete. It’s like a big tobacco CEO hosting a cancer conference, except this time the health of the whole planet is at stake.

It beggars belief that the UN thought it a good idea to allow an authoritarian petro-state to host such a critical meeting at the height of the climate emergency. Given the UAE’s huge investment in oil and gas, it was always likely that there would be serious tensions at Cop28 between action on climate and the fossil-fuel industry. Handing the presidency to Al Jaber has compromised the conference beyond repair, reinforcing concerns that the whole Cop process simply isn’t fit for purpose.

Since the first Cop in Berlin in 1995, there have been 27 climate conferences (there were two Cop6s), and despite discussion and debate, promises and pledges, warnings and entreaties, emissions have just kept on going up. While early Cops welcomed a few thousand attenders, the latest had a whopping 35,000 delegates, and it is difficult now to view the events as anything other than bloated travelling circuses that are increasingly ineffectual.

Typically, once the ceremonials and photoshoots are out of the way, the first week or so of a Cop is taken up with manoeuvring and posturing on the part of national delegations. Things get a bit more focused in the second week, then panic sets in with a day or two to go, when it begins to dawn on the hosts that they need some sort of agreement to announce to the world. Quite frankly, any will do.

Last year, it was an admittedly encouraging deal on “loss and damage”, which seeks to ensure that developing nations affected by climate breakdown receive financial assistance. The year before, it was the grandly titled Glasgow climate pact, effectively code for “we will seek to do better, honest”. The promises never sound anything less than authentic, but they are rarely binding and there is no guarantee that they will end up doing what they say on the tin.

Such is the combined might of the oil, gas and coal lobbies. Looking ahead, one thing you can guarantee is that any agreement to cut back on fossil-fuel use is extremely unlikely, and certainly won’t happen in the UAE. Fossil-fuel cutbacks have been the elephant in room since the beginning, and the closest to an accord has been a vague and frankly meaningless understanding at Cop26 to “phase down coal”.

The reality may be that – in terms of providing a way to bring emissions to heel as the science demands – the annual Cop carnival is dead. It has become a carcass to which the fossil-fuel flies are attracted and buzz in ever greater numbers. The UAE conference will bring the total number of days of Cop wrangling to almost 12 months’ worth.

Surely, this would be a good place to stop, replacing the yearly media jamboree with something else. Perhaps smaller, separate Cop standing bodies would do a better job, working behind closed doors to address the key issues – energy, transport, deforestation, loss and damage, and so on. Alongside the biggest polluters, representatives of those most affected and vulnerable to climate breakdown could have seats at the table, and powers to negotiate binding agreements would give them clout. Continuing with the status quo will do nothing less than cement the fossil-fuel takeover of the Cop process and ensure that the industry continues to get away with murder.

  • Bill McGuire is professor emeritus of geophysical and climate hazards at UCL, and the author of Hothouse Earth: an Inhabitant’s Guide


COVER PHOTO: ‘Last week, the chief of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Sultan Al Jaber, was paraded as the president of Cop28, making the triumph of the fossil-fuel sector complete.’ Photograph: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images