December 18, 2023
DHAKA – It’s the hottest year in recorded human history, and quite possibly the hottest the planet has been in 100,000 years. Reports of hellish wildfires, extreme temperatures, devastating floods, cyclones, and other climate disasters have become routine global headlines. Climate scientists are desperately sounding the alarm bells, warning that the Earth’s “vital signs” are worse than at any time in human history, and the only way to avoid climate catastrophe is to drastically cut global emissions.
Against this backdrop, the world’s fossil fuel industry continues spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the extraction of oil, gas and coal, with the energy plans of petrostates openly contradicting promises made in their climate policies. One of those states then hosts an international climate conference where the most important people on the planet get together to decide how to best avert the impending crisis, with quite a few of them flying in on private jets. The hosts argue that appointing the chief of their national oil and gas company as the summit president is definitely the correct and appropriate thing to do (because of his useful expertise, of course), deny any allegations of a conflict of interest, and invite a record number of fossil fuel lobbyists to the meetings.
If I were watching this plot unfold in one of those end-of-the-world movies about averting the apocalypse, by this point, I would be quite sceptical of the cartoon-villain-ish nature of the “bad guys.” And if the conference ended with a “landmark” deal that does the bare minimum of calling on nations to transition away from fossil fuels, and is then widely appreciated for finally acknowledging that dirty energy is the reason the world is on fire—I would probably think I could’ve done a better job at coming up with a more believable story arc.
Unfortunately, a closer look at the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (or COP28) deal proves that reality truly is stranger than fiction. It is also much worse than what many of us might believe. The COP28 deal uses the watered down term of “transitioning away” instead of “phasing out” fossil fuels due to pressure from oil-producing countries, despite 130 out of 198 countries supporting the use of the latter phrase. It calls for tripling global renewable energy and doubling the rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030, but fails to quantify the goals, therefore giving countries free rein to choose whatever baseline suits them.
The deal also uses language that is promoted by the fossil fuel industry, such as including carbon capture and utilisation and storage (CCUS) as part of “zero- and low-emission technologies” alongside renewables and nuclear energy, even though scientists have identified CCUS as a limited and inefficient technology that ultimately fulfils the purpose of buying the fossil fuel industry more time to do as they please. The focus on the role of “transitional fuels” has also been called a poison pill that green-lights LNG expansion at the expense of renewables—great news for the US, which became the world’s largest LNG producer by installed capacity in 2022.
Finally—and probably most worrying of all for countries like Bangladesh, where climate change is a daily, lived reality, instead of an abstract danger in the future—the deal was wholly ambiguous on the issue of finance. While COP28 did operationalise the much-needed Loss and Damage Fund, and acknowledged that trillions of dollars are needed for climate adaptation and mitigation, the final text provided no quantifiable amounts and laid out no concrete plans. It made no mention of the historic responsibility of developed nations in burning fossil fuels, exploiting poor and resource-rich countries, and accelerating the climate breakdown in the first place, and why these developed nations must now shoulder the responsibility of ensuring global climate justice. As the lead negotiator of the Alliance of Small Island States, Anne Rasmussen put it simply, “The process has failed us.”
Nevertheless, this tepid statement from COP28, which would have been better suited for the climate situation we faced 10 to 20 years ago, is being hailed as “historic” by certain countries for acknowledging what scientists have been shouting themselves hoarse about for decades: that fossil fuels are the root cause of the climate crisis. For those of us who have grown up watching the climate emergency unfold before our eyes, standing witness as the world gets hotter, hungrier, thirstier, and more unstable and leaders continue to hum and haw about whether they are even willing to believe the science—it is baffling to be asked to consider this a victory. If they are only just now coming to this conclusion, what on earth did they even achieve in the previous 27 climate conferences?
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has warned that in less than five years, we could breach the crucial 1.5℃ warming threshold that was agreed upon in Paris in 2015, and that the world is now in “uncharted territory.” Yet, COP28 leaders could not even bring themselves to include a statement on how global emissions should peak by 2025. And, according to a UN report from last month, it is business as usual for the world’s worst polluters, with the US, Canada, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, and the COP28 host, the UAE, planning to expand oil and coal production in the coming years.
While this foot-dragging on climate action is infuriating, it is perhaps unsurprising, especially in light of the current global political situation. For the past two months, we have watched horror unfolding in Gaza while world leaders either looked the other way, or actively supported Israel’s “right” to commit war crimes. We all saw how many Palestinians had to be killed before many of these leaders could bring themselves to cautiously refer to “humanitarian pauses” and “ceasefires.” Almost 19,000 deaths later (around 8,000 of the victims being children) the US continues to veto ceasefire motions, and the UK abstains—the same UK that commissioned three different private planes to fly their leaders to COP28. If recent events have shown us anything, it is that world leaders are not in the least bit interested in justice—in terms of climate, or otherwise.
In a report last month, Oxfam revealed that the richest one percent of the world was responsible for more carbon emissions than the poorest 66 percent, and that the decision-makers at COP28—senior politicians including US senators, British ministers, and European commissioners—are also in the top one percent of income earners. How can we ever expect true leadership from leaders who are so closely connected to the world’s elite, the very people who have lined their pockets at the expense of the planet’s life support systems?
It is difficult to not feel defeated by COP28’s end results, but if there is one silver lining, it is that the mirage of the fossil fuel era is finally over. There are now more climate activists and advocacy groups than ever before, and their voices are becoming louder with each day. The Loss and Damage Fund is one example of how these movements are, against all odds, pushing through results. After COP28, it is now abundantly clear that, ultimately, the people, and not the powerful, will take on the responsibility of fighting for the planet.