An illustration of the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference COP28 UAE.

Flickers of Hope as COP28 Continues to Pour Oil on a Burning Planet

Professor David Bek, Centre for Business in Society

COP28 was always going to be controversial. 

The Conference was being hosted by a ‘petrostate’ as well as presided over by the Chief Executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Sultan Al Jaber (recently reported to have questioned the scientific basis for climate change on the eve of the conference).  Additionally, it was also going to see large delegations from the oil industry and representation from the high-greenhouse gas emitting meat industries.

With that in mind, climate scientists and activists had low expectations that significant shifts in approaches to managing climate change would be achieved during the event.

But to what extent were their fears realised?

Let’s start by checking the current science

2023 will be the warmest year on record, averaging just under 1.5°C above the 1850-1900 average, and heatwaves across the world have been the norm throughout the year.

Research shows that three tipping points are likely to be reached in the 2030s whereby warming triggers changes in the systems that drive the earth’s climate. The result of such changes is likely to be catastrophic due to dramatic shifts in weather patterns on the earth’s surface.

The drivers of warming show no signs of slowing.

Despite nearly three decades of COP events there has been no abatement in the usage of fossil fuels. In fact usage is increasing and the remaining carbon budget for remaining under the 1.5°C threshold is being used up at a rate of 1.5% per month.

Does the text of the COP28 agreement reflect the acute urgency of the situation?

Well, there are several positive inclusions in the final agreement:

  • Progress has been made on the disclosure of subsidies for fossil fuel extraction (yes, governments subsidise this multi-trillion-dollar sector at a rate of $13 million per minute).
  • $83 billion has been mobilised for climate change finance, with efforts being made to facilitate flows of capital to emerging economies (governments are required to submit 10-year climate plans to the UN by 2025).
  • Carbon capture technologies have been downgraded and satellite carbon trace schemes are being implemented to verify firms’ emissions disclosures. It is also interesting to see a focus being placed on agriculture’s role in generating emissions, as well as pressure being exerted on consumer goods companies to adopt more circular approaches in a drive towards more sustainable lifestyles.

So far so good – some commentators were heard trumpeting the fact that a transition away from fossil fuels finally has been explicitly referenced in a COP text.

However, the wording gives little cause for optimism, as it does not call for a rapid cessation of fossil fuel usage but ‘a transition away from it’, at the same time as speaking of a target of net-zero by 2050. Thus, high emissions and therefore increasing temperatures are locked in.

Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Climate Centre remarks, ‘the physics does not care’; in other words, temperature increases will continue all the while emissions from fossil fuel use continue.

Anderson goes on to say that a target date of 2050 will in fact exceed the 1.5°C target and threatens the 2°C barrier.

That means that whilst the commitments within the COP28 document represent a rhetorical shift, they are 20 years too late in terms of carbon budgets, and an ill-timed announcement from Al Jabar’s oil company, that their investments in oil extraction are to be increased, does little to soothe the concerns of climate scientists.

How do we move forward from here?

Ultimately, systemic changes are required to adapt to what is happening all around us, and two main areas need to be focused upon:

  1. Firstly, damaging impacts from erratic weather patterns are now part and parcel of life across the globe, impacting human activities from food production to sporting events. Acceptance of these realities is vital and therefore decision makers at all levels must prioritise the implementation of mitigation and management strategies. Denying such weather implications helps no one.
  • Secondly, the opportunities enshrined in the COP28 document must be seized upon by businesses. Companies must urgently review their practices to reduce their carbon and biodiversity impacts and governments at all levels must provide a clear and decisive legislative context for individuals and companies to act within. And now.

To conclude, governments, business and society must all pick up the baton and act upon collective points of leverage in order to deliver on the more positive outcomes of this year’s COP 28, whilst still managing the inevitable challenges that lie ahead. These actions are needed now.

Through understanding the impact of organisations’ activities, behaviours and policies, the Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University seeks to promote responsibility, to change behaviours, and to achieve better outcomes for economies, societies and the individual.