COP or cop-out?

Born Free’s Head of Conservation Dr Nikki Tagg reflects on the current Climate Summit in United Arab Emirates. 

Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, at COP28

Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, is president of COP28 – Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press/Alamy

The 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties, known as COP28, is in full swing in Dubai, a two-week summit that brings together leaders of 198 countries and has taken place every year since the very first COP in 1995 in Berlin. The Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change, was adopted at COP21 in 2015 and stipulates that all countries must put forward their best efforts to ensure that emissions peak and begin to fall as soon as possible, if we are to have a chance of keeping global average temperature increases below 1.5°C and securing a liveable future for humanity and all life on earth.  

Dr Nikki Tagg, Head of Conservation

Eight years later, as this year’s conference rattles on, news reports reveal that the global average temperature increase temporarily broke the 2°C barrier in November – something that has not been seen before in the history of humanity and that probably hasn’t occurred on our planet for 125,000 years.  

High level government delegations at COP28 are undertaking critical discussions. They choose their words carefully and continue to make agreements. Yet this all happens amidst reports that 2023 was the hottest on record, and experts from the World Meteorological Organisation suggest that it is likely that 2024 will be even hotter. 

Our leaders might be talking, but their words are not being matched by action. This year is set to be a record year for global carbon emissions, with a projection of 1.1% more coal, oil and gas being burnt than in 2022. More than 400 oil and gas projects were approved globally in the last two years across 58 countries, with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the USA at the top of the list. 

Climate breakdown is already upon us

Tens of thousands of people are dying because of extreme heat in Europe, and hundreds of heat-related deaths have been reported so far in 2023 in the American South-West

3.6 billion people live in areas that are highly susceptible to climate change and from 2030 an additional 250,000 deaths per year are anticipated

10 countries and territories experienced severe flooding in just 12 days in September 2023, including Libya, Greece, Turkey, Spain, China, Brazil and the USA

14 million people living in coastal areas worldwide are already at heightened risk of flooding

Hundreds of highly populated coastal cities are exposed to increased flood risk, and Tuvalu and the Maldives are at risk of disappearing altogether as sea levels rise

If we continue to emit carbon at the current rate, the annual Global Carbon Budget calculates that we will burn through the remaining ‘carbon budget’ in just seven years. Even if countries achieved their current emissions-reduction pledges (which most are unlikely to meet), the world will reach between 2.5 and 2.9°C of warming sometime this century. In a shocking recent report from the University of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute, more than 200 scientists have warned of five key tipping points to which the world is perilously close. They explain how the implications of this could be catastrophic, including global-scale loss of capacity to grow major staple crops.

While governments continue to talk the talk about ‘reaching net zero by 2050’, most are allowing ‘business as usual’ to continue more-or-less unabated.

Our leaders are not leading – instead they seem focussed on the short-term economic gains to be had from the continued exploitation of finite fossil fuels. The UK government likes to present itself as a leader on climate change, yet it is evident to everyone that the UK is retreating on climate leadership, delaying the phase-out of diesel cars and oil boilers, scrapping some of the proposed measures on home insulation, and rolling back critical policies in industry, land and agriculture sectors. As a result, the UK could fall short of achieving the internationally agreed goal of a 68% cut in emissions by 2030, thus missing its climate targets by a wide margin. During an embarrassingly brief appearance at COP28, the UK’s Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, called for a phase out of fossil fuels, having spent longer flying to and from Dubai in a private jet than he spent delivering his statement, and just weeks after pushing for more oil and gas extraction and production in the UK and approving the country’s biggest ever undeveloped oil field.

Among the 70,000 delegates of COP28, some rational and inspiring voices are desperately trying to be heard. Kristalina Georgieva, Head of the International Monetary Fund, says carbon pricing would raise trillions needed for climate action. Former US vice-president and climate activist Al Gore says an agreement to phase out fossil fuels would be huge for humanity. Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, calls for commitments to improve nationally determined contributions, phase out fossil fuels and accelerate climate justice.

Thousands of representatives of global south nations, young people and climate scientists are turning up every day, hoping and pushing for success. Many are emphasising the need to protect nature and biodiversity, and the fact that we cannot achieve climate targets without investing in nature protection, among them representatives of the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime, of which Born Free is a founding member.

But, these voices are being drowned out by those who advocate on behalf of Big Oil and Gas, so these industries can continue reaping fortunes at the expense of our children’s futures. As a result, this 28th conference seems very likely to fail. In the words of Katharine Hayhoe, Climate Scientist at Texas Tech University and Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy, the conference has mainly delivered ‘facepalms’. For example, several oil and gas companies pledged to cut their methane emissions – it may sound like a positive action, but methane makes up only a small fraction of the total heat-trapping gas emissions, so will have negligible impact, while companies ignore their ballooning carbon emissions.

Arguably the biggest facepalm of all is the declaration by the President of COP28, Sultan Al Jaber, that there is no science behind the need to reduce fossil fuel burning, and that a phase-out of fossil fuels would not enable sustainable development “unless you want to take the world back into caves”. This climate crisis denial serves no purpose other than to further his company’s oil business. The appointment of someone with such a conflict of interest as President of the summit casts huge doubt over the value of the COP.

There were many rumours that Sultan Al Jaber was planning to use the summit to make trade deals with nations across the globe. “The COP appears more like a carbon trade fair,” says Nigerian environmental activist Nnimmo Bassey, who argues that “we’re seeing a sellout of [the] African continent”. Indeed, a record-breaking number of fossil fuel lobbyists, almost 2,500, have been given access to the climate summit this year. NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus declares how COP28 has been “overrun by fossil fuel executives making it a sick planet-destroying joke”.

In brief, it is all too evident that COP28 will fail, much like most of the 27 summits that came before it, and this leaves many of us wondering what comes next. “There is only one measure of success for COP28” argues Al Gore. “If it does include such a commitment [to phase out fossil fuels] it will be a smashing success; if it does not it will be a failure.” And this will leave us all with a difficult road ahead and a very unsure future.

To find out more about Born Free’s work around the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, and to see what you can do, visit our webpage:

Climate Change & Biodiversity Loss