Maybe it took an oilman to do it. When Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber of the United Arab Emirates was appointed President of the UN Climate Change 2023 Conference (COP28), environmentalists threw up their hands in despair. Al Jaber was also head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. And the conference was to be held in OPEC territory. How could this man, an enemy on his own territory, be expected to lead the world to make progress on the climate change front.
Well, he did. He has in fact lead the world to a potentially trajectory-altering moment in the fight against global warming. After two weeks of tough negotiations, apparently it was Al Jaber himself who muscled language about phasing out fossil fuels into the COP28 agreement. According to Myles Allen, climate scientist at the University of Oxford, “The much-criticized U.A.E. Presidency has pulled this off.”
The groundbreaking agreement, signed this week by almost 200 countries, highlights the first global commitments to transitioning away from fossil fuels, the principal source of climate change. It is the first time nations have agreed at a UN climate summit to explicitly address the need to move away from oil, natural gas and coal.
Canada made a contribution of its own at the conference, announcing two major policies: regulations to reduce methane emissions as well as a cap on emissions from oil and gas production. The latter should prompt oil companies to spend some of their recent record profits on investing in decarbonization. Pembina Institute spokeswoman Janetta McKenzie referred to the methane regulations as “world-leading.”
Reaching the agreement was particularly impressive when considering the energy interests of powerful countries: petrostates like Saudi Arabia whose entire economies rely on oil, emerging countries like India with fast-growing energy needs, and major fossil fuel producers like the United States and China.
The conference also saw the launching of a global climate damage fund designed to help developing countries cope with the effects of climate change. This is a good start, but emerging and low-income countries will need major infusions of cash in order to equip themselves for the transition. Major changes to the global financial system will be needed to provide the necessary capital.
Changes will be required in other areas as well, including food systems, and new technologies will be required.
Meanwhile, as the world recalibrates its trajectory, it continues to drift in the wrong direction. The U.S. is ramping up oil and gas production; Europe is building LNG terminals; China is binging on coal; and oil and gas companies companies are gearing up for years of increasing production.
As a result, not everyone is impressed by the agreement. The Alliance of Small Island States sees “a litany of loopholes.” Greta Thunberg sympathizes, calling it “a stab in the back for those most vulnerable.” Many environmentalists paradoxically see it as somewhere between a small step forward and a giant leap.
Considering the forces arrayed against it, from a real world perspective I’m inclined toward the latter. The U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, commented, “I am in awe of the spirit of co-operation that has brought everyone together,” and I share his optimism. After all, the first step in solving a problem is in identifying it, and the fossil fuels problem has now been officially identified by the world’s governments. And that is a giant leap.
Germany’s climate envoy, Jennifer Morgan, stated “Every investor should understand now that the future investments that are profitable and long-term are renewable energy—and investing in fossil fuels is a stranded asset.”
In any case, despite any weaknesses in the agreement, it spoke the magic words, calling the world to the project of “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.”
The oilman did it, bringing a note of hope to the tail end of the hottest year on record. Perhaps only one of their own could have gotten the fossil fuel states to sign on.