04 December 2023

The stark choice facing climate conference: A livable climate or more oil and gas?

 by David Spratt, first published at The Bulletin

Guardian story, 3 December 2023

Looking for ideas for a new streaming video series on climate politics? Try this:

Over three decades, global emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases increase by half, despite repeated promises by nations to cut them. Now it is crunch time, with petrostates determined to increase their oil and gas production while poor and vulnerable nations say that, for their peoples, such a course will mean the end of life as they have known it. In 2023, the stage is set for a clash over the human future.

Small island states are aghast that dirty deals result in a petrostate winning the presidency for an annual global climate policymaking get-together, amid deepening fears of another year of political failure and as the clock ticks down. And then, just days before the conference is to start, leaked documents show that the host state—the United Arab Emirates in the Persian Gulf—has used its position to push new oil trade deals with senior government officials and business leaders from around the world. There is uproar. Will the conference president, who is also the chief executive officer of the UAE’s state-owned oil company, confront the media and declare it is all “fake news”? He does, with a straight face, and the show goes on, with crumbling credibility.

The just-described series of events might make a good streaming series, but it’s not fiction, but fact. In the United Arab Emirates this month, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, is presiding over the 28th meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the 1994 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a meeting generally known as COP28.

Oil and gas account for 27 percent of the UAE economy and half of the country’s exports. In the region, beaches are being floodlit for night-time bathing because the days are unbearably hot, and large portions of the region may be uninhabitable later this century. Yet the UAE plans to increase oil production capacity by a quarter this decade, and gas capacity by 150 percent.

Al-Jaber is presiding over a conference whose goal is to prevent dangerous climate change, which since the 2015 Conference of the Parties in Paris would mean keeping global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial average temperatures. In reality, a safe limit would be much lower. In the wake of extraordinary and extreme climate events around the world in 2023, this year’s warming is likely to nudge 1.5 Celsius, and be higher in 2024 as the El NiƱo sets in. With continuing high emissions and great inertia in the energy and political systems, the world could hit 2 degrees Celsius of warming in the late 2030s, predicts James Hansen, the former head of climate research at NASA.

Scientists at the University of New South Wales warn that “an equilibrium climate under current carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations would have a sea level 5–25 metres higher.” And global heating will likely hit the world food supply long before a 1.5 degree Celsius level is reached, according to the president of the UN’s desertification conference, Alain-Richard Donwahi of Ivory Coast. This year, the world’s largest rice exporter—India—banned rice exports because of extreme climate hits to production, and the European Union will have to import olive oil as a result of wildfires and soaring summer temperatures.

Clearly the current climate conditions are already dangerous, but COP28 participants desperately avert their gaze, mouthing platitudes about carbon budgets and the 1.5 degrees Celsius path remaining viable. Meanwhile, the world’s largest fossil fuel producers remain laser-focused on pumping more oil and gas. The scientific imperative to drive fossil fuel down to zero at emergency speed doesn’t get a place at the discussion table.

The recent UN report on the gap between political words and deeds, “Phasing up or phasing down,” starkly presents the contradiction. It says that government pledges would reduce planet-warming emissions by a (still-inadequate) half by 2050, but their actual plans and projections would result in no decrease by 2050, with oil and gas use up and coal down. The intentions of the world’s five largest fossil fuel producers are clear—and civilization-threatening.

In China, oil production is projected to be flat to 2050, but gas will increase more than 60 percent from 2020 to 2050, while coal use will remain high till 2030 then decline sharply to about 30-40 percent of current levels by 2050.

In the United States, oil production will grow and then remain at record levels to 2050, and gas is projected to continuously and significantly increase to 2050; coal production in 2050 will be about half the current level.

Projections for Russia are available only to 2035, with coal and gas production projected to increase significantly, while oil remains flat. Oil and gas production constitute 19 percent of the economy.

Saudi Arabia’s plan is to increase oil and gas capacity: Oil production is projected to grow by 26 to 47 percent by 2050, with gas up 40 percent between 2019 and 2050. Oil and gas production make up half of the Saudi economy.

And Australia is one of the world’s top two liquified natural gas and coal exporters. Gas production is projected to stay above the current level for the next 15 years, with coal remaining high over the same period, above 450 million metric tons annually.

Compounding the words-versus-deeds problem, every member state at the COP has the power of veto over outcomes and wordings, handing the petrostates the capacity to undermine the stronger stances of the most vulnerable states. The history of the COP process is one of the petrostates wielding their power to produce lowest-common-denominator outcomes inconsistent with scientific reality.

The contradiction is unresolvable as things stand. Perhaps the COP meetings have had their day, and other approaches, including bilateral agreements between key players, can provide new leadership and higher ambition.

If the COP process is to be relevant, then at the very least it needs to fundamentally change the way it works. Key changes would focus on the consensus rule that gives such extraordinary powers to petrostates, and on limits of access for the fossil fuel lobbying industry at the COPs. A proposal by the Club of Rome—endorsed by former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former Ireland President Mary Robinson, among other prominent figures—emphasizes both the need for capacity to respond to our current emergency situation and to respect the goal of Paris of 1.5 degrees Celsius by holding countries to account for financing the transition. The proposal also supports a science-based approach in the COP process, with more regular updates about new developments and smaller, more frequent meetings to ensure governments are not the only voices heard during official discussions.

If the current COP could move in this direction, there may be hope for it. But if political bluster fueled by addictions to oil and gas hold sway, the culture of failure will persist, with severe consequences for humanity’s future.