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COP28: ‘Landmark’ or Surrender?

As Alberta Premier Danielle Smith boasts about the outcome, media seem to miss the real story.

Ian Urquhart 15 Dec 2023The Tyee

Ian Urquhart is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alberta and the author of Costly Fix: Power, Politics and Nature in the Tar Sands.

The New York Times called Wednesday’s conclusion of COP28 in Dubai “a first.” The Guardian and the BBC called it a landmark. The BBC went on to say COP had taken “direct aim at fossil fuels.” The object of their praise was language calling on governments to contribute to “transitioning away from fossil fuels.”

Big deal. Sure, for the first time since the parties who ratified the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change started meeting, their conference ended by acknowledging what scientists have told us for a long time: burning fossil fuels drives most of Earth’s warming and is bad for climate stability.

But it has taken more than 28 years of COP conferences for the international community to acknowledge fossil fuels and call for a transition away from using them. This isn’t cause for celebration; it’s cause for near despair.

History tells us why. The Statistical Review of World Energy shows that when the parties first met in Germany in 1995, global emissions of greenhouse gases were 24,683.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. In 2022 those greenhouse gas emissions were 59 per cent higher than in 1995 — 39,315.5 million tonnes.

Yes, oil, natural gas and coal production rose significantly over this period. Natural gas production nearly doubled, up 93 per cent. Coal production wasn’t far behind, up 90 per cent. Oil was the laggard in this race — its production increased by only 38 per cent.

Increases in the burning of fossil fuels generate increases in greenhouse gas emissions, plain and simple.

So I trust you’ll understand why I’m not impressed with this COP language, this tepid call to action, at a point in time where fossil fuel production and greenhouse gas emissions have never been higher. I would have more hope if this call for a transition came a decade or more before now.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith may offer us the best indicator of how successful COP28’s “radical” position will be in slowing the march to even more dangerous average global temperature levels.

There’s a palpable sense of glee in the premier’s news release regarding the end of COP. She’s “greatly encouraged” by COP’s final result. She effectively belittles delegates such as those from small island states for seeing the climate crisis as an existential threat. How foolish they are to be obsessed with phasing out fossil fuels.

She is scathing with respect to federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault. She portrays him to be treacherous, a saboteur, someone who damages Canada’s international reputation in pursuit of “his misguided personal obsessions.”

For the record, her treacherous saboteur has proposed an oil and gas emissions cap enabling oilsands production to increase by hundreds of thousands of barrels. If this is treacherous policy, it’s not treacherous to oilsands producers.

Section 28 of the final text contains the landmark mention of fossil fuels. It’s very permissive, not very prescriptive. Parties are asked to contribute to a range of global greenhouse gas reduction efforts but to do so “taking into account... their different national circumstances, pathways and approaches.”

Small wonder that Premier Smith sees the final text as one legitimizing her dreams about carbon capture and storage. It is a technology that, with enough subsidization from taxpayers, will allow nearly limitless expansion in the oilsands. Except there is very little evidence the technology can make even a dent in the climate crisis.

For now, given the sorry record of carbon capture and sequestration in Alberta, I think the Guardian’s George Monbiot has a more accurate assessment. The sole purpose of CCS “is to provide an excuse for inaction.”

As COP28 president Sultan al-Jaber, with a bang of his gavel, ended the conference, journalists noted the personal victory he had achieved. It also was a victory for petrostates such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Alberta. They affirmed their ambitions to pump oil for decades to come.

A victory for the climate? I don’t think so.  [Tyee]

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