The verdict is in: COP28 was a bad joke and possibly the year’s biggest failure. Our biggest because it affects our common future – even if this is a year that has been generally bad, with tragic wars in Ukraine and Gaza. But now we know the COP process does not work. And possibly has never worked in the nearly three decades that it has been the go-to global climate summit. It’s a fact we can no longer ignore.
As always happens when high-profile political decisions are announced, the public and the press tried to welcome the news. For example, Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School, wrote an optimistic article in Project Syndicate saying that COP28 should be welcomed as “a small step forward.” Wopke Hoekstra, European Union commissioner for climate action, on December 13 was even more sanguine: “Humanity has finally done what is long, long, long overdue.” Peter Prengaman, Associated Press, in a long article on “COP28 quotes that tell the story” says “it has sent a clear message to the world about the need to radically shift its energy systems.”
So after 28 years there was a call for a “radical” change in our energy systems? And what exactly has “humanity finally done”? Ah yes, it took a “small step forward” after nearly three decades of climate summits. Who’s kidding who?
Later, some of the more thoughtful news outlets like DW or the Guardian found the courage to disagree. But it took a serious scientific journal like Nature to sum it up with a succinct title: “climate summit booed”, noting that “Some observers called it a political milestone. But many climate scientists described the nonbinding pledge—which asks countries to develop new plans within 2 years to curb greenhouse gas emissions, including methane—as barely a step forward”.
Memorable COP28 quotes from climate experts and activists
The following memorable testimonials (both in the Guardian) from climate experts bring the point home:
Dr. MICHAEL MANN of the UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA: It’s like promising your doctor that you will ‘transition away from doughnuts’ after being diagnosed with diabetes.
Dr. FRIEDERIKE OTTO of IMPERIAL COLLEGE LONDON: With every empty promise, millions more people will enter the front line of climate change and many will die.
From climate activists who participated in COP28:
KATE CELL, Senior Campaigner, Union of Concerned Scientists (on 18 December): The oil and gas industry’s ‘deny and deceive’ tactics have always been aimed at delaying the fast, fair and funded phase-out of fossil fuels. During COP28 in Dubai, major fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron ramped up their greenwashing advertising, including focusing on technologies aimed at prolonging fossil fuel use.
JENNIE KING, Head of CLIMATE RESEARCH AND POLICY, ISD / Head of CAAD Intelligence Unit (on 18, December): The professionalised efforts of the fossil fuel lobby are now intersecting with State-sponsored PR, extremist movements and commercial disinformers on- and offline.
SEAN BUCHAN, Editor of COP, LOOK LISTEN (on 18 December): Our work at COP28 has shown how much of a threat climate misinformation is to a prosperous future for humanity. Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry has been at this for decades […] Climate action is in all of our best interests long term, but a powerful few are still delaying it in the name of a quick buck.
These last quotes worryingly suggest that the playing field at COP28 was tilted in favor of the fossil fuels industry. As Faye Holder, Program Manager, InfluenceMap observed: “The use of online platforms and advertising are key tools in the fossil fuel lobby’s playbook. These tools provide relatively cheap access to mass audiences, with limited oversight, allowing the dissemination of misleading messages and disinformation about climate change and its solutions.”
The obvious reason why COP28 was a miserable failure: Empty promises
We were probably naive to hope for results from COP28: Failure was to be expected once the process was in the hands of petrostates. With the UAE hosting the event and a COP President Al Jaber who is the CEO of ADNOC the country’s oil industry, it was a golden opportunity for the petrostates to hijack the COP process. And, predictably, they rose up to the occasion.
They grabbed the COP ball and ran with it.
The climate summit was literally flooded by lobbyists to assist the oil industry: Their number was simply eye-watering. An absolute, shameless record: At least 2,456 oil lobbyists attended COP28 compared to a “mere” 636 at last year’s summit: FOUR times as many!
Arms dealers are not asked to peace talks, so it is warped to ask climate wreckers for their view on how to fix the damage they have caused when most of them are planning to expand production of fossil fuels, further warming our overheating world, and threatening the rights of billions of people
What happened is obvious for anyone who cares to see: The heads of multinational oil companies, all of them pals of COP President Al Jaber, were given full access to the conference for the first time ever. Undermining the talks was easy with the help of their army of highly-paid lobbyists, thus ensuring that COP28 would result in…nothing!
So what should we do?
The choice is stark and boils down to this: Either skip COP29 or demand a new, different mechanism to fight climate change.
Greta Thunberg has chosen to skip the COP mechanism, and seeing the ridiculous results of COP28, one cannot blame her. Even though, truth be told, when she announced her decision I thought she’d made a mistake by not attending COP27. It was a little like deciding not to participate in an election when your country is at risk of turning away from democracy: If you don’t vote, you are simply increasing the chances of autocrats to take over.
But the COP process is not a political election. People like Greta Thunberg were never given any say in either the talks or the decision-making. No doubt that is why she decided there was no point in participating in a process that is a joke, an elaborate game of pretending we do something when we actually do nothing.
And of course, as became evident with COP28, the goal is precisely that: Bring the process to a halt so that NOTHING GETS DONE.
In other words, the results of COP28 confirm that the COP process has stopped working: It is weak, wordy, and more importantly, the core problem is that it’s non-binding and devoid of specific measures and without any implementation schedule. Nobody is obliged to do anything. The COP conferences simply give governments a platform to sound the right words and look good while left free to do exactly as they please, i.e. nothing.
Empty promises, that’s what the COP process is all about. And an excuse for continuing with business-as-usual, which is precisely the objective of the fossil fuels industry.
The solution: Reform COP with binding goals and implementation schedules – in a NASA-style alliance of the public and private sectors
We’ve reached a point where the only rational thing to do is to dump the COP process: It has been going on for over 28 years and has brought us no results. We are not anywhere near solving the climate challenge.
The system needs to change, and what we need is another different decision-making mechanism, one that delivers results instead of throwing up smoke in our eyes.
As I reported here, after COP26, economist Marianna Mazzucato, Professor at University College London and Founding Director of the UCL Institute for Innovation & Public Purpose (IIPP) called for a total institutional transformation from the ground up.
A radical proposal that was made two years ago! And now that the joke of COP28 is upon us, it’s high time we listened to Professor Mazzucato. This is what she said on December 6, 2021, in an important article on Project Syndicate:
After COP26, it is clearer than ever that top-down pledges and policies are not enough. Rather, we need a structural and institutional transformation from the ground up. Our only hope of keeping global warming within “safe” limits (in fact, the agreed target is much safer for some than for others) is to accelerate a green transition with massive, coordinated public investment aimed at innovation leaps and an economic paradigm shift.
Nothing less than an “economic paradigm shift” is needed, a concept she amply illustrated in her book Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism (2021), undoubtedly her most inspired work to date, a must-read for anyone interested in saving the continued existence of humans on this planet.
In that book she compares our present climate dilemma to the space race challenge faced by President Kennedy which led him to propose in a famous speech to Congress in 1961 to go to the moon within a decade. NASA delivered, incredibly, in nine years: On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. She forcefully argues that only a NASA-style management approach can deliver the needed results.
So what is the essence of that approach? It can be summed up in five points:
- Binding goals and strategy,
- well-defined measures and implementation schedules with deadlines that must be respected,
- appropriate funding in line with investment requirements,
- strong oversight, and
- a working alliance between the public and private sector, ensuring both contribute to the best of their abilities.
It should work like a framework nobody can get out of. No more pretty words and false promises.
Who can do this? Governments of course are the main agents and they must work with the private sector. But who is going to be our global “President Kennedy” with the vision to bring this about? And in a world torn by war – Gaza, Ukraine – who will step forward? The US? China? The EU?
Yes, you don’t see anyone in that leadership role, do you? And is a US-China-EU alliance even possible? With the inclusion of a few more major players of course, like India, Australia, Japan, Brazil, Canada, UK, Norway, South Africa and possibly a few more as long as they are not petrostates…
Not likely, is it? So, all we have is that perennial UN weakling – the COP process, now 28 years old – limping along.
Weak as it is, and full of shortcomings, it is still our only global platform. And that is where the process of renewal should start.
In short, COP reform is a task for the United Nations. It is high time the UN – and in particular UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres – take stock of the situation and come up with a solution.
The need for reform is urgent and Professor Mazzucato has shown the way: We know exactly how COP should be reformed: the 5 points indicated here, from binding goals and implementation to funding. The UN needs to give up its obsession with decision-making by consensus which has always allowed petrostates and Saudi Arabia in particular, to exercise their vote and stop the COP decision-making process.
The first thing the UN needs to do is ditch “consensus”: Decision-making must be done by majority vote.
Will the UN rise to the challenge? Can humanity really vote to save itself from self-annihilation?
Update 30 December: There is perhaps a silver lining if one looks further and beyond the COP process (which is the topic of this ope-ed): The Guardian reported today that a “growing number of climate analysts believe that 2023 may be recorded as the year in which annual emissions reached a pinnacle before the global fossil fuel economy begins a terminal decline.”
If that “terminal decline” turns out to be true and is confirmed in the near future, then it is decidedly good news. But it still doesn’t change anything to the core argument made here: That the COP process needs urgent reform. It would only mean the overall goal is slightly changed to accompany the decline of the global fossil fuel economy, ensuring that the shift away from fossil fuels is carried out as quickly as possible and in the best conditions, without adversely affecting the world’s poor and marginalized.