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Dear World Leaders, Are You Listening Now?

TORONTO, Canada, Nov 27 2023 (IPS) - Another year and another UN climate change conference. As our ‘world leaders’ prepare for two air-conditioned weeks of wrangling at COP28 in Dubai later this month, forgive us for sounding underwhelmed, despairing, and even cynical about these annual jamborees where actions rarely match promises.

Farhana Haque Rahman

Some context: 2023 is almost certain to be the hottest year for Earth for some 125,000 years, and it has already seen devastating storms, floods, extreme drought, and wildfires. September and October set shocking records for monthly global temperature highs.

Earth’s systems are flashing warning signals. Immense carbon sinks in peatlands and tropical wetlands show signs of morphing instead into sources of greenhouse gas emissions; the melting of Antarctic Sea ice has accelerated; the Arctic risks total loss of late summer sea ice in the next decade; drought and deforestation in the Amazon could turn rainforest to savannah.

This year’s Conference of the Parties (COP) comes mid-way between the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement and the 2030 interim target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent from 2010 levels to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and thus keep global temperature increases within 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels.

But we are way off target. Based on national commitments made by governments worldwide, we are still heading towards a sizeable increase in emissions by 2030 compared to 2010.

A roadmap to accelerate climate action is desperately needed at COP28. But instead of phasing out fossil fuels – by far the major source of emissions – big and wealthy nations are, in the words of UN Secretary General António Guterres, “literally doubling down on fossil fuel production.”

In aggregate, according to the UN-led 2023 Production Gap Report, governments still plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C.

The report names the top 10 countries responsible for the largest carbon emissions from planned production: India for coal, Saudi Arabia for oil, and Russia for coal, oil, and gas. Major oil producers with big plans also include the US and Canada.

The United Arab Emirates is the host of COP28, due to start on November 30, and is presided over by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, UAE industry and advanced technology minister and group CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

Of course, producers would not produce without customers. China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, approved the equivalent of two new large coal plants a week in 2022.

So, have we humans already pushed the planet to the point of no return, to a stage of cascading negative feedback loops already triggering a sixth mass extinction of species, the last being 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs were wiped out?

Perhaps not yet… quite… but maybe soon.

In the best judgment of the scientists on the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in their Sixth Assessment Report published this year, the world has a “rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all…The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years.”

They said the same thing last year, but few listened then. Will they now?

Cuts in emissions must be deep and immediate, which is the crux of COP28. As Guterres and many others have shouted from the rooftops, world leaders must agree in Dubai to phase out fossil fuels and shut their ears to the lobbyists who have enabled their petro-state masters to earn billions of dollars in profit this year alone.

As the IPCC scientists also bravely note, there is, thankfully, some climate action. The rate of increase in global greenhouse emissions has slowed and may be peaking; costs of solar and wind energy and batteries have tumbled; the deployment of renewable energy has risen faster than expected; the rate of deforestation has decreased.

IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee did remind everyone last April: “We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming.”

The International Energy Agency’s latest World Energy Outlook 2023 also has some encouraging elements. An analysis of the IEA data by UK-based Carbon Brief suggests that global CO2 emissions from energy use and industry could peak as soon as this year. This is due in part to the worldwide energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. China’s slowing economic growth also helps.

Fossil fuel peaks are driven by the “unstoppable” growth of low-carbon technologies, but renewable energy capacity targets will be tripled by 2030, the IEA says. This has to be a key outcome of COP28, an element that China should approve of, given its dominance worldwide in this sector.

It is sad but also just that COP28 may, in the end, be best remembered for the man who will not be there.

Prof Saleemul Huq, Bangladeshi scientist and climate justice activist, died on October 28, aged 71. A man who constantly raised the great moral questions over the unequal sufferings inflicted by the climate crisis, Huq was seen as the champion of the “loss and damage” fund, which was agreed in principle at COP27 in Egypt but has yet to be implemented.

Recent preparatory talks made some progress, with developing countries conceding that the fund will be under the World Bank for an interim period. But the US still insists that contributions from wealthy nations historically responsible for the climate crisis be voluntary, while China insists on exemption given its “developing nation” status. COP28 must get this fund off the ground, and China, too, should stop playing geopolitics.

Named by Nature as one of the world’s top 10 scientists last year, Huq had penned an open letter to the UAE’s Al-Jaber urging him to pre-empt drawn-out debates by announcing the intended creation of the “Dubai Loss and Damage Fund.”

“As far as I am concerned, if all you can say at the end of COP28 is that ‘progress’ has been made on the issue of funding loss and damage, that will be the kiss of death,” Huq wrote, demanding urgent support for the “poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet,” citing by way of example the “over 2,000 climate displaced people” who arrive daily “by foot, cycle, boat and bus in Dhaka and disappear into the city slums.”

Another leftover pledge from COP26 in Glasgow was to double adaptation finance from 2019 levels by 2025. Provisions are dwarfed by needs. They are also dwarfed many times over by the subsidies given to fossil fuels, estimated by the IMF to reach $7 trillion globally last year.

Veteran scientists recently warned that Earth will cross the 1.5 degrees threshold this decade, much earlier than the IPCC fears on our current course. Either way, the trend is clear, and so are the actions needed. The world will judge harshly any failure at COP28 to redress climate injustice or declare a clear pathway to end the exploitation of fossil fuels.

Farhana Haque Rahman is the Executive Director of IPS Inter Press Service Noram and Senior Vice President of IPS; she served as the elected Director General of IPS from 2015 to 2019. A journalist and communications expert who lived and worked in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America, she is a former senior official of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization FAO and the International Fund for Agricultural Development IFAD.

IPS UN Bureau


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