“Scientific progress, not politics, should be the focus at COP28 climate conference”
Climate conference season seems to come earlier every year. COP28, the latest instalment of the UN’s annual global climate summit, will take place in Dubai from 30 November. It represents an opportunity to turn a corner on climate change by mapping out a viable route to achieving emissions goals. Unfortunately, before the conference has even begun, politicking is overshadowing it.
With the UAE hosting COP28, there is concern around the possibility of fossil fuel interests skewing conversations at the conference. OPEC, a body which represents oil exporters, will be allowed to attend (1). Sultan al Jaber, president of COP28, is himself chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). According to Christiana Figueres, a former UN climate boss, his leadership of COP28 is “very dangerous” (2).
It’s clear where Figueres’s objections stem from. She, like many in the environment movement, sees the fight against climate change as a fight against fossil fuel companies, so she finds an oil executive leading the world’s biggest climate conference worrying. But these concerns miss the point.
IEA’s outlook about fossil future
The International Energy Agency (IEA)’s latest World Energy Outlook warns that even though oil, gas and coal demand is set to peak and plateau before 2030 due to the “unstoppable” rise of renewables, fossil fuels will still be contributing 73% (down from 80% today) of the global economy’s energy needs – declining slowly up to 2050 (3).
So, whether we like it or not, fossil fuels are going to be with us for decades to come. Energy is the essential ingredient which keeps society moving, and fossil fuels will remain our most accessible source of mass quantities of energy for the foreseeable future. As energy expert Alex Epstein puts it, “the essential value of energy… to human flourishing is that they amplify and expand our naturally meagre productive ability – our ability to produce the material values we need to survive and flourish, from food to clothing to medical care to education.” (4)
Reaching net-zero emissions will take a long time; escaping the need to use fossil fuels at all is a very distant idea, far out of reach. With fossil fuels going nowhere any time soon, greenhouse gas emissions are here to stay too – unless we do something about them. This means that we have no choice but to ramp up efforts to safely capture and store carbon emissions. Both the IEA and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agree that we need carbon capture at scale.
Wishful thinking from the NGO vs science
That’s why demanding fossil fuels be excluded from COP28 is a recipe for disaster. The stark reality is that we can’t ‘Just Stop Oil’. Even if we turned off the oil taps tomorrow, we would still need to do something about the emissions we’ve already accumulated in the atmosphere (5) – but wouldn’t be able to without any energy. We’d also plunge billions into poverty overnight, swing a wrecking ball through countless industries, and essentially trigger total economic collapse.
The world has relied on fossil fuels since the industrial revolution. The process of weaning ourselves off them is well underway, but we have a long way to go and many more difficult problems to navigate. To do it right, we need leading energy industry voices around the table.
With 98 countries in the world being oil producers – half of whom are middle-income developing nations (6) – every single one of these countries needs a viable plan for a just transition which allows them to meet their growing energy needs cleanly and cheaply.
That’s also why Al Jaber’s emphasis on the need to “be laser-focused on phasing out fossil fuel emissions” (7) while phasing down the use of fossil fuels, makes sense. Critics accuse him of greenwashing, given ADNOC’s plans to expand oil and gas capacity this decade. But they’ve perhaps overlooked the nuance in this position. Expanding capacity isn’t the same as expanding production – if the demand for oil and gas isn’t there, ADNOC will not supply it. And if the demand is there, Al Jaber’s ambition is for ADNOC to offer the cleanest fossil fuels in the world – reflected in its plans to capture almost half its operational emissions by 2030 (8).
A new decarbonization market
At COP28, we have an opportunity to create a new global decarbonization market in which oil companies who are ahead in capturing emissions have a competitive advantage, rather than the other way round. With Al Jaber having already secured commitments from 20 leading oil and gas majors
That’s why excluding the fossil fuel industry from climate change discussions cannot be anything but self-defeating.
Popular opinion, which consistently ranks climate change among the world’s greatest political challenges (9) will continue to fuel free-market competition in the energy industry, leading to a race between fossil fuel companies to make progress on decarbonization.
Climate conferences in recent years have produced underwhelming results. COP28 could be different, but only if politicking does not obstruct progress. Excluding oil voices would be unproductive virtue-signalling. COP28 should focus on the issues, not the politics.
(4) Epstein, A. (2022) Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas – Not Less. pp23