Elizabeth May – Letter from COP28: A Climate Lifeline Worth Grabbing

Letter from COP28: A Climate Lifeline Worth Grabbing – Policy Magazine

By Elizabeth May

December 13, 2023

As I sit in the Dubai airport awaiting my 14-hour flight to Toronto, I am reading reactions (reactions in emails or in the media? If media, can we cite sources so I can link to them?) to COP28 from friends and colleagues around the world. Friend and fellow British Columbian, Tzeporah Berman, founder of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, saw the commitment to tripling renewable energy and doubling energy efficiency as positive, “But”, she writes on Twitter/X, “without a clear commitment for it to displace fossil fuels it won’t work. The atmosphere does not care how much renewable energy we build. It cares about how much fossil fuels we don’t.”

UK Green colleague and founder of Extinction Rebellion Rupert Reed, is scathing. “The real danger of the final Cop28 ‘positive’ outcome is that it makes it seem as if something has been achieved. Whereas all that has been achieved after 28 years is a toothless statement of the obvious: that we need to transition away from fossil fuels.”

Hard to disagree, and yet I do. I think the real danger will be in a lessening of the pressure for transformational change and fast. Headlines about a deal to save the world often lead to a collective sense of relief, and a diminution of public pressure. A COP decision does not deliver changes in capitals around the world — only public mobilization back home can do that.

Still, the language in the final decision document does represent a major shift. Nearly two hundred countries have now agreed that we have to move away from fossil fuels, and fast.

The Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Simon Stiell, proclaimed within minutes of the approval of the key text by 197 nations present, “This is the beginning of the end of fossil fuels.”

What was the COP28 debate really about? News coverage is rarely detailed in terms of how these treaties and pledges intersect, but they do build on each other. The Rio agreement of 1992, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), remains the legal treaty within which every COP occurs. That treaty was ratified in the US Senate by the ¾ vote required for the USA to be legally bound to any international agreement. That was done under the late US President, George H.W. Bush, 41st President and father of #43. Thank heavens he managed that post-Rio feat or none of the subsequent global climate treaties would have any clout in international law. Similarly, the Kyoto Protocol of COP3, and the Copenhagen agreement of COP15 are all products of the multilateral process under UNFCCC.

The language in the final decision document does represent a major shift. Nearly two hundred countries have now agreed that we have to move away from fossil fuels, and fast.

As the COPs limp along and we fail to avert the kind of climate events — whether killer storms, or fires, floods or heat domes — we could have avoided had we acted in the 1990s, it is easy to regard the process itself as pointless and flawed beyond redemption.

This COP had a level of desperate urgency precisely because governments have made promises and then done the opposite. Since 1992, when the largest gathering of world leaders to that point in history agreed to the UNFCCC promising to reduce emissions of Greenhouse gases to avoid dangerous changes to the climate, the world’s economies have emitted more GHG than between the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and that Rio Earth Summit.

For COP28, the key agenda item was to fulfill a requirement of the 2015 Paris Agreement, negotiated at COP21. In the Paris Agreement, it was established that in 2023 there would be a full and comprehensive review of whether the world was on track to meet key Paris goals. In order to safeguard life on Earth, the Paris agreement set out that all nations cooperate to ensure that global average temperature increase due to human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change be held to as far below 2 degrees C as possible and to make every effort to avoid warming of 1.5 degrees C.

Even though the Paris Agreement, like the UNFCCC, is considered “legally binding” under United Nations rules, unlike the most successful environmental treaty ever — the Montreal Protocol that saved the ozone layer — it lacks any enforcement mechanism. The comprehensive review called the Global Stocktake will be revisited every five years through the COP process.

In a real sense. this Global Stocktake is the treaty’s only method of enforcement, and this first Global Stocktake was a critical reality check. Could the world face the truth of the rapidly dwindling chances of holding to 1.5 degrees C? And more importantly could it chart a course to hold to 1.5.?

The Stocktake confirmed that collectively the world is not on track to meet our commitments. In a nearly 200-paragraph text, it reiterated that to keep any hope alive of holding to 1.5, much more must be done and fast.

Key elements of the agreement, to which Canada is now committed include:

  • Limits global warming to 1.5 °C with no or limited overshoot and requires deep, rapid and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions of 43 percent by 2030 and 60 per cent by 2035 relative to the 2019 level.
  • Calls for significant increases in both adaptation and mitigation financing.
  • Calls on parties to triple renewable energy capacity globally and double the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030;
  • Accelerates efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and towards net zero emission energy systems
  • Transitions away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050
  • Reduces emissions of methane, itself a more powerful GHG than carbon dioxide, but shorter lived in the atmosphere.

All these commitments must be acted on with urgency. Canada’s announced emissions cap has a timeline that does not suggest urgency. We finally have a framework within which regulations will be developed. And the cap is targeting a smaller level of cuts than was initially promised.

No one fully informed about the climate crisis and its galloping levels of unfairness in impacts to the most vulnerable, enormous gaps between rhetoric and reality through decades of climate promises could be jubilant at this critical moment. But the COP28 global decision is a lifeline. We have to grab it!

Contributing Writer Elizabeth May, MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, is the Leader of the Green Party of Canada.