If COP28 brokers a global climate deal on these proposals, it would help fast-track a just transition away from fossil fuels. If it fails, the chances of such a transition will be dangerously diminished, Prof İbrahim Özdemir writes.
Climate change dominated this month's United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, which set the agenda for the major UN COP28 climate talks later this year hosted by the UAE.
Those talks will be humanity’s last chance to get a global agreement to avoid dangerous climate change.
Yet confidence in COP28 has been tarnished by reports of greenwashing and fossil fuel lobbying. Many feel apathetic about the world’s seventh-largest oil producer hosting the UN climate negotiations.
Yet, research published by Uskudar University and the UN-accredited Caribbean-ASEAN Council shows that this thinking is downright dangerous — because it could fatally derail the most ambitious climate action agenda in history.
Dr Al Jaber is no 'oil man'
Seven colleagues from across the Global South and I teamed up to conduct a detailed comparative analysis of the goals and actions of the five most recent COP presidencies.
After comparing COP28’s proposals and actual actions to the agenda and behaviour of previous COP presidencies, we discovered that the widespread belief that this COP28 represents the worst climate conference of all time is completely unfounded.
For instance, the characterisation of Dr Sultan Al Jaber as an "oil man" by the Western press is misleading.
Al Jaber in fact founded and ran the UAE state-owned renewable energy company in 2006. About a decade later, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed vowed at a UAE government summit that the country would celebrate the shipment of “the last barrel of oil” by the mid-21st century.
Then in January 2016, the UAE’s Cabinet Ministry held a "Post-Oil" strategy retreat to end dependence on fossil fuel production.
The next month, the UAE formally launched and adopted a national strategy for life after oil, and only in this context was Al Jaber moved from his role at Masdar to become CEO of the state-owned oil company Adnoc.
Stuck between fossil fuel and a hard place
Since then, Adnoc has made huge strides, with 100% of its power coming from clean electricity produced from nuclear and solar.
Although criticised for planning to invest $150 billion (€141bn) in oil and gas expansion, our analysis reveals that the total value of the renewable energy projects planned by the UAE with various partners this decade, both domestically and globally, is far higher and amounts to over $300bn (€282bn).
This is not only larger than the UAE’s planned fossil fuel investments, it is considerably bigger than investments mobilised by previous COP presidencies into clean energy.
Our conclusion is that the COP28 presidency is attempting to strike a difficult balance confronting developing nations: protecting their prosperity while safeguarding the planet.
As Dr Sultan Al Jaber stated in his speech to the UN Climate Ambition Summit at the General Assembly meeting in New York, the “phasedown” of fossil fuels is both “inevitable” and “essential”.
But we cannot simply eliminate fossil fuels when the new energy system has not yet been built, which is why he urged a “rapid phase up of zero carbon alternatives” and efforts to “rapidly and comprehensively decarbonise the energies we use today.”
Indeed, emerging markets and population growth will drive growth in electricity demand of up to 185% by 2050.
Yet as Al Jaber also warned, within the next seven years we have to simultaneously grow our energy supply while slashing 22 gigatonnes of carbon emissions to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
We cannot afford to do this by suddenly eliminating fossil fuel production — the Russian gas crisis showed that even a modest deficit in global energy will spark an intolerable global economic catastrophe.
That’s why we need to simultaneously increase and decarbonise the global energy supply.
There is a promising road we could take
Our investigation of the key components of the COP28 agenda suggests it offers a promising pathway to achieve this.
Tripling renewable energy capacity in the next seven years will reduce its costs to around a quarter of the current cost of fossil fuels, a prospect that would drive them to rapidly outcompete fossil fuels well within the next 20 years.
While scaling up renewables, a commitment to both “phasedown” fossil fuels, and “phaseout” fossil fuel production where carbon emissions are not captured, will incentivise governments to avoid fossil fuel companies that ignore this commitment.
As we cannot simply end fossil fuel production in seven years, ramping up carbon capture as quickly as possible is the only way to reduce emissions in this time frame.
Although carbon capture is not yet commercially viable, our report points out how partnering with renewable energy could make it commercial in the late 2020s.
Governments need to use both sticks and carrots to get fossil fuel industries to move as rapidly as possible.
Restructuring climate financing to make it low-cost and reduce debt burdens could finally unlock the trillions of dollars the developing world desperately needs to fast-track its energy transitions while simultaneously industrialising.
It's all about fast-tracking a just transition
The climate action plan proposed by the UAE’s presidency of this year’s COP climate summit offers the most ambitious agenda ever put forward by a COP presidency in 28 years.
If COP28 brokers a global climate deal on these proposals, it would help fast-track a just transition away from fossil fuels. If it fails, the chances of such a transition will be dangerously diminished.
That’s why we believe it’s time for governments and civil society to seize this groundbreaking opportunity for the world to unite on robust climate action.
Professor İbrahim Özdemir is a UN advisor and an ecologist teaching at Üsküdar University. He has served as Director-General at the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Turkish Ministry of Education and was a leading member in drafting the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change endorsed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC.
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