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Sorry, John Kerry: COP28 is already dead on arrival

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By Christopher Caldwell

· 6 min read

Is it that time of year again already?

The decorations are going up. The adverts are starting. Everyone is checking their travel, stuffing last-minute gift bags, and drafting their seasonal messages.

As I write this, there are only 28 more sleeps left! 

That’s right: it’s COP time. Are you excited?

Who’s in the Santa suit?

I’ll forgive you if you aren’t feeling full of seasonal cheer; it’s been a lean few years in COP-land after all. Dare we remember 2022’s effort, billed as ‘the worst COP ever?’ I’ll keep it brief.

For all that we can commend the eventual wins on loss-and-damage in Sharm-El-Sheik, the ‘implementation COP’ turned out to be anything but. Forty thousand elites crammed into a desert pleasure resort blew through all their deadlines, and only just managed to agree on what they should talk about next time. Implementation – and the cold hard cash that enables it – was nowhere to be seen.

How is COP 28 shaping up? This year the Santa suit passes to the United Arab Emirates, whose COP President and lead Climate Envoy, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, also just happens to head the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. That’s the firm that has announced plans to expand production by over seven billion barrels in coming years – 90% of which would overshoot the IEA’s net-zero calculations. 

Even as he wipes the oil stains from his beard, this Santa has been putting his elves to work. Sadly, the toys they have been making include fake human rights lawyer Twitter bots (complete with “impossibly sultry” profile photos) and clockwork Wikipedia editors to protect him from online criticism. And if we’ve taken anything from the World Cup in neighbouring Qatar last year, it’s not to ask too many questions about labour conditions in that particular workshop!

 So what can we realistically expect in our COP stockings this year? 

Kerry’s case

For those of us fearful of yet another lump of coal, we might have been cheered by John Kerry’s recent interview in the Financial Times, in which he laid out the positive case for COP 28.

I admire Kerry. The U.S.’s first Special Presidential Envoy for Climate has been a sincere, hard-working and pragmatic leader for the climate cause in Washington for many years, and deserves much of the credit for the green turn under Biden.

As America’s carnival barker for climate cooperation, he’s got a tough gig too. We should applaud his efforts to engage with China, India and other tricky customers; and naturally, he is talking up the potential of this COP.

The question is: do we buy it?

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

When asked what a good outcome would be this year, Kerry was clear that there are three automatic outcomes that will push the climate cause forward. Let’s examine them in turn.

“One is the adaptation report that is due, which will lay out a pathway for what we need to do to meet adaptation needs… And I will add, President Biden announced a $12bn five-year plan called Prepare, which is in the budget also in order to help countries to be able to adapt.”

After the hottest year on record, in which the world was ravaged by fire and flood, we can look forward to… another report. To think I was starting to worry there for a minute!

This would have made sense twenty years ago, but the climate crisis has already arrived. Yes, $12 billion for ‘Plan Prepare’ is a good thing. But spread over five years, it’s a drop in the ocean. What happened to the $100bn a year the world promised the Green Climate Fund in 2009? How is announcing something a fraction of the size – and nearly fifteen years late – a step forward?
“Two, we have to deliver on the loss and damage fund, it has to be completed. We have draft proposals. We’re on track to hopefully present something to the COP that will be viable.” 

Kerry is absolutely right here. This was the landmark outcome of COP 27 and needs to move from idea to action. The question is: how will it be funded? The great inflationary surge has caused the world to tighten its purse strings – even as fossil fuel companies make record profits. 

If only there were some way for governments to claim some of the $800bn in profits that these oil companies are due on their new (net-zero busting) oil fields by 2030. It begins with a T…

“The third ingredient is the stocktake [of global efforts to limit warming], which is going to be tough. I hope it’s tough…we think more has to be done on mitigation. And so we are looking to raise the game universally, particularly from those 20 major economies that are responsible for [almost 80 percent] of all the emissions…We’re making progress with a lot of those countries.”

What is a global stocktake but more promises to count rather than actually cut? At the end of the day, global emissions are still rising; and much of the fall in measured emissions in developed countries has simply been a shell game, offshoring production to other top-20 players like China and India anyway. I’m not holding my breath for anything meaningful here.

From politicians to markets?

To be fair to Kerry, much of his positivity stems from his view that the social tipping point has been reached on climate action, led by the private sector rather than governments.

There is a bigger question there about the role of corporations in climate politics, which I’ll address next week.

For now, it doesn’t look like our global political process is particularly interested in wresting the initiative on climate back from the market. I see nothing that will move the needle, unlock real dollars, or move us from talk to action. 

So, for all his optimism, I’m sad to say that I think Kerry is wrong. COP 28 is dead on arrival.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Christopher Caldwell is the CEO of United Renewables, where he employs his past experiences as a corporate lawyer, investment banker, and team leader to lead all aspects of the business. Chris holds a degree in business from Trinity College Dublin, an MBA from London Business School, and is currently reading part-time at the Yale Center for Business & the Environment. 

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