The twenty-eighth Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change – or COP28 for short – recently took place in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The negotiations that go on at these COP meetings tell us something about the bind that humanity increasingly finds itself in. On the one hand, there is the fact of an energy-intensive civilization that growing numbers of humans are getting used and attached to. We only have to remember the ever-increasing number of gadgets – from the electric toothbrush to the electric car – we plug in every day to see how the consumption of energy dominates all aspects of our lives, from self-care to the delivery of goods and services that sustain us. Even the two contemporary wars are reminiscent of this: the firepower of a nation lies in its capacity to unleash huge bursts of energy in the shape of bombs and missiles that can destroy lives and built structures in a matter of minutes; and human lives become tragic if hospitals have to run without electricity and water, that is to say, without access to energy. The consumption of energy is at the core of what we have come to regard as civilization. Humans want to migrate from societies in which per capita energy consumption is low to those where these figures are much higher. This demand for more and more energy fuels all dreams of equity of human material affluence.
On the other hand, there is the question of where we source this energy from. Over the last four or so decades, governments and their publics have increasingly become aware – thanks to the work of many dedicated scientists – that deriving all or most of the energy we need from fossil fuel sources can, by the process of emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, drive up the surface temperature of the planet to a point where the earth may become inhospitable or extremely unpleasant for life, particularly human life. Pushed to an extreme, the process can threaten human existence.
So, in the absence of a global-governance regime, the COP processes are the best we have for managing this conundrum where, if we want to have our “energy cake” and “eat” it too, humans will have to transition to a sustainable state of atmospheric warming, given that the options of returning by choice to preindustrial lifestyles or pursuing degrowth seem out of the question. Based on both scientific and political advice, COP16 at Cancun in 2010 resolved that nations should aim to keep the average warming below 1.50C over the preindustrial average and substitute that target for the previously preferred figure of 20C. Close to two hundred nations signed on to this formula at COP21 held in Paris in 2015 whereby they undertook to decarbonize their economies according to nationally determined levels to reach this goal.
French researchers Béatrice Cointe and Hélène Guillemot have recently described this target as “at once recent and, as it appears increasingly unreachable, almost obsolete.” Their somewhat ironic take is repeated by Faith Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, who states that while the “rapid deployment of clean energy technology” has “shaved off” about 10C of projected global warming by the end of this century by bringing it down from “the truly catastrophic 30C” to “an only slightly less severe 2.40C,” it is not yet “good news.” NASA website describes some of the main differences between the respective scenarios for 1.5-degree warming and 2-degree warming thus: “At 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, about 14 percent of Earth’s population will be exposed to severe heatwaves at least once every five years, while at 2 degrees warming that number jumps to 37 percent. Extreme heatwaves will become widespread at 1.5 degrees Celsius warming.” The average rise in global temperature in 2019 was already 1.1 degree Celsius above the preindustrial average. Things must get a lot worse if the warming goes up to 2.40 Celsius.
COP28 therefore took place in a perceived atmosphere of “climate emergency.” The planet is hurtling towards a warming level of well beyond 1.50C, and the COP processes have clearly failed to arrest this trend. As Birol says, currently “we are not on track to meet the Paris agreement of keeping global warming well below 20C.” Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel are on a record high, reports the Global Carbon Project at Exeter. The bulk of the emissions come from a small number of countries. Between them, China, the US, India, EU27, Russia, Brazil represented more than 63 percent of fossil fuel consumption and 62 percent of greenhouse gas emissions last year. It is also true that the use of coal, the most offending fossil fuel, is not going to be given up anytime soon. China and India have more coalmines in the pipeline. For coal still remains the fossil fuel par excellence in terms of the “cheap” and plentiful amount of energy one can harvest per unit compared to other sources.
A positive and welcome development at COP28 was the establishment of the global “loss and damages” funds to compensate for the unavoidable losses that climate change will cause to people least responsible for it. However, a “climate emergency” also means that no options are off the table, including the technological ones of carbon capture and sequestration from the air and in the process of mining fossil fuel. As the emergency becomes even more dire, we will probably hear soon about more experimental technologies like those being developed to engineer the climate of the whole planet.
Slow, entangled, and uncertain, COP processes reflect a fundamental reality. Humans share this one planet, but human politics remain divided and scaled, from local to global levels inside and between nations. National politicians are primarily driven by their diverse domestic constituencies. Even the technologies on offer for addressing planetary problems index the inequities and power imbalances of the world. But an implicit agreement binds the world’s democratic and authoritarian-minded leaders together. Their domestic constituencies aspire for more, and not less, energy so that the amenities and conveniences of modernization could be accessed by increasingly larger sections of a human population that is still growing. How politics will reconcile these understandable and just (in human terms) aspirations with the knowledge of the environmental degradations that an unbridled pursuit of modernization has already caused and will continue to cause in the foreseeable future is anybody’s guess.