What we need now from the leadership of COP28

Countless lives can be saved by putting national interests aside and spearheading a fossil fuel phase-out at this year’s COP.

A view shows the 'Cop28 UAE' logo on a globe, during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW), in Abu Dhabi, UAE, January 17, 2023. REUTERS/Rula Rouhana
COP28 will take place November 30 to December 12, 2023 in Dubai, UAE [File: Reuters/Rula Rouhana]

There is a big difference between national leaders and global leaders. The former push national interests on the global stage, often using the rhetoric of global solutions. The latter carry a vision that extends beyond personal interests, election cycles or profit margins to do the best for humanity.

The position of president of the Conference of the Parties (COP), the United Nations’ annual climate summit, requires a global leader. This year’s conference will be held in the United Arab Emirates under the presidency of Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

It is hard not to be deeply sceptical of the idea that the head of an oil company will be able to drive the 28th summit of COP towards an outcome which gives the world hope about its future in the shadow of a devastating climate crisis. That is because fossil fuels account for 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and in order to have some hope, we must end the use of oil, gas and coal in a rapid and just manner.

Unfortunately, with only six months to go until COP28 begins in Dubai, Al Jaber is living up to widespread low expectations. In a speech earlier this month, he spoke of “phasing out fossil fuel emissions” – a reference to using carbon capture and storage technology to reduce the emissions from burning fossil fuels, instead of phasing out fossil fuels themselves.

Such an approach is unrealistic and incompatible with the Paris Agreement. The United Nations has made it clear that the world needs to cut its emissions by 45 percent by 2030 to have a chance at staying under the 1.5C warming threshold. Currently, carbon capture and storage technology is highly expensive and simply does not exist at the necessary scale to make even a scratch on that target. We do not have time for fairytale solutions designed to save the oil and gas industry.

The UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called investing in new fossil fuel projects “moral and economic madness”. The International Energy Agency says we cannot afford to put in any new finance for coal, oil or gas if we are to meet net-zero targets; instead, we need a massive deployment of renewable energy. The science is clear and the goal is clear, but we are still missing the global leadership to take us there.

COP28 must change that. For too long, UN climate summits have ignored the central cause of the climate crisis; no longer can they afford to. This year’s summit must signal the beginning of this rapid shift away from fossil fuels, towards clean energy. To do this, the UAE has to facilitate an agreement between the world’s nations on phasing out all fossil fuels.

COP28 also needs to ensure that finance going to the Global South to fund this transition is massively increased. Currently, Africa has 39 percent of the world’s potential for renewable energy, yet it receives just 2 percent of global investment in the sector.

COP28 should also secure real money for the Loss and Damage Fund which was agreed upon at COP27 and which still sits empty despite increasingly devastating climate events hitting the poorest countries.

Still, funding for loss and damage will never be enough to compensate for the chaos and destruction that the climate crisis will cause if we keep burning fossil fuels.

That is why we cannot have a COP presidency that puts national or corporate interests over the interests of humanity. In taking on this role, Al Jaber has promised to represent us all. His priority must be people – and particularly the people suffering the worst effects of climate change – not the fossil fuel industry.

In East Africa, the climate crisis is having a devastating impact. Last September, I went to Turkana, Kenya with UNICEF to visit children suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Twenty million people are currently facing starvation in the region, largely because of an unprecedented drought that, scientists say, was made 100 times more likely by climate change.

In Turkana, I met a six-year-old boy at a hospital where the worst cases of severe acute malnutrition are referred. His grandmother had not been able to access the life-saving care he needed in time. Tragically, he passed away later that same day.

We can no longer prevent the climate crisis, but every fraction of a degree of further warming will make heatwaves more intense, droughts more prolonged and storms more powerful. Every year that passes without a rapid transformation of our economies away from fossil fuels means more will be lost to the climate crisis.

In June, the world’s climate negotiators will meet in Bonn, Germany, to assess progress towards COP28. Its president, Al Jaber, must head to Bonn with a credible plan for decarbonisation. This will be his opportunity to save countless lives, he must not miss it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.