Board Blog

Idahoans at the Table and More About COP28

Keith Daum, PhD, ISEC Board Member

January 31, 2024

As I reflect in this new year about the outcomes of COP28, which culminated on December 12, I acknowledge that there were some beneficial and possibly effective agreements made among the participating nations.  I was, however, hoping for something more valuable and significant.  Something definitive to give the countries who are part of COP more confidence that the world will work together to address climate change.  While this didn’t happen, I was pleased that at least two groups from Idaho were “at the table” as part of the meeting.

First, some background for context. 

In 1994, the United Nations started the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to prevent “dangerous” human interference with the climate system.  There have now been 28 COP UN conferences focused on climate action.  

COP21 was held in Paris in 2015, where the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change action, was adopted by 195 countries.  Its overarching goal is to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and pursue efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”  Today, the Paris Agreement has been ratified by 198 countries.

The scientific information about climate change is provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was formed in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).  The scientific information provided by the IPCC is intended to be used to develop climate policies and conduct international climate change negotiations.  The latest IPCC reports are available here.

Now back to COP28, which was held in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates from November 30 through December 12.  Estimates vary, but about 85,000 people participated in this meeting and I expect most of them flew to Dubai.  Some were voting delegates, but most were support staff, politicians, lobbyists, businesspeople, activists, and journalists.  Notably, there were at least two groups from Idaho. 

The UAE is an authoritarian oil state.  The president of COP28 was Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, the chief executive of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.  And Dubai is the location of the world’s biggest gas-fired power plant.  The potential conflict of interest is huge.  As Yogi Berra once said “That’s too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence.”

The current UN framework adds to the complexity of negotiations by requiring that all participating countries agree on any legislation, rulings, or agreements. This means that island and developing nations, most vulnerable to climate change, have to agree to the same wording as fossil fuel exporting nations, like UAE, and nations who burn large quantities of fossil fuels, like USA and EU.  While there may be advantages to this system of requiring all countries to agree, it also seems a difficult foundation for any type of truly productive negotiations. 

First, the good news.  At the start of the conference, nations made an agreement on an unprecedented loss and damage fund aimed at helping vulnerable nations hit by climate emergencies:  basically, rich nations helping developing nations.  Many countries, including the COP28 host country, the UAE, made pledges totaling more than $700 million to help nations hit hardest by climate change.  This is probably a good start.  Unfortunately, there are no requirements in the deal for wealthy countries to give more if developing nations continue to suffer.

An important agreement to slash emissions of methane, another powerful greenhouse gas, was also reached in the early days of the meeting. As part of this, the US announced regulations to cut methane emissions from our huge oil and gas industry by nearly 80% through 2038.  And, worldwide, 50 major oil and gas companies, including Exxon and Saudi Aramco, signed a pledge to cut their methane emissions by the end of the decade, each committing to reduce their methane emissions by at least 80% by 2030.  In the US, I expect the majority of these reductions will come from repairing and replacing leaking valves and pipe connectors, possibly something that would be an obvious part of a good maintenance program.  Methane emissions are sometimes discounted as a greenhouse gas because their lifespan in the atmosphere is 9.6 years, far shorter than CO2 the greenhouse gas which gets the most press.  Reductions in methane emissions can have a significant effect on climate change and are still important to address, and this was a good starting point for future negotiations. 

Now, on to where I was disappointed. 

COP28 was expected to be a milestone moment, when the world took stock of progress on the Paris Agreement.  This didn’t go very well.  Prior to the meeting, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change published its NDC Synthesis Report, showing that many countries are not on a pathway to meet their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which are the climate pledges made by each country.  The report further showed that even if the UN Framework is implemented, those current NDCs would lead to a 9 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 compared to 2010 levels.  There was no useful discussion that countries were not meeting their pledges or that the overall program is not meeting its objective.  

I was also disappointed in the final agreement at COP28, which only calls on countries to contribute to a “transition 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 in keeping with the science”.   My first question is, what exactly does the phrase “in keeping with the science” mean?  If the IPCC data and NDC Synthesis analysis are the science being used, I would welcome the phrase.  My concern is that countries made wealthy by oil have strong incentives to either fund their own science or twist IPCC science in a way that favors them.  

I do see as positive that the final agreement marks the first COP legislation with any wording to reduce fossil fuel use.  Unfortunately, it only “calls on” countries to “contribute” to global efforts to reduce carbon pollution.  

What the agreement doesn’t do is require a “phase-out” of fossil fuels.  During negotiations, only about 100 countries supported “phase-out” language (including the US and EU).  “Phase-out” was aggressively opposed by fossil fuel states such as Saudi Arabia.  “Phase-out” stimulated a useful discussion between myself and Stephanie Walsh, our ISEC President.  She and I agree that the root problem is too much carbon and that countries need to commit to even greater reductions than called for in the Paris Agreement.  We also agree that there is an important continuing role for some very limited fossil fuel use.  Some people, especially in poor countries, need fossil fuels just to survive.  If reductions are substantial in other parts of the world, then limited use in poor countries can be accommodated.  The wording in the final agreement gives wealthy countries and oil-exporting states too much wiggle room.  Some wording is needed to put human life ahead of profits. 

As COP28 was wrapping up, there was another heated negotiation, this time over who would host and preside over COP29.  Under UN rules, Eastern Europe is next in the rotation for the presidency.  But COP countries must unanimously agree, this time on the host country.  Also remember the ongoing Eastern Europe war between Ukraine and Russia.  After the dust settled, Azerbaijan was selected to host COP29.  And shortly after, Mukhtar Babayev, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources, was named as president-designate of COP29.  Babayev previously headed Azerbaijan’s state oil company, SOCAR, before being appointed minister in 2018.  To some, this will seem a continuation that COP has been captured by fossil fuel interests, as Azerbaijan, like UAE, relies economically on fossil fuels and has a poor record on human rights.  Again, “too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence.”

Idaho Participation

At least two groups from Idaho were active participants in COP28.  One of those was Boise Mayor Lauren McLean, who was part of the ICLEI delegation to make COP28 “the Cities COP”.  ICLEI was originally called the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, and is now Local Governments for Sustainability, although they kept the original acronym.  McLean said “it’s about being ‘at the table,’ not just with leaders of some of the planet’s greatest oil producers, but with leaders who are committed to limit the rise in average global temperatures.”  Seeing Idaho leaders at the table on the challenges of climate change is great news, and I hope to see more of it. 

Also attending was a delegation from the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), who said on Facebook that they were “excited to attend COP28 and participate in important conversations on implementing clean energy goals to help reduce carbon emissions.” As a DOE National Laboratory, the INL brings much expertise to the table, especially in the areas of nuclear energy, cyber security, and the power grid control systems needed for renewable energy.  This participation bodes well for Idahoans contributing to energy independence from the oil exporting countries through promotion of other sources of energy, like nuclear, and also reduction of carbon emissions.

Final Thoughts

For me, I’m deeply concerned about the lack of progress on the commitments to the Paris Agreement.  It remains to be seen what progress can be made toward those goals in the aftermath of COP28 and the anticipation of COP29.  Can the COP process give both vulnerable nations and oil-exporting nations something more valuable and significant for the world?  Can COP29 build on the COP28 final agreement that has the first words about reducing fossil fuels?  Possibly this will lead to more definitive words in the final of COP29.  And, most of all, I’m pleased that Idahoans are at the table. 

Keith Daum, Idaho Falls, ID