Al Gore & Science Take Center Stage On Day 5 Of COP28

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The opening ceremonies for COP28 are now in the rear view mirror and the hard work of hammering out a successful step forward for the world’s 28th version of the Conference of Parties that first began in 1992 is beginning.

Yesterday, an online interview between COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber and Mary Robinson, the chair of the Elders group and a former UN special envoy for climate change, went public. In it, Al Jaber said, “There is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5ºC.” Well, actually, there is quite a bit of science out there that says precisely that.

At first Al Jaber tried saying his remarks were taken out of context but since anyone with an internet connection can go online and hear what he said for themselves, it’s hard to figure just what context Al Jaber might be referring to.

Science At COP28

After his gaffe, Al Jaber dragged Jim Skea, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, onstage to say, “Dr. Sultan has been attentive to the science as we have discussed it and I think has fully understood it.” And yet, carbon capture technology is at the heart of the COP28 discussion — technology that IPCC has stated specifically does not work.

Akshat Rathi of Bloomberg Green found that unusual. “Skea or his predecessors don’t typically find themselves sitting at press conferences about a diplomatic controversy,” he said. “But clearly the allegation that a COP president (who also happens to be the head of a national oil company) does not believe in the science is serious enough that the head of the very body that informs global climate targets had to be present.”

Rathi added that IPCC models many scenarios of how the world can limit warming to 1.5ºC. Most of them assume some amount of fossil fuels will still be needed in 2050 because there won’t be enough green energy to replace them completely. Carbon capture would be used to mop up the resulting emissions.

What is not in doubt, however, is that all those scenarios require a deep reduction in the use of fossil fuels immediately. John Kerry, US climate envoy, backed this up when he spoke about Al Jaber on the Politico podcast today: “Look, he’s got to decide how he wants to phrase it, but the bottom line is this COP needs to be committed to phasing out all unabated fossil fuel.”

COP28 And Unabated Emissions

COP 28
Credit: Climate Justice Alliance

“Unabated” is the word that may define COP28. It implies that the vast majority of carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels — especially methane gas — can be removed from flues or sucked directly out of the air and buried underground or otherwise locked up for centuries. While that is the hope, there is precious little evidence that any of those technologies work — or will ever work in a way that is cost effective in time to have a significant impact on the Earth’s overheating problem.

Al Gore, who actually did have a presidential election stolen from him with the aid of the US Supreme Court, may have gotten in the best zinger of the COP28 conference so far when he told Reuters on Sunday,” This industry is way more effective at capturing politicians than they are at capturing emissions. And they have captured the COP process itself now and overreached, abusing the public’s trust by naming the CEO of one of the largest and least responsible oil companies in the world as head of the COP. It’s an abuse of the public’s right to have confidence in the processes by which the decisions about humanity’s future are made.”

Gore’s interview with Reuters came after he delivered a presentation highlighting the UAE’s rising greenhouse gas emissions. Citing data from Climate TRACE — an emissions tracking coalition that he co-founded — Gore said the UAE’s emissions rose 7.5% last year compared to 2021, while the rest of the world’s rose only 1.5%. AFP reported Sunday that Dubai’s skyline was “obscured by a blanket of smog rated as “unhealthy.” As luck would have it, Sunday was designated “health day” at the COP28 climate conference. We can’t make stuff like that up.

A Human Rights Watch report published Monday noted that the UAE’s “dangerously high air pollution levels” are “creating major health risks for its citizens and residents.” Pointing to World Health Organization estimates, the group observed that more than 1,800 people die from air pollution every year in the UAE. “Even as the United Arab Emirates government works to burnish its image as a global climate leader,” the report noted, “the country’s vast fossil fuel production and use spew toxic pollutants into the air and contribute to climate change.”

The Oil & Gas Decarbonization Charter

The big news from Day 5 of COP28 is the announcement of the Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter, which is dedicated to speeding up climate action and achieving a high impact across the oil and gas sectors. So far, 50 companies, representing more than 40 percent of global oil production have signed on to the Charter, with national oil companies representing over 60 percent of the signatories.

“The launch of the OGDC is a great first step — and whilst many national oil companies have adopted net zero 2050 targets for the first time, I know that they and others, can and need to do more. We need the entire industry to keep 1.5ºC within reach and set even stronger ambitions for decarbonization,” Al Jaber said.

Signatories have committed to net-zero operations by 2050 at the latest, ending routine flaring by 2030, and achieving near-zero upstream methane emissions at the same time. The Charter includes several key actions:

  • Investing in the energy system of the future including renewables, low-carbon fuels and negative emissions technologies.
  • Increasing transparency, including enhancing measurement, monitoring, reporting and independent verification of greenhouse gas emissions and their performance and progress in reducing emissions.
  • Increasing alignment with broader industry best practices to accelerate decarbonization of operations and aspire to implement current best practices by 2030 to collectively reduce emission intensity.
  • Reducing energy poverty and providing secure and affordable energy to support the development of all economies.

Al Jaber added, “I am committed to both inclusivity and transparency. If we want to accelerate progress across the climate agenda, we must bring everyone in to be accountable and responsible for climate action. We must all focus on reducing emissions and apply a positive can-do vision to drive climate action and get everyone to take action. We need a clear action plan, and I am determined to deliver one.”

Charter, Schmarter

Climate activists were quick to slam the Oil And Gas Decarbonization Charter as a scam, a sham, and a dangerous piece of greenwashing. “[It] is a dangerous distraction from the COP28 process,” warned David Tong, the global industry campaign manager for Oil Change International. “We need legal agreements, not voluntary pledges. The science is clear. Staying under 1.5ºC global warming requires a full, fast, fair, and funded phase-out of fossil fuels, starting now. Voluntary commitments are a dangerous distraction from what is needed at COP28. Oil and gas companies meeting to sign a pledge that only deals with their operational emissions is like a group of arsonists meeting to promise to light fires more efficiently.”

The critics are incensed that the Charter ignores so-called Scope 3 emissions — the 80 to 90% produced when coal, oil, and methane gas are burned. “The COP28 presidency appears to have been encouraging fossil fuel companies to make yet another set of hollow voluntary pledges, with no accountability mechanism or guarantee the companies will follow through. Releasing another in the long succession of voluntary industry commitments that end up being breached will not make COP28 a success. Voluntary efforts are insufficient, and are a distraction from the task at hand,” the letter written by critics of the charter said. It added that the only way to meet the 1.5ºC target established by the 2015 Paris agreement is to phase out fossil fuels completely and rapidly.

Voluntary Pledges Are Not Enough

David Tong also pointed to national promises on renewables in the context of the overall greenwashing effort he says is underway. “Bundling up the Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter with a renewable energy commitment appears to be a calculated move to distract from the weakness of this industry pledge. Promising to triple renewable energy and double energy efficiency is welcome and indicates momentum for a final agreement at this year’s U.N. climate talks,” he added, “but voluntary pledges cannot be a substitute for a formal negotiated outcome at COP28 for countries to address the root cause of the climate crisis — fossil fuels.”

Bill McKibben put it succinctly: “If your company digs stuff up and burns it, you’re the problem. It’s time to wind down your business.”

The Takeaway

Veteran energy analyst Jeremy Symons wrote this week that this endless sucking up to fossil fuel has been enshrined in the whole climate negotiation process, ever since its first iteration at Rio in 1992 when delegates “described ‘fossil fuel production, use and exportation’ as an economic necessity. That unworkable deal has mapped the course of ineffectual climate talks for the past three decades. Lofty climate ambitions could be announced as long as the agreements do not interfere with the fossil fuel industries at the heart of the problem.”

Posing for photos with the head of IPCC may make for good press, but it does nothing to keep the world from turning into a baked potato too hot to sustain human life. Pledges, charters, and press releases are not going to do the heavy lifting needed to protect our earthly home. Only rapidly phasing out the extraction and burning of fossil fuels will suffice.

We had a chance to do what needed to be done at reasonable cost in 1988 when James Hansen testified before Congress. We had another chance almost a decade later when Michael Mann and his colleagues introduced us to the “hockey stick” graph. Every time we chose to kick the can down the road rather than act responsibly.

We’re out of time and out of chances. We are at a moment in time much like happened near the end of the Apollo 13 mission when a NASA engineer had to tell his colleagues they needed to turn off every piece of equipment on board. It was an extremely unpopular suggestion but necessary to save the lives of the astronauts. Think of the Earth as that crippled spacecraft. We have to act and we have to act now. There is no other choice.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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