The foundation for voluntary emissions cut by nations was laid in the Copenhagen Accord (2009) and consolidated in the Paris Agreement (2015) under what is known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC). The voluntary mechanism essentially blunted the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR), a cardinal justice principle of the UNFCCC. Whereas in the past, rich, industrialized and polluting nations were grouped as Annex 1 nations and had binding emissions reduction requirements, under the NDCs, there are no binding obligations. Nations simply have to do what is convenient for them to do and report back on what they have done to the COP. Such submissions were made for the stocktake at COP28.
Voluntary emissions reduction can work in a situation where there is no crisis and no urgency for action. However, the world has already progressed from global warming to global heating and the prognosis for the future shows very dire situations. The evidence of the trend are presented in the various IPCC reports as well as in UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report (EGR). The EGR issued just before COP28 showed that rather than reducing, global greenhouse emissions increased by 1.2 per cent from 2021 to 2022 to reach a new record of 57.4 Gigatonnes of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent. In addition, an aggregation of the NDCs proposed by nations showed that the world was heading for a 2.5 to 2.9C temperature increase above pre-industrial level. At that temperature level, there will be a spike in freak weather events and the overall conditions will make parts of the world uninhabitable.
The reliance on NDCs lock in inequality and injustice in the entire climate negotiation process. With this understanding, my initial conclusion is that COPs conducted on an unjust basis will continue to yield hollow outcomes that at best scratch the surface of the climate crisis.
COP28 had three significant accomplishments, but around each are bubbles of uncertainties and loopholes. The three highlights are the adoption of Loss and Damage Fund mechanism, the agreement to triple renewables capacity and double energy efficiency by 2030, and the agreement to transition away from fossil fuels in energy. Yet, in all, the real winners are the army of fossil fuels lobbyists and the petrostates.
After kicking and screaming for decades, the COP finally agreed to acknowledge that burning of fossil fuels must end. The phrase of transitioning from fossil fuels for energy was so carefully crafted it leaves an ocean-wide space for the fossil fuel industries to keep on prospecting for, and extracting the resources. The restriction of the open-ended transition to renewable energy gives the industry the space to keep drilling for production of plastics, petrochemicals and diverse products. In other words, that celebrated clause does give a life line for the petroleum civilization to trudge on.
The wordsmiths of the COP play with the imaginary of the world and it is time to wake up to this fact. At COP26 the phrase “phase down” instead of “phase out” was introduced. A phasing down of coal, for example, simply indicates there would be some efforts to tinker with production and consumption volumes of the hydrocarbon. It does not by any stretch suggest halting dependence of the dirty energy source. A lot of energy was spent at COP27 and COP28 to push for the “phase out” language in the outcome documents. The draft outcome document of COP28 particularly gave a number of options on how the language for “phasing out fossil fuels” could be couched. While negotiators and politicians tried to wrap their heads around the clause, which would remain a clear ending of the fossil fuels age, the wordsmiths came out with “transitioning from fossil fuels in energy.” So, there is the phase down, phase out and then a partial transition. Strikingly, the document also highlights the continued role of transition fuels―a clear reference to fossil gas. Fossil fuels moguls must lift up glasses to that.
Whereas there was no agreement on adopting a UN sanctioned mechanism for carbon trading, aspects of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement opened the floodgates for carbon capture and utilization and storage, carbon dioxide removals and variants of geoengineering. Carbon capture introduces the notion of pollution abatement, an interesting term. Whilst it is clear that the best action is to stop pollution at source, the COP says keep polluting, but capture the pollution before it escapes into the environment. If it doesn’t work, all the polluter needs to do is to show that it is sucking or removing the errant carbon from the atmosphere. The cheers that accompanied the closure of the COP has always reminded some of us of the same reaction we see when bells are rung at the stock exchange. Carbon polluters anonymous unite!
The carbon market business has been a speculator’s paradise, with scant transparency or integrity. This state of play allowed carbon cowboys and dealers to trade in phantom carbon or even forests, leaving investors in limbo. With the matter now rolling over to COP29, observers now wonder if the tide of land and forest trading desks across Africa would be stemmed. In the run up to COP28 there were reports of deals aimed at selling off huge swathes of African territories to be utilized as carbon sinks.
There are reports of nations inking memoranda of understanding or agreements to cede huge segments of their territories for carbon credits. Zimbabwe has put 20% of its forests on the chopping block, Zambia and Liberia are extending 10% while Tanzania is said to offer 8 million hectares of forest. Nigeria’s Niger State offered to sell 760 ,000 hectares of land to Blue Carbon, a UAE carbon focused company, for afforestation programme that would see the planting of 1 billion trees.
The thing to note is that the lands or forests are not sold in perpetuity. The leases have stipulated years over which the investor would find ways of securing the carbon in the land, sea or forest. They could also engage in carbon farming through, for example, clearing the territory and then creating a tree plantation which should be seen as a colonial euphemism for monoculture cash cropping. The investor farms carbon and owns the credit accruing from there.
The investor can use the carbon to offset his polluting activity at home and can even sell off some to help others offset their polluting activities. The investor can count a carbon sink in Africa as part of their Nationally Determined Contributions actions. The country that sold its territory may not do so. A question that requires answers in this market environmentalism project is about what happens with the sequestered carbon if a new buyer steps in after the expiration of the lease over a forest or territory. Supposing the new buyer embarks on land use changes, of what value was the carbon offset business beyond being carbon fiction or trading on hot air?
Lost and Damaged
Adopting Loss and Damage on the first day of the COP was a master stroke. After years of demands for payment for loss and damage suffered by victims of climate change, this was a great moment. The slack was that the funds would be warehoused in the World Bank, an institution that has a reputation of being anything but a bank of the world. Seen as a heavy handed neoliberal institution, the bank is loathed by citizens of nations over which it has engineered poverty despite its glossy poverty reduction papers. Aside from keeping the funds with the World Bank, a very instructive lesson was on how much funds were pledged for the fund at that first day.
Pledges came from the UAE, Germany, USA and others. The $100 million pledged by UAE was a mark of generousity that, nevertheless, blunted the justice principle that requires that those with historical responsibility for the crisis should be the first to step forward. A total of a little over $400 million was recorded on the first day and this climbed to over $700 million by the close of the COP. We note that the annual loss and damage cost is estimated at $400billion. The highlight of the pledges was the miserly $17.3 million made by the USA. The point this made was that the unwillingness of polluters to stop polluting and to financially support climate action including loss and damage is not due to lack of financial resources. To back this assertion, one only needs to look at how much is expended by the rich polluting nations in military action around the world. NATO, for instance, had a budget of $1.2 trillion in 2022.
Having climate justice in quotes says a lot about the mindset of the nations with regard to the disproportionate climate change impact on vulnerable communities, territories and nations. The COP26 outcome document did not place climate justice in quotes, but added that it was only important to some. In other words, climate justice is not something of universal concern. COP28 avoided that blatant disregard of the Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC), a clear climate justice principle in the climate convention. In keeping with the general wordsmithing approach of the COPs, the principle and reality was now placed in harmless quotes.
Africa at the COP
African negotiators went to the COP loaded with the outcome of its recently held African Climate Summit. Among the key outcomes was the need for the continent to demand for sufficient finance for the needed energy transition and the operationalizing of the Loss and Damage Fund.
African politicians see the continent as having limitless land and resources, including the so-called green or critical minerals, ripe for exploitation in exchange for cash. The leaders resolved to aim for green development and green industrialization. They also agreed to develop green hydrogen and its derivatives. To a large extent, the highlights of the document may not have influenced the official negations as much as it did bilateral and directional deals.
The push by OPEC that its members should not accept a fossil phase out and, probably, no mention of fossil at all sat well with African negotiators, including Nigeria. With new oil and gas fields opening up in many areas―including world heritage areas in Saloum Delta in Senegal and Okavango in Namibia; with drilling and pipelines trashing protected forests in Uganda; flashpoints in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique―the mantra is that Africa must use its fossil fuels resources. On this, Africa’s politicians scored a point when the COP document stated that the transition from fossil fuels must be fast but also fair. This suggests that the transition will move on different gears in different regions. Nevertheless, the point is that the fossil fuels industry has been put on notice. The days of fossil fuels are numbered. Rather than talk of decarbonizing, the world will soon be speaking of depetrolizing. Within the coming decades, the global north will halt the production of internal combustion engines and, sadly, Africa will become the cemetery for such automobiles.
Another point is that over 85% of the infrastructure on the continent are installed for exports clearly showing that they are not extracted to meet the energy needs on the people on the continent.
The need to rein in fossil fuel extraction and burning goes beyond the climate question. The point that must not be missed is that from extraction to processing and burning, fossil fuels cause havoc on people and the Planet. The oil fields in many parts of the world are veritable crime scenes. Millions of old or orphaned oil wells have been abandoned around the world and remain ticking time bombs that could blow up and cause major spills at any time.
Mining of so-called critical or green minerals is wrecking communities and biodiversity in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. These have happened irrespective of whether the material is dirty or green. Lack of respect for people living in the territories where these resources are extracted routinely lead to a lack of consultation with the people, a lack of interest in their consent and a lack of care for the people. It is time to reach a consensus on the Rights of Nature to maintain her regenerative cycles without disruptions by humans. Indeed, the climate crisis is tied to our irresponsible relationship with Mother Earth.
Talking points used at a National Resource Justice Conference held in Abuja on the theme: Beyond COP28:Localizing Climate Solutions for Nigeria’s Resilience 18.12.2023