- by Professor John Sweeney in Dubai 

Holding COP28 in a major oil and gas producing country was always going to be fraught with controversy. This is particularly so since the host President, Sultan al Jaber, is also the CEO of the United Arab Emirates national Oil Company, a company which is responsible for more emissions that Exon Mobil or BP. However, at the end of the first week, the events have not played out according to plan for either the hosts or most of the 197 countries hoping for a breakthrough to tackle the dire climate situation laid out by the scientists of the IPCC or the Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres.

The Presidency needed an early win to provide some momentum. And so it seemed this had occurred with the surprising announcement that the long running dispute on Loss and Damage was settled on day 1. This took everyone by surprise and was swiftly followed by the pledging of $100M by the host country and several substantial commitments to the Loss and Damage Fund by other countries, including €25M from Ireland (claimed to be the second highest per capita contribution after the UAE). While the figures adding up to date to around €720M sound impressive, in reality, the expressed need is measured in trillions. Of course the likely beneficiaries are not the primary drivers of global heating. That responsibilities falls to the developed countries. G20 countries emit 7.9 tonnes of greenhouse gases per capita while the corresponding figure for the least developed countries is 2.2t per capita. Ireland’s figure is 11.9t per capita, so maybe it should be among the highest contributors to the Loss and Damage fund.

Shortly after day 1, however, the drip feed of information questioning the real intentions of the President began to emerge. First was the publication of leaked documents by the BBC indicating that the President was intending to do ‘side deals’ with various countries to facilitate the expansion of their fossil fuel infrastructure. This was generally condemned as not something the COP President should be doing during a COP and could be interpreted as a misuse of his position as well as demonstrating a serious conflict of interest. His defence was rather unconvincing to this author.

A few days later, a recording emerged of a feisty interchange between Sultan Al Jaber and former Irish President Mary Robinson. In the heat of this debate Al Jaber stated there is  ‘no science’ behind calls for a fossil fuel phase out’. Although this was recorded from an event that predated COP28, its revelation was devastating. Here was someone tasked with achieving the one thing that could save the planet from what Guterres had described as ‘opening the gates to hell’ denying that fossil fuel cessation would provide a way of avoiding the catastrophic tipping points being breached.

Both the Tanaiste and Minister Ryan have been generous with their time and have met with the Irish civil society group to provide updates. For the most part the negotiating position of the Irish government is progressive and Minister Ryan in particular is heading up, together with France, the EU negotiations on climate finance. But the world outside Europe is a very different collection of countries with often widely differing priorities. President Putin has been visiting those countries in the region over the past few days which do not risk his arrest for war crimes. These countries, like Russia, are major fossil fuel producers and one can imagine that ceasing fossil fuel production was not a priority in their meetings. Indeed one of the young Ukrainian climate activists condemned the way energy production has become weaponized as a result of the war.

What is now emerging as the sticking point for the wording of the final communique is the extent to which it will embody a commitment to phase out all fossil fuels: coal, gas and oil, before 2050. A new global plan with strict milestones is necessary for this. At this stage in a COP the President assumes control over deadlocked negotiating committees and seeks to drum out compromise texts. How successful he will be in doing this is not at all clear given the misgivings in his neutrality emerging over recent days. Various draft texts already in circulation repeat the mantra of previous COPS: “phasing down”, “phasing out unabated fossil fuel emissions”, or even omitting any reference to fossil fuel reductions entirely! We won’t know until the final gavel comes down if India, China, Saudi Arabia or Russia will veto the final wording as happened in Glasgow. On this rests the verdict as to whether this will be a COP for change or not.