Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The crude irony of UAE hosting COP28

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Alan Emerson says the chances of meaningful climate action are slim as 70,000 people get ready to meet in a major oil-producing country.
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COP28 is almost upon us. There are 70,000 delegates from almost 200 countries meeting in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to sort out the world climate crisis.

Putting that number in perspective, there are more people attending COP28 than the entire population of Napier and almost the population of Palmerston North. Last year at COP27 there were just 45,000 attendees.

We can read that COP28 “will be the most consequential UN climate talks yet”.

The cynic in me suggests that the chance of 70,000 people from 200 countries achieving anything worthwhile is precisely zip.

This year the emphasis is on food, agriculture and water. We’ll even have our own pavilion and theme day.

We read that “big changes in food and agricultural practices would switch the sector from a primary cause of the climate crisis to major solutions”.

I’m not holding my breath.

Mind you, the UAE is taking itself incredibly seriously on the food front, with two-thirds of the food served being plant based.

Practically, I could survive on a diet of a third meat and dairy but it’s not remotely relevant when it comes to feeding the world or global warming.

For example, at COP26 in Scotland much was made of the many Frankenfood options that there were for the good of the planet. It must have been sobering for the delegates to be told by scientists that those artificial foods had a higher GHG footprint than their natural counterparts.

It seems iniquitous to me that in a major oil-producing and exporting country we’re worried about the GHG component of food. Realistically, the UAE has the most to lose from ambitious climate action. It is the world’s eighth largest global oil producer. It is also among the highest per capita GHG emitters in the world. 

Surprisingly, in my view, the president of COP28, Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, is also chief executive of ADNOC, Abu Dhabi’s government-owned oil and gas company.

Much is being made at the conference about reducing coal use that is, in fact, increasing. Last year we burned 8 billion tonnes of it internationally. One tonne of coal produces 2.86 tonnes of CO2, meaning 22 billion tonnes of CO2 were produced.

That makes NZ’s GHG emissions pale into insignificance and the contribution of our dairy herd to global warming irrelevant.

An interesting perspective of the COP talkfest is its focus on carbon mitigation, a position favoured by the UAE, among others.

The issue is that currently the technology supporting mitigation is capturing just 0.1%  of global emissions. In addition, the technology has yet to be proven to work at scale.

My view is that carbon mitigation is not a remotely credible option.

I’d far sooner see the substitution of coal by wind and solar, which can be achieved relatively easily and with current technology. The problem is that although solar and wind generation has grown 14% a year, it needs to reach 24%.

Solar is interesting, with Elon Musk claiming the entire United States could be powered by a solar farm 100 miles (160km) square. He added that the sun converted more than 4 million tonnes of mass to energy every second and it requires no maintenance.

This year the US had a 52% increase in solar generation over 2022.

I believe that substituting the burning of coal by concentrating on wind and solar is a good way forward. It is far more palatable than restricting food production or trying to convince us of the evils of eating meat and dairy.

When US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met at APEC recently they agreed to accelerate the substitution for coal, oil and gas generation. That is a positive move. It just needs to be carried through. China is the world’s biggest user of coal, with the US in third place. For them to cut down on coal use is significant.

The reality is that both China and the US are well behind on their GHG reduction targets. Companies are also slowing down their rates of emissions reduction.

Previous COP conferences have identified 42 measures to reduce GHG emissions. Only one, the sale of electric cars, has reached its target.

Further, it is estimated that US$2.3 trillion ($3.8 trillion) will be needed each year to support clean energy transition. With the major costs of the Russia-Ukraine conflict plus that in the Middle East, I believe that target is impossible.

The key issue for me is that we need to address the crisis that is climate change if for no other reason than to mitigate the risk of droughts, floods, intense heat and fires.

That can be achieved by phasing out coal and increasing wind and solar power generation.

It won’t be achieved by 70,000 people from 200 countries attending a talkfest in a major oil-producing state. 

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