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OPINION

UN climate talks are in need of a fix

A process that lets a problem grow into an emergency on its watch is not doing its job.

Sultan al-Jaber, president of the UNFCCC COP28 Climate Conference, at a press conference following the opening session of the conference on Nov. 30, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.Sean Gallup/Getty

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates

As world governments meet in Dubai this week for the 28th time to try to negotiate a solution to the world’s escalating climate crisis, we should all ask whether the process is succeeding.

Regrettably, any honest answer must be “no.” A process that lets a problem grow into an emergency on its watch is not doing its job. And there is no question that, despite 27 previous annual meetings of the United Nations Conference of Parties — or COP — that is what has happened.

Over those three decades, warming from the pollutants that the UN negotiations have been trying to reduce has increased by over 50 percent. Meanwhile, 2023 is about to break the record for the hottest 12 months in 125,000 years.

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2023 also may be one of the coolest years, since a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme calculates that the world will reach 2.5 to 2.9 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, even if all countries live up to their pledges made under the Paris Agreement to reduce such emissions.

That will mean people in every country, including the United States, will increasingly face deadly heat waves, wildfires, floods, and droughts, and ruined agriculture causing famine and disease, as well as many other almost unimaginable disasters that will destabilize nations and civilization.

In fairness, the planet is better off than it would have been if no COPs had taken place over the past three decades; without the progress they made, there would be a staggering 6 degrees Celsius rise by 2100. But “it could have been worse” is no excuse when greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels keep increasing and the planet keeps warming.

The planet is headed far beyond the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit that scientists calculate is the maximum before warming starts setting off self-amplifying feedback loops that push the planet past a series of tipping points triggering irreversible and catastrophic change. Indeed, on present trends, we are expected to crash through that guardrail within a decade.

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The climate negotiators’ greatest achievement, the 2015 Paris Agreement, aims to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, while making efforts to keep it below 1.5 degrees Celsius through voluntary measures called Nationally Determined Contributions.

But these have not slowed warming fast enough and are not sufficient to address today’s climate emergency, nor to ensure the phase out of fossil fuels: oil, natural (or fossil) gas, and coal. It is simply not the right format.

The focus on voluntary measures should perhaps be no surprise. In recent years, three of the COPs were in coal-rich Poland and one in oil-rich Qatar. The current COP28 is in even oil-richer United Arab Emirates.

In the most explicit display of the power of the fossil fuel industry in the UN climate process, COP28 is headed by Sultan al-Jaber, who is also president of the UAE state oil company, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. A recent investigation reported that al-Jaber’s team has been discussing side deals to expand oil and gas contracts during the climate negotiations (which he denies). It is clear, however, that last year his national oil company announced a major investment in an “accelerated growth strategy.”

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This context may make it difficult for al-Jaber to guide countries to an agreement to phase out fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency calculates that, to align with the 1.5 degree Celsius guardrail, the oil and gas industry will have to put 50 percent of its capital expenditures toward clean energy by 2030, up from the 2.5 percent it is investing today.

Another limitation of the negotiating process is that it has concentrated almost entirely on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, which account for 55 percent of global warming. The other 45 percent mainly comes from short-lived super climate pollutants, principally methane. These are easier, cheaper, and faster to cut out of the atmosphere so any measure to cut them would have a much greater effect slowing near-term warming.

Already available measures to reduce them could quickly cut the rate of global warming in half, according to the United Nations Environment Programme and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, cutting the rise in temperatures by 0.3 degrees Celsius by 2040 and giving the world a chance of staying around 1.5 degrees Celsius. By contrast even the most aggressive cuts to carbon dioxide would save only 0.1 degrees Celsius by 2050.

The UN COP28 talks must move from voluntary to mandatory measures to remain relevant, but it is not clear the talks have the right DNA to do this. A more promising route would be to develop sister agreements that tackle one sector of the climate problem at a time, and then plug the results into the COP process for accounting purposes.

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The 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer is the prime example of a successful sectoral agreement, phasing out nearly 100 chemicals that both destroy stratospheric ozone and cause warming. The results: an ozone layer that is on the way to recovery and avoiding 2.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100.

Having succeeded before, world policy makers can succeed again. The Montreal Protocol should be used as the inspiration and blueprint for a mandatory agreement to immediately reduce methane emissions, starting with oil and gas by eliminating the waste of fossil gas, which is 70 percent to 90 percent methane. This would be the single biggest and fastest way to slow warming.

Al-Jaber is planning an imminent announcement on reducing such methane, but voluntary measures won’t cut it. Mandatory reductions of methane and all other climate pollutants are the only way to address the growing climate emergency.

The pieces for a methane agreement are already converging, including the increasing sophistication of satellites to measure methane leaks as well as upcoming methane regulations in the United States and the European Union.

Recognizing the need to go beyond voluntary measures and putting down the marker for a future global methane agreement would help rescue this COP from being another disappointment and show the world that the UN process does in fact have what it takes to slow warming in time to prevent global climate chaos.

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Durwood Zaelke is president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development in Washington, D.C., and Paris, and adjunct professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.