World View: Long live the COPs!

Slow progress ... A plenary session of COP28 held from November 28 to December 12, 2023, at Expo City in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The poet, Horace, foreshadowed the United Nations Climate Change Conference (or the Conference of the Parties (COP) 28) by more than 2 000 years when he wrote “Mountains will labour. What’s born? A ridiculous mouse!” A mouse that couldn’t bring itself to speak of “phasing out” fossil fuels, but squeaked instead about “transitioning away” from them.

The mighty struggle over precisely which set of weasel words to use is over for another year and everybody will go home happy knowing that they have kept global warming from exceeding 1,5 degrees C for another year. Except, of course, for the large proportion of the delegates who secretly know that battle has already been fought and lost.

The temperature in Sydney, Australia, hit 43,5C on December 9, fifteen degrees higher than the usual highs in early summer. The northern hemisphere summer, when it arrives, will also surpass all previous records, and the average global temperature for 2024 as a whole will almost certainly exceed +1,5C.

El Nino, which will go away again in a year or two, can be blamed for a bit of that, but we will be back up beyond +1,5 for good by 2029 or 2030. It’s therefore reasonable to suppose that by next year’s COP everybody will be frightened enough to vote for serious action.

That will obviously require a radical departure from the system that was set up in the 1990s, when global warming first became an international priority. The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) was then much more powerful than it is today, and it insisted that every decision of the COPs must be made by consensus.

Even a single one of the 198 countries at this year’s COP (including all 13 Opec members) could veto any decision. That explains the strangulated language of the final resolution: the fossil fuel lobby would have vetoed anything stronger. So the process continues to stumble forward very, very slowly — but next year will be different.

I have long assumed that this veto will be overridden when deaths attributable to climate change reach between one and 10 million a year, and we are probably in the lower end of that zone already. (It would be useful, by the way, if someone reputable set up a site to keep track of that number.) But the COPs need to be reformed, not replaced.

In their current form they are a toothless wonder, but they still have value — for two reasons. First, they are the body that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (made up of scientists) reports to, and those reports are the only universally accepted data on present and future warming that we have.

The other reason is that when the vetoes are finally overridden, the COPs will be a ready-made foundation on which to build an international executive body that coordinates the struggle against what by then will be verging on runaway warming.

Two years ago, the COPs went from five-yearly conferences to annual events. The next step, probably less than five years away, will be standing committees that make executive decisions on matters like the enforcement of emissions limits and possible solar radiation management.

We already need such an authority. How did everybody fail to factor the probability of a big El Nino into their estimates of the speed of warming? Well, lots of people knew it was due around now, but nobody had the job of watching for it and adjusting the climate predictions accordingly.

How did nobody foresee that the International Maritime Organisation’s 2020 decision to cut the sulphur dioxide content in the fuel emissions of 60 000 merchant ships from 3,5% to only 0,5% would lead to cloudless skies and a big jump in sunlight reaching the surface?

It’s the practical equivalent to a half-degree Celsius jump in average global temperature in just three years, but nobody saw it coming because nobody was tasked to look for that kind of unintended side-effect.

Soon now we are going to have to admit that “normal” is over. The crisis is here and it will last beyond the rest of our lives. The international institutions through which we coordinate our efforts to cope with the crisis do not yet exist, because the great powers are not yet ready to cede them that kind of executive authority.

Maybe they never will, in which case we are doomed. But assuming that a shared danger elicits co-operation, we will have to build those institutions in a hurry. It’s quicker to re-purpose an existing organisation than to spend years building one from the ground up.

So, long live the COP. It has been almost perfectly useless in curbing the warming for over 30 years, but it may yet have a vital role to play in the desperate days to come.

  • Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His new book is titled The Shortest History of War.


Related Topics