As the latest Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — the twenty-eighth (COP28), no less — unfolds, it’s worth pausing to consider what has been accomplished by this process so far. The “global stocktake,” as it’s called, on climate progress makes for dismal reading, notwithstanding the very diplomatic language used in the September 8 stocktake synthesis document.
The key point, found in section IV(B)(92) of the report, puts things this way: “Global emissions are not in line with modelled global mitigation pathways consistent with the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement, and there is a rapidly narrowing window to raise ambition and implement existing commitments in order to limit warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.” In plain language, that means we’re failing.
As the last few months have suggested very clearly to anyone paying attention (repeated wildfires, heat domes, hurricanes and floods worldwide), climate change is kicking in, with the entirely predictable disruptions to agricultural systems as well as to wildlife, not to mention people living in urban centres. Yet policies connected to the Paris Agreement have so far failed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions overall, and the dangers of climate change are accelerating.
In October, the popular tourist destination of Acapulco, Mexico, was heavily damaged by Hurricane Otis, which intensified faster than any storm on record in the region. Forecasters and emergency workers were blindsided by the speed with which it grew stronger. Not long afterward, Britain was hammered by two storms within two weeks of each other, bringing widespread flooding and damage. Neither centre was built to withstand such assaults. Most infrastructure was not designed to cope with such extremes and, as a result, people worldwide are vulnerable.
Clearly, conventional approaches to dealing with climate change, focused as they are on greenhouse gas emissions, a form of pollution control writ large, have not been adequate. The focus only on the demand side of the problem hasn’t reshaped societies and economies enough to forestall either extreme weather, or the damage and disruption that have marked the world in 2023.
Additional measures are needed — immediately. There are simply far too many fossil fuel supplies available. Attention must therefore turn to the supply side, to build on existing demand measures. This requires turning off the supply of fossil fuels to speed up the transition to renewable energy — and much more efficient use of it, too.
In short, much more is needed than what is encompassed by the COP28 agenda, and the urgency of making those additional initiatives happen is now very great. The fact that COP28 is being run out of oil company offices, with the CEO of an oil company as conference chair, should be a clear enough indication that supply-side policies are not being taken seriously. At least not yet. Prospects for the rest of us, if this situation continues unchanged, are very grim indeed.
Here’s a helpful analogy: If your bathtub is overflowing, it’s sensible to turn off the tap first and then try to unplug the drain. Our atmosphere is overly full of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — the three key greenhouse gases. Phasing out their production, effectively turning off the tap, makes figuring out how to reduce their quantities and deal with related disruptions much easier. The world simply doesn’t have the climate equivalent of an endless supply of mops, towels and buckets to continuously soak up the overflow. So, turn off the tap!
Hence, the increasing attention being paid to proposals for production reductions. A coal ban treaty would be a very good first step — it builds on earlier ideas of “powering past coal.” Following that up with phasing out oil and gas is a more comprehensive measure whose time has come. Ideas of a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty have recently been endorsed by the European Parliament.
This step will be especially difficult for countries that have large production systems, but the key is to immediately stop investing in new exploration and infrastructure building. Then, as oil and gas fields become depleted, they will be phased out of production and overall supplies reduced.
At the moment, the opposite seems to be happening, with fossil fuel companies using windfall profits from the 2022 price increases to further entrench their power, betting that attempts to tackle climate change will fail at least in the next few decades, and that doubling down on investment and lobbying will ensure their profitability well into the future.
But given how fast renewable energy is expanding, there are no longer serious roadblocks to the transitions needed. Heat pumps and electric vehicles can be substituted relatively quickly for oil and gas furnaces and internal combustion engines, respectively. Novel industrial processes for smelting and other energy-intensive activities are coming onstream, too. Over the last few years, these novel technologies have supplemented rather than replaced the use of fossil fuels. Now we need policies to make these replacements — and quickly.
Market measures alone have proven inadequate for a speedy transition off fossil fuels. Carbon taxes, in particular, have become politically polarizing, preventing effective policy implementation at high enough rates to be really effective. Fluctuating fuel prices have made this goal all the more difficult to achieve. The objective for climate policy — and economic policy and security policy, too, now — must be to shrink the use of fossil fuels quickly. And this process needs to start among the states that have historically been the most profligate users and suppliers of fossil fuels.
This is going to be an especially tough policy problem in countries such as Canada, where fossil fuel companies enjoy such prominence and power despite the obvious mayhem they cause. Given the extraordinary scale of wildfires in Canada in 2023, the massive disruptions caused by evacuations and the cost of dealing with all this, it should now be clear to policy makers that business as usual is no longer a viable path.