At COP28, the world finally acknowledged the obvious

I have a confession to make: I don’t usually follow the UN climate change conference proceedings until the very end.

This year’s COP28 was no different. Not because it was hosted by an oil and gas power, and not because neither President Biden nor the Pope attended.

Rather, I’ve come to view all Conferences of the Parties (COP) as lagging indicators of what needs to happen. More recently, they’ve also become lagging indicators of what’s actually happening in the world.

If I were a diplomat, I’d track the proceedings like a rabid Apple fan awaiting the shipment of a new iPhone. But I’m not; I’m a climate reporter originally trained as an ecologist. I’ve been studying climate and the environment for nearly a quarter century, and I saw the fingerprints of climate change in my own doctoral research over 15 years ago.

I’ve seen COPs come and go. In that time, the world’s governments have made some significant progress on reining in emissions growth. And at the same time, because fossil fuel use is still expanding, they still have fallen woefully short.

That’s not to say that the COP proceedings are not important. There have been a few landmark conferences— COP3 in Kyoto and COP21 in Paris stand out — but the annual pace of the gatherings appears to be more about building trust and maintaining relationships than delivering yearly breakthroughs, despite the fact that every year that the world continues to burn fossil fuels the stakes get higher.

From the start, hopes weren’t high for this year’s conference. For one, it was hosted by the world’s seventh largest oil producer, the United Arab Emirates. Documents leaked shortly before COP28 showed that the country was planning to use the meeting to strike oil and gas deals with 15 countries. Days later, Sultan Al Jaber, the COP28 president and CEO of the country’s state oil company, said there was “no science” to support the idea that halting the use of fossil fuels will help the world hit the 1.5˚ C target agreed upon in Paris – despite the fact that there’s ample evidence to the contrary.

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