“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed,” said Frederick Douglass.
On November 30, 2023, Dr. Sultan bin Ahmed Al Jaber, the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), will formally open the 28th Conference of the Parties at Expo City in Dubai. As COP28 president, he will make the keynote address welcoming thousands of climate delegates from around the world. Continuing a trend seen in previous conferences, the audience will likely include hundreds of fossil fuel lobbyists whose aim it will be to thwart the best efforts of academics and politicians who are attempting to build consensus and avoid the worst excesses of the rapidly unfolding climate catastrophe.
The irony of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) hosting COP28 is fuelled by the fact that 2023 included the three hottest months ever recorded, with global-mean air temperatures exceeding pre-industrial levels by more than 1.5C, the target agreed in the Paris Agreement in 2015.
Stark warnings emerge from the scientific community almost weekly. A recent paper published in Nature Climate Change, for example, concluded that: “The opportunity to preserve the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in its present-day state has probably passed, and policymakers should be prepared for several metres of sea-level rise over the coming centuries.”
Worse, 2024 is predicted to be hotter still due to the return of El Niño, the cyclic warming of the equatorial Pacific ocean which historically has added around 0.2C to global average temperatures. What timing, then, that a country whose economy is heavily dependent on fossil fuel extraction should be hosting COP28 at the pivotal moment for the Earth’s climatic future.
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Checking my literary guides, I find that the irony is more nuanced and revealing than it initially appears; thanks to the complexities of human communication, irony comes in several satisfying flavours.
First, one might accept the comic irony of the situation (a state of affairs contrary to expectations and which is wryly amusing). Indeed as Professor Lydia Amir notes in her re-evaluation of philosophy’s attitude towards the comic, there is “epistemological value in laughter, as laughter helps us grasp the truth”. So yes, feel free to see the funny side of a major oil company chairing COP28 a mere decade or two away from climate catastrophe, as in the humour lies deep insight into the situation’s inherent absurdity.
No doubt the conference will generate a great deal of verbal irony (when a person says one thing but means the opposite). When fossil fuel lobbyists say that there is no alternative to extracting more oil and gas due to the increasing demand for energy, they know only too well that the International Energy Agency (IEA) has already concluded that “the shift to a clean energy economy is picking up pace, with a peak in global oil demand in sight before the end of this decade as electric vehicles, energy efficiency and other technologies advance”. When any fossil delegate raises the issue of fuel security, they will already appreciate that, in the face of the Russia-Ukraine war and the instabilities in the Middle East, many industrial nations are already promoting renewable energy specifically to address security of supply.
However, COP28 will not be situationally ironic (when the opposite of what is expected happens). We can be confident that the final pronouncements will attempt to water down all references to fossil fuels as the leading cause of anthropogenic climate change. That the extraction and burning of fossil fuels is the problem has been known since the late 1970s when “ExxonMobil predicted global warming correctly and skillfully…” with their predictions being “…accurate in predicting subsequent global warming.” Despite the glaring scientific reality, the final COP26 and COP27 communiqués only mentioned a single fossil fuel by name, and only once, the texts agreed to “accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies,” with words like “unabated” and “inefficient” providing almost unlimited wiggle room for push back by the fossil fuel sector.
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Nor will COP28 exhibit Socratic irony (when a character’s feigned ignorance enables the truth to be revealed). Those actors wanting to slow down real action will, no doubt, keep the focus of the discussion on emissions rather than fossil fuel extraction; an attempt at misdirection that does little to develop radical solutions that will rapidly decarbonising global energy chains, or a deeper understanding of the challenges posed by a global energy transition. Obfuscation and delay is the only ambition here, one that is naked and for all to see.
And when the fossil fuel protagonists advocate the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS), they will be fully cognisant that the total storage capacity of existing plants has remained stagnant since 2020 at about 40 million tonnes, an underwhelming contribution to reducing carbon emissions, and representing only 0.1% of global CO2 emissions of 36.8 billion tonnes in 2022. Even the industry’s CCS stretch target of 400 million tonnes by 2030 wouldn’t touch the sides of the scale of the climate challenge.
I would argue that COP28 will possess a degree of dramatic irony (when the audience knows something that characters do not). In understanding the motivations of the actors (delegates), we, the global audience, fully appreciate the positions taken by the various factions, and the climate scientists will be quick to stress-test the adopted policies to model their impacts on the future climate. There couldn’t be a more transparent process or arena, nor could the outcomes be more public or scrutinised. Odd then to observe the behaviour of lobbyists, many of whom appear to believe that their ‘discreet’ soliciting goes unnoticed. Here perhaps lies a central dramatic theme, as much tragic as ironic; that those wanting to undermine the conference really do believe that a future which permits the burning of fossil fuels remains a possibility, when all the analysis unambiguously shows that we need to make drastic reductions in fossil fuel use, not by 2050 or 2030, but now.
The final irony is that it is actually in the interests of Big Oil to rapidly construct an exit strategy before the impacts of abrupt climate change force the hands of governments around the world to rescind extraction licences and ration fossil fuel demand. As noted by IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol: “Oil producers need to pay careful attention to the gathering pace of change and calibrate their investment decisions to ensure an orderly transition.” The risks of inaction are immense but not incalculable; research collated by the London School of Economics suggests that to deliver the Paris Agreement will necessitate the stranding of $1.4 trillion of fossil fuel assets, leaving 60% of oil and gas reserves and 90% of known coal reserves in the ground.
Given the inevitability of climate change, oil companies like ADNOC need to rapidly transition themselves away from their current product lines and invest in new opportunities while they still can. They are not the first sector to be in this predicament and could learn from the experience of the automotive sector which has been through a tumultuous decade of regulation and electrification. Auto-giant Volkswagen, for example, had to fight for its survival following the “dieselgate” emissions scandal that engulfed the company in 2016, severely damaging their reputation, and costing at least $30 billions in regulatory fines.
However improbable, let’s imagine for a moment the final communiqué from COP28 in which ADNOC and the other fossil companies attending agree to engage fully in a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, with the aim of being fully renewable by 2030. To achieve this, they acknowledge, will require them to learn from the experience of other sectors by implementing three key actions: (i) To embrace and adopt new technology at pace and at scale (renewables), (ii) to shift their policy agenda and work with regulators to become advocates for change, and (iii) to overhaul the sector’s culture, widening their objective beyond the short-term profit motive.
Now that, and I say this without any trace of irony, would be a COP to remember.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.