News - December 1, 2023

COP28: Aiming for a half-empty barrel?

Written by Bertrand Piccard

Frankly, is there any reason to fear that COP28 will be a worse failure than its predecessors? Given what has happened in recent years, why would anyone want to boycott Dubai in particular? Some climate conferences have already been held in coal-producing countries such as Poland and Germany. With the exception of Paris in 2015, the world was waiting for ambitious decisions that never came. In Glasgow, India and China scuppered the final declaration by demanding a last-minute change from "get out of coal" to "reduce coal.” 

 So yes, this time it's in an oil-producing country where the debates will take place, under the authority of the CEO of the ADNOC oil company. Should we despair more than usual? Not necessarily. The barrel seems full, but on closer inspection, it may be getting a little emptier. Sultan Al Jaber is also Chairman of Masdar, the UAE's renewable energy investment agency, which is driving clean energy in 40 countries around the world. Given this double role, am I too optimistic in hoping that Masdar will carry more weight than ADNOC?  Will it find the courage to negotiate with its peers?

Einstein said that insanity consisted of doing the same thing over and over again, and being surprised that the result was never different. I hope that this time, the world will try something different. After the failure of the decarbonisation narrative, which has led many countries to fear a decline in their economic development, and which has generated fierce resistance to climate action, there are other possible angles of approach in Dubai. 

Oil companies could fight off competition from coal. By trying to replace coal with gas, they're making environmentalists weep. It's an acceptable solution for countries like China.

Another issue is the elimination of methane, 28 times more harmful than CO2 in terms of global warming, in oil extraction. Methane could be recovered and used as an energy source. To restore their image, the majors will not hesitate to support a commitment in this direction.

 Masdar knows just how profitable renewable energies can be. Experts are calling for a threefold increase worldwide. This is an achievable goal at COP28, since it offers oil companies a way to diversify.

The International Energy Agency is also calling for a doubling of the annual increase in energy efficiency. Who can argue with this when three quarters of the world's energy is wasted on outdated infrastructure? This is not good news for the oil industry, but it could be a requirement for governments, which would save billions every year. 

In Dubai, there will also be a battle over the compensation demanded of rich countries by developing nations already bearing the full brunt of climate change. To date, these promises have not materialised. Could they be realised, at least in the form of investment in clean infrastructures?

While countries negotiate, the private sector and NGOs also meet. The COP is a unique meeting place. It creates synergies and acts as a sounding board for those who have little voice. Today, companies are vying for new clean and profitable solutions, and new industrial outlets in the ecological field. Environmental protection is finally becoming a financial advantage. You may criticise a trade show, but it advances the climate cause.

The situation is too serious to boycott the COP. Absentees won't carry much weight. If there is opposition, and there will be opposition, can it really be left unchallenged?

Those who want everything will get nothing. Maybe in Dubai we'll get half, and that will already be a lot. The barrel certainly won't be empty, but we'll see if it's half full or half empty.

 First published by Le Temps, La Tribune and EFFE Verde and Forum Nachhaltig Wirtschaften.

Written by Bertrand Piccard on December 1, 2023

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