More than 25 years after the Kyoto Protocol and seven years after the Paris Agreement was signed, the effectiveness of international meetings on climate is still hotly debated. COP28 has been controversial from the outset with hosts the UAE accused by groups such as Amnesty International of using it as an opportunity to greenwash their oil production. This plan may have come unstuck however, with the UAE’s green credentials having taken a hit throughout the conference.
Firstly, there were reports that the state’s oil firm ADNOC may increase its production of oil by 42% by 2030. Furthermore, COP28 President Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber has been embroiled in a scandal after allegedly arguing that there is no science indicating that fossil fuels need to be phased out – although he later claimed that he had been misinterpreted. Environmentalists’ hopes that an agreement will be signed to phase out fossil fuel usage may also be hampered by the fact that around 2,500 fossil fuel lobbyists have been granted access to the conference, more than any other COP.
COP28 has been an opportunity for the UK to reassure the international community that it is serious on reaching net zero. International opinion had dropped following Prime Minister Rishi Sunak backtracking on some green targets in September 2023 – this represented a stark contrast to the EU and USA thundering ahead with their respective European Green Deal and Inflation Reduction Act. The Government had been warned by the independent Climate Change Committee (CCC) in June that the UK was at risk of losing its international leadership on climate change. Since this, however, the Government has given out new oil and gas exploration licences and picked a fight with ‘meat taxes and a ‘flying levy’. This has all led to analysis from Friends of the Earth finding that the UK is likely to miss its Paris climate targets by up to 9%.
The Government has repeatedly argued that the UK has reduced greenhouse gas emissions faster than any other OECD nation, that the UK is world leading on offshore wind, and that many of its changes brought the UK in line with allies. In an olive branch to environmentalists, just days before COP28 began, the Government announced that it would begin a search for a new National Park in England, create 34 new Landscape Recovery projects, provide £15m extra funding for existing National Parks and National Landscapes, and offer £2.5m of funding for children to access nature.
Nevertheless, Sunak’s individual commitment to net zero was questioned before he even landed in Dubai, with the King, PM, and Foreign Secretary all flying to the conference in separate private jets. Sunak’s short appearance of only 12 hours further added fuel to the flames, especially with opposition Leader Sir Keir Starmer staying at the conference for three days and recommitting Labour’s policy to invest £28bn a year on reducing emissions by the end of next parliament.
Sunak’s time at the Conference included a speech in which he argued that the UK was leading the charge on reducing emissions. In a move supported by green campaigners, he announced £1.6bn for renewable energy, green innovation and forests, as well as £11bn further private investment in the Dogger Bank wind farm. However, he could be perceived as out of touch compared to other speakers when he lauded Britain’s backtracking on some climate policies and seemingly inviting gratitude from other countries for Britain’s actions to reduce emissions so far. This speech stood in contrast with many more pessimistic outlooks on climate change, including from the King himself. It is also important to note that of the £1.6bn of climate aid Sunak promised, only £900m of this is actually new money, with the rest already earmarked for spending up to 2026.
King Charles, free to appear at COP28 following disagreements with the Liz Truss administration before COP27, was still able to cause political controversy. He entered the stage wearing a tie that some took as showing his support for the Greek Government following disagreements with Sunak, although the palace was quick to note that this was one of his favourite ties and he had worn it in previous state visits. King Charles’ message was very different to the Prime Minister’s as he shared worries about the future of the planet. He warned that humanity is ‘taking the natural world outside balanced norms and limits, and into dangerous, uncharted territory’.
Throughout the political spin, there have been some significant commitments so far. The Government has signed up to several voluntary pledges, including to triple world renewable energy usage by 2030 and treble civil nuclear power capacity by 2050. It has signed treaties and shown support for climate policies in countries like Kenya and Brazil. It has supported climate finance throughout the developing world, with UK Export Finance joining a Net Zero Credit Agencies Alliance and the launch of the Climate Investment Funds Capital Market Mechanism which could see bonds generate up to $750m per year in new climate finance. There have also been significant financial commitments with £480m to be used to mobilise private finance into adaptation and resilience, a £391m investment in the Private Infrastructure Development Group and £100m committed to help climate-vulnerable populations adapt to climate change from the Government’s £1.6bn commitment.
Many of these are seen as significant contributions, especially with countries like the USA only committing $17m to the fund to support countries suffering damage from climate change, while the UK contributed £60m.
Here lies the problem for Sunak and the Conservatives. The Government has proudly shared that Britain has reduced emissions faster than any other OECD nation, but now the country has a Prime Minister accused by some of using Labour’s ambitious net zero policies to create a wedge with voters. All this while deriding Labour’s ambition to invest £28bn a year into renewables (including within the first sentence of the Autumn Statement), while also trying to encourage international partners to decarbonise and support the developing world with climate change mitigation. Sunak has left himself a difficult position to try to convince the rest of the world to become greener while backtracking on Britain’s own green policies.
So far, COP28 has been a smorgasbord of voluntary pledges. Although there have been commitments from oil and gas companies to reduce emissions, these have been rebutted by smaller nations and NGOs who accused these companies of greenwashing. With days focusing on discussion on transport, built environment, youth, nature, land use, oceans, food, agriculture and water yet to come, there is still an opportunity for dramatic change to occur at COP28. This, however, will have to be done with the PM safely in Westminster.
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