COP28: Pope urges end to fossil fuels to avert climate disaster

FILE - Pope Francis attends his weekly general audience in the Pope Paul VI hall at the Vatican, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. Pope Francis called Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, for a universal ban on the “despicable” practice of surrogate motherhood, as he included the “commercialization” of pregnancy in an annual speech listing the threats to global peace and human dignity. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, File)

Last Updated on Thursday, 18 January, 2024 at 9:43 pm by Andre Camilleri

Vanya Walker-Leigh from Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Increasing high profile global action by the estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world on climate change issues is expected in line with the recent statements and writings by Pope Francis.

This will follow the modest outcomes of the 28th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – attended here by nearly 100,000 participants, including the much-criticised presence of 2,426 fossil fuel industry representatives defending their status quo – this sector and the use of its products are generating the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions heating the planet’s atmosphere.

The UAE is the world’s seventh biggest oil producer: the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Sultan Al Jaber acted as the widely-criticised COP28 president.

His Holiness urged the elimination of fossil fuels both in the speech intended for personal delivery (but his trip was cancelled due to bronchitis) to the COP28 high level opening session of the conference on 1-2 December, attended by 150 heads of state or government including King Charles III; as well as his message to the opening of the first COP Interfaith Pavilion hosting 70 events addressed by nearly 300 speakers. This structure will re-emerge at future COPs, with continued support from the UAE based Muslim Council of Elders, the Vatican and some other faith formations. On 6,7 November, these organisations had co-hosted a 200-strong Faith Leaders’ Summit in Abu Dhabi – with the Holy See’s Secretary of State Pietro Cardinal Parolin a keynote speaker. The meeting issued a Global Faith Leaders’ Summit Interfaith Statement for COP 28, subsequently signed on 3 December at the Vatican by the Pope and formally communicated to heads of national governments.

On 8 January his address to the 135 ambassadors accredited to the Vatican again called for the “elimination” of these fuels.

Just after the COP end, the president of the Pontifical Council of Sciences, leading German scientist Joachim von Braun, said in an interview that science and faith had been in dialogue since 2021. PAS planned to organise a meeting next May for non-state actors to create action-oriented coalitions of the willing. The COP processes needed reform and achieving consensus between 200 nations was too difficult as too much time had been lost.

According to a Vatican journalist the Pope is also planning an encounter with leaders of the 12 states (Pacific Islands and Colombia) so far supporting a private proposal for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, launched by Canadian environmental activist Tsepora Berman three years ago. Other possibly interested states could also be invited along with non-state experts. The treaty would guide the just transition to systems for economies and workers based on renewable energies.

FFNPT now claims support from 437 Churches and faith groups (Christian and non) representing 1.5 billion followers, 101 Nobel laureates, 300 health institutions including the World Health Organisation, the European Parliament, 500 other parliamentarians, 101 cities and sub-national governments, 156 international organisations and institutions, 3,000 scientists and academics and 40,000 individuals.

The UAE Consensus on the Global Stocktake, endorsed in the morning of 13 December by sleep-deprived delegates from 198 nations (including the Holy See representative), one day after the scheduled conference end, replaced a draft presented the day before resulting in the EU and numerous other nations, developed and developing, threatening to leave the conference, condemning it to failure. All COP decisions have legal force and must be adopted by consensus.

In a leaked letter of 8 December 2023, the head of the secretariat of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), had urged its 14 member states, including UAE, to oppose any language calling for the phasing out of fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal). The Guardian exclusively reported that on the intended last day (12 December) the US climate change envoy, John Kerry, secretly met with the powerful Saudi Arabian energy minister, Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud, persuading him not to oppose the revised draft decision text developed overnight by Al Jaber.

Making many concessions to oil producing nations and the companies they host, the weakly worded final text called for nations to “transition” away from fossil fuels at their own pace by 2050, leaving open to them many avoiding strategies based on continued use of gas, additional nuclear power stations, currently barely developed technologies such as carbon capture and storage, which scientists affirm might only absorb a very small proportion of future greenhouse gas emissions.  

The goal of a maximum 1.5C global temperature increase by 2100 over pre-industrial levels, cautiously mooted in the Paris Agreement, which imposed a maximum increase of +2C, was strongly stated in the Consensus – but not the policies and money needed to achieve it. As reported in the Global Stocktake  subsequently current policies to date are woefully inadequate, implying of at least 4C. The GST reindicated necessary future measures to meet that goal, that is, the wholesale upgrading of all national policy goals (Nationally Determined Contributions) up to 2035 to be presented before the 2025 COP30 in Brazil.

As Kerry has frequently stated – trillions, not billions are needed to fund the policies necessary to transform all the world’s energy, industrial, transport, forestry and agricultural systems from their current high emissions functioning to align with what is needed to stave off otherwise planetwide climate disasters warned by scientists – 2023, the hottest ever recorded year – seen as just the start.

But while committing $726bn for a Loss and Damage Fund – a fraction of what will be needed to compensate developing nations for devastating impacts, material and social, which cannot not be repaired – advanced nations’ governments once again did not make any large scale commitments to boost finance needed for the above-mentioned transformations in developing nations – the issue pushed forward to the next COP in Baku, capital of oil producing Azerbaijan. Under the not always observed rotation rule for COP locations between five continents it was Europe’s turn. The location was chosen after Russia opposed any EU nation being the next COP host – with both Bulgaria and Czechia competing against each other.

Somehow, most of the trillions needed between now and 2030 and then to 2050 and beyond to “keep 1.5C alive” will have to come mainly from the private sector. But while 1,532 institutions (such as pension and investment funds, churches) have divested $39 trillions out of fossil fuels, far greater sums remain invested by leading banks, pension and investment funds in fossil fuel instruments and corporations.

With rising calls to reform the multilateral development banks and international finance system – the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund established in 1944 to finance post-World War II recovery and later the development of independent former 100+ colonies – hopes are pinned on these institutions’ next two 2024 meetings as well as those of the subsequently founded regional development banks.

At a conference in Paris in June of last year France added its leadership to the Barbados Bridgetown Initiative for international financial reform to support wide-ranging new policies on climate change actions in developing nations. Just before COP, a majority, composed of developing nations at the UN General Assembly, voted for an international tax treaty, opposed by all developed nations.

Reacting to the UAE Consensus, the Convention’s executive secretary, Simon Stiell (former environment minister of Grenada) commented that “we needed a green light, but we got an amber, so there is still a great deal of work to be done”.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres concluded that “for the first time, the outcome recognises the need to transition away from fossil fuels – after many years in which the discussion of this issue was blocked. Science tells us that limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees will be impossible without the phase out of all fossil fuels on a timeframe consistent with this limit. This has been recognised by a growing and diverse coalition of countries”.

“To those who opposed a clear reference to a phase out of fossil fuels in the COP28 text, …. a fossil fuel phase out is inevitable whether they like it or not. Let’s hope it doesn’t come too late.”

Contrasting with the inadequate Consensus language and evasive assessments by some international business organisations (for example, the International Chamber of Commerce), a significant number of climate-friendly initiatives by groups of nations or private company alliances also emerged here – but as good intentions and not as binding agreements.

These will be reported in a subsequent article which will also review the Belgian EU presidency’s climate change proposals up to the end of its term on 30 June as well as expected developments at the European Parliament, before and after the mid-June elections

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