“Years from now, our grandchildren will reflect on humanity’s moral courage to solve the climate crisis and they will look to December 12, 2015, as the day when the community of nations finally made the decision to act.”
That’s what Al Gore said in a statement that dropped into my inbox at 6.46pm on the wintry Saturday in December when the Paris Agreement was finally adopted.
I was so busy sending news of the deal back to my editors in London that I barely focused on Gore, or the thunderous applause of delegates inside the sprawling Paris Le Bourget airfield where the UN pact was agreed.
I also missed the big party in a Paris bar that night, where I later heard that Christiana Figueres, the UN’s top climate official, was greeted like a conquering hero by a crowd that channelled Queen’s Freddie Mercury to roar, “We are the champions of the world!”
Yet I understood why, at that moment, it was possible to think that both the crowd, and Al Gore, were right.
The world’s governments had at last come up with a new blueprint to ward off the most calamitous effects of climate change. They would deliver increasingly ambitious plans to cut their greenhouse gases enough to hold the rise in the global average temperature to well below 2C, and ideally just 1.5C, from pre-industrial levels.
“This is the end of fossil fuels,” declared a CNN headline two days later.
And, at first, the signs looked promising. So many coal-fired power projects were scrapped in the first six years after the Paris agreement that the world avoided adding the equivalent of a second China to global coal capacity.
Those cancellations may have been driven more by existing government policies and market trends such as the US shale gas revolution than by the Paris agreement. But the accord undoubtedly energised climate policies that in turn influenced investors and helped to spur milestones few had predicted with confidence in 2015.
In fact, electric cars and green energy have mushroomed so much that experts say the era of fossil fuel growth that began with the Industrial Revolution is finally nearing its end.
But the climate mission is far from accomplished. Record amounts of coal were burnt last year and record levels of oil are being used this year. Instead of collapsing, greenhouse gas emissions have kept growing, albeit more slowly.
Epic floods, wildfires and storms batter countries across the world with remorseless regularity. And scientists say that global temperatures that have already risen at least 1.1C will probably temporarily breach the 1.5C limit for at least one of the next five years.
So what happened to that euphoric moment in Paris? And is there any serious hope of pulling out of the dive?
These are questions I found myself asking last week as I waded through the last-minute paperwork needed to get to the 13-day COP28 climate conference that starts in Dubai on Thursday.
COP stands for “conference of the parties” to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the parent treaty of the Paris agreement.
Since COPs began in 1995, they have become the most visible symbol of our collective desire, and stubborn failure, to cut emissions at the pace and scale needed.
This one will be my eighth and yet again I am girding myself for an essential COP truth that would be obvious to any visiting alien: the way humans have chosen to save themselves from climate change is unhinged.
COPs are first and foremost enormously complicated. People say if a World Trade Organization meeting is like a game of checkers, a COP is like chess. But they’re wrong. COPs are more like playing three-dimensional chess, blindfolded. Those with a precise overview of all that is going on are in a distinct minority.
I still recall the shock of my first conference in the South African city of Durban in 2011, where I cluelessly watched hundreds of experts in finance, economics, law, science and trade pore over reams of acronym-ridden legal texts about “response measures”, the “umbrella group”, the “technology mechanism” and other items that no outsider could hope to fathom.
It doesn’t help that meetings are run in a way that forces exhausted negotiators to work through the night to reach agreements. In Doha in 2012, I met a senior official who had been trying to sleep on the floor of his delegation’s makeshift office by using a wad of crumpled photocopier paper as a pillow. Others had passed out on random benches.
I quickly learnt to follow the lead of veterans who brought in bags of nuts and hiking snacks that proved vital for when COPs ran over time, as they almost always do, and the food started running out.
By the time I got to the Lima COP in 2014, I realised that COP confusion extended to some of the government delegates who were deciding on the outcomes. “Do you know what they’re talking about now?” an official from a small European country asked me in one conference session. Alas, I did not.
The most recent COPs have been marked by a new development: an explosion in their size.
An English county cricket ground with 6,000 seats could have comfortably seated delegates at many early conferences, but they may soon need Wembley Stadium. Numbers have rocketed to more than 30,000 in the past two years, and that is just participants in the UN-controlled zone where official negotiations take place. COP host countries also stage what is in effect a gigantic climate expo, now so popular with businesses, investors, cities and campaigners that COP28’s UAE hosts predict a jaw-dropping 70,000 attendees in total in Dubai.
On the upside, this underlines the widening desire for more climate action. But it’s also a reminder of the growing gulf between climate talk and action.
“COP participant numbers will probably hit 100,000 before long, but to do what?” asks former French official Laurence Tubiana, an architect of the Paris agreement who now heads the European Climate Foundation. “What we need is real action.”
Tubiana is one of a growing number of experts who want to reboot COPs so that they do a better job of meeting the Paris goals. That could mean replacing the huge annual meetings with smaller, more frequent gatherings that bring in multilateral banks and other players to help turn government pledges into measurable, concrete action.
Simon Sharpe, a former UK civil servant who works on COP-backed efforts to speed up decarbonisation in sectors such cars and steel, says it’s time for a chief item on COP agendas to be: “How the hell do we help each other move ahead faster?”
But can this be done in Dubai, at what is shaping up to be one of the most polarising climate conferences in years?
The UAE is not the first petrostate to host a COP in a Gulf region where heat and humidity levels have repeatedly neared the threshold of what researchers think the human body can endure. (Qatar had the 2012 COP.) But it is the first to choose a COP president, Sultan al-Jaber, who is also chief executive of one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies — the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. This has caused so much anger that more than 100 EU and US lawmakers this year took the unusual step of calling for Jaber’s removal. That was months before this week’s news that the UAE planned to use COP28 meetings to pitch oil and gas deals to foreign governments.
The COP president does not have as much power to control the outcome of talks as some imagine, but the role does require patience and diplomatic acuity. Having met Jaber, and watched his team run through a raft of PR firms, I am not sure tact and patience are his strengths.
He faces even more pressure than Sir Alok Sharma, the COP president in Glasgow in 2021, who fought back tears after last-minute changes watered down an agreement to phase out coal.
Sharma, a UK politician, knows well what Jaber will confront. “I believe we will see a big push from many countries determined to get language on phaseout of fossil fuels, not just coal, in the negotiated agreement in Dubai,” he told me.
COP28 also comes at a time of multiplying foreign policy crises.
Geopolitics rumbles through every COP, but this year it is having a striking effect on the logistics of the meetings themselves. Each is hosted by a different nation picked from a rotating group of regions, and a candidate is typically chosen well in advance of the huge gatherings.
Brazil announced in May that it would host the 2025 COP. But, remarkably, at the time of writing we still don’t know where next year’s COP will be held. It is the turn of a group of eastern European states and Moscow has pushed back against a host from the EU, which opposes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“It’s a mess,” says Tom Evans of the E3G climate think-tank. “It definitely looms over the COP28 negotiations.” So does the Middle East conflict. Against this backdrop, it was a relief to see China and the US, the world’s two biggest emitters, recently commit to work together on climate measures, though it is unclear what this development might produce.
So who is most to blame for the sluggish pace of change since 2015? In a sense, all of us. The world has never tried to upend its global energy system at the pace we now know is required. The shift was never likely to be smooth.
I still remember the mood of stunned disbelief at the November 2016 COP in Marrakech, which began the day before the US elected a president, Donald Trump, who had vowed to “cancel” the Paris agreement.
One of the first politicians to cheer Trump’s win was another green transition sceptic, Geert Wilders, whose far-right Freedom party last week surged to a shock election victory in the Netherlands that may not be the last of its kind in Europe.
Some groups bear specific blame, not least the fossil fuel companies that have actively lobbied to slow green policies. But this is only part of the picture.
About half the world’s oil and gas comes from middle-income developing countries that depend on revenues from fossil fuels and face big obstacles to shifting away from them. In some emerging economies, real or perceived investor risks mean the cost of capital for a solar farm is up to three times higher than in rich countries.
Wealthy nations said in 2009 that they would be mobilising $100bn a year in climate finance by 2020 to help poorer countries. But the money has yet to be officially confirmed and, even when it is, it will not be nearly enough.
Big names in the private sector have made bold claims about filling some of the climate funding gap. “We’re moving finance faster than any one of these environmental groups,” Larry Fink, head of the giant BlackRock money manager, told the BBC in 2021. But progress has been slow, even in richer countries. BlackRock’s support for climate and social proposals has fallen, as has that of other money managers, as US Republicans have accused the firms of being too “woke”.
Despite all these disappointments and false starts, it is still possible to imagine a climate turning point is in sight.
This is partly because COPs, for all their flaws, have been far from pointless.
They have always forced governments to show up and explain climate policies they might prefer to downplay. But they have also proved to be tremendous normalisers of ideas long deemed radical, such as the need to reach net zero emissions by the middle of this century.
Net zero only went mainstream after the 2015 Paris COP asked a UN panel of scientists to look at what it would take to limit warming to 1.5C. The researchers came back in 2018 with arresting news: human-driven carbon dioxide emissions would need to nearly halve from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by around 2050.
By laying bare how fast emissions needed to come down, these findings wrenched open the Overton window — the range of politically acceptable ideas. Half the world’s 2,000 largest companies and more than 150 countries have now set or proposed a net zero target.
Likewise, efforts to reshape global financial institutions to channel more climate finance to poorer countries took off after leaders championed the idea at the Glasgow COP in 2021. Governments understand this legitimising power of COPs. It’s why COP28 is set for another furious showdown over fossil fuels. Nothing will magically change, whatever is agreed, but the global message will be unmistakable. Just as importantly, tectonic plates of the global economy are finally showing signs of moving in a concerted green direction.
China is still the world’s biggest carbon emitter by a long shot. But some analysts think its great green energy boom will cause emissions to fall next year and potentially go into long-term decline.
Beijing’s dominance of the clean technologies of the future has also helped to spur the US to pass the biggest climate law in its history. That in turn has prompted the EU to upgrade its green industrial policies.
These moves should help to turbocharge the spread of cheaper, cleaner technologies that are already growing at exponential rates in some countries. And that could make it easier to dispense with fossil fuel subsidies and other blocks on the energy transition.
Politicians like Geert Wilders and Donald Trump will try to reverse these trends. But the more that green business revenues grow, the harder this becomes. In other words, we may reach the point where the chief barriers to faster climate action are not financial or technological, but political.
That is not to say that such success is guaranteed. Green-minded politicians have long been haunted by the words of Jean-Claude Juncker, the former European Commission president, who once said: “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.”
That truism grows more apt when meaty climate strategies are launched. Ask politicians in Germany bruised by their recent effort to expand the use of heat pumps. Yet we are starting to see evidence that climate action can win votes instead of losing them. In 2018, Spain’s socialist party government made a deal to compensate workers and towns for closing coal mines in three northern provinces. The party’s vote in those areas rose in the April 2019 national election, compared with similar places, a recent study by European academics shows.
That deal applied to fewer than 1,700 coal workers whose industry was in decline. It is nowhere near being replicated globally in more complicated oil and gas markets, but it shows what is politically possible.
And that reflects an important reality about the winding path of global climate action. We started too late. We are going too slowly. A peak in global emissions seems closer than ever, even though the dramatic falls needed are still very hard to imagine.
Yet we understand better than ever what needs to be done. Many of the remaining roadblocks are political and, for the first time, we are starting to see how they might eventually be overcome.
Pilita Clark is an FT columnist and former environment correspondent