International climate policy must inevitably remind pessimists of poor Sisyphus and his stone. As soon as you go two steps ahead, you’re already stepping backwards. I remember well the climate summit in Bali in 2007, when the then head of the UN climate secretariat burst into desperate tears on the open stage, and the progress achieved after hours of tough work. The summit was acclaimed as it paved the way for a new climate agreement. But this path ended two years later in the Copenhagen disaster. It took the international community years to recover from this shock. What was planned for Copenhagen only succeeded in Paris in 2015, albeit in a weaker form.
But again the stone threatens to roll backwards.
This week I spent a few hours in the Foreign Office’s Weltsaal, at the “Petersberg Climate Dialogue”. This is an annual rendezvous of ministers and climate diplomats from selected countries, and it should be the next one climate conference prepare, which will take place this year in the United Arab Emirates. And as nice as it is in the world hall, as diligently as everyone there spoke out for more climate protection – the meeting also had its unsettling moments.
On the one hand, this affects the balance sheets of the climate sinners, who at the “COP28” summit in Dubai become due. The states are neither on course with emissions nor with financial commitments. And while the necessary billions that rich countries once promised the poorer ones in the fight against the climate crisis can somehow be raised with a lot of good will, things look bleak when it comes to emissions. For the first time, the states in Dubai are to hold each other accountable – for what they promised in Paris 2015 in terms of climate protection and what they have actually achieved. But in the world hall, one after the other of the major causes had to admit that it won’t be enough – of course with the greatest regret.
Even more threatening is the tongue-lashing that the hosts from the Persian Gulf now want to establish in the fight against the climate crisis. He no longer wants to say goodbye to fossil energies, but from fossils emissions. In other words: Coal, oil and gas can continue to be burned if only the corresponding emissions are somehow technically separated and stored underground. If this view prevails, it would undermine the idea of building a clean alternative to the fossil system with renewable energies and green hydrogen. It is no coincidence that the Emirates chose Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber as President-elect of COP28, who is not only very smart, but also head of the state oil company Adnoc.
As a pessimist, however, one does not get very far around international climate policy. Those who have persevered from the beginning to this day can only do it one way: they look at the process itself. They celebrate every small advance and see the rest as a challenge that remains. Especially since one thing remains indisputably true: if the conferences and climate dialogues did not exist, the world would be in even worse shape.
Apart from occasional frustrations, I tend to think so too. Ultimately, Al Jaber drags onto the open stage a conflict that has so far only been discussed in small groups, but rarely with those who fossil energy made rich: What is the future of fossil energy? How long can it be funded? And what about countries like the Emirates? This debate is part of the fossil endgame.
It’s going to be a damn exciting conference in Dubai – one that gets down to business, but a lot can happen. As hard as climate Sisyphus has to work, he hasn’t lost yet.