Opinion: without Xi and Biden at the table, what are climate pledges worth?
As COP28 draws to a close, Alice Tchernookova questions the meaningfulness of commitments made during the summit as two major world leaders fail to attend
Joe Biden and Xi Jinping’s marked absence from COP28 has further called into question the relevance of commitments made during this year’s global climate conference.
Recent estimates have shown yet again that China, the US and India were the world’s top three greenhouse gas emitters, with electricity generation in China and India and oil and gas production in the US being the main causes.
A landmark decision was reached this year, with nearly 200 countries agreeing to a new deal calling for a progressive transition away from fossil fuels. The deal has been described as historic, as it is the first time that the reduction of fossil fuel use is explicitly mentioned in a COP agreement – although it does stop short of calling for a complete phase-out, which some pundits have deplored.
The "global stocktake", which recognises the science underpinning the need to cut global emissions and encourages parties to take action towards tripling the world's renewable energy capacity by 2030, is also seen as a key achievement of COP28.
But with two out of the three leaders of those countries failing to show up for what is widely viewed as the biggest yearly congregation to discuss the planet’s future, one may wonder whether there is a point to those debates at all. Without serious changes and commitments on their behalf, whatever is agreed and discussed during COP seems all but vain.
This concern comes on top of the many controversies that have surrounded this year’s COP presidency in the person of Sultan Al-Jaber – who is at once the UAE’s minister of industry and advance technology and its special envoy for climate change, as well as head of the Adu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) and chairman of the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar).
Al-Jaber has sparked controversy over the past couple of weeks for claiming that there was no scientific evidence justifying the need to reduce fossil fuel use, and that phasing it out threatened to “take the world back into caves”. He is also accused of having used meetings with conference delegates to advance business purposes for the two oil companies he heads.
In addition, COP28 did not just count the highest number of delegates to date (70,000) – it also hosted the largest number of lobbyists, principally from the meat and dairy industries, whose representatives multiplied threefold compared to last year. This has caused for some pundits to say that COP now resembles more of a trade fair, as opposed to a global conference on climate.
With all this in mind, it seems only fair to wonder whether COP is actually serving its purpose, and beyond that – whether climate commitments are a serious matter, or a masquerade behind which states and corporations are hiding only to better serve their interests in the background.
The US and China did send envoys to COP in lieu of their heads of state, but isn’t that very choice just further proof that net zero may not be that much of a priority to them after all?
Biden may have made significant strides on climate change, notably through the Inflation Reduction Act, but as he seeks to secure a $105 billion national security passage – including $61 billion in aid for Ukraine and funding for Israel and Gaza – it is clear where his priorities lie at this time. Meanwhile, Xi is trying to get China’s economy back on its feet as the country continues to struggle with its post-pandemic recovery.
It is perhaps no wonder then that neither of them has decided to place environmental issues at the top of their busy agenda.
Here is to hoping that 2024 will soothe the bloody conflicts that have dominated the news for far too long, and will enable us all to focus on a common cause that is just as determining for our future.