‘A Sick Joke’: Six Ways of Looking at a COP

Yves here. After so many climate initiatives, from IPCC reports to COP meetings to the Paris Accords, that have generated a lot of hot air and not much climate action, if you are not cynical or jaded, you have not been paying attention. So it is fitting that this year’s COP is being held in Dubai, one of the world capitals of air conditioning.

Tom Neuburger invoked Wallace Stevens as the inspiration for this post. But I prefer Rashomon, with four inconsistent accounts of the same crime.

By Thomas Neuburger. Originally published at God’s Spies

“Cohosting COP will help restore our reputation.”
—Australia’s Minister for Climate Change and Energy (see video above)

There is no science out there that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5 [degrees Celsius].”
—Sultan Al Jabar, COP 28 President-designate and CEO, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, quoted here

“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell.”
—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

The world’s most climate-interested people-with-power meet this year in Dubai, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates, a nation with the seventh largest oil reserves in the world. The Emirates are net-sellers of fossil fuels.

Interesting? Let’s consider this conference and the issue it addresses from more than one angle. With homage to Wallace Stevens, this is “Six ways of looking at a COP.”

Using the Climate Conference to Sell Oil

The first angle is pure corruption. A meeting to address global warming is being used to increase it.

Writing in Newsweek (and not The Onion), fed-up climate scientist Peter Kalmus says this:

The annual United Nations climate summit started yesterday. We’re up to the 28th edition: “COP28.” Past UN summits have obviously failed us, but this is a new low. Everyone on Earth needs to know that the meeting has been overrun by fossil fuel executives, making it a sick, planet-destroying joke. There’s no real hope of stopping catastrophic global heating until we fix this.

Kalmus is not wrong. Why does he call it a “joke”?

In this hottest year in human history, the climate summit is being held in the United Arab Emirates and presided over by a fossil fuel chief executive named Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber. It’s hard to imagine anything more cynical or more evil. And yet, things did get more cynical and more evil, with recent revelations that the U.A.E. has been abusing its host role to strike side deals to expand fossil fuels.

The president of this year’s UN climate conference is a fossil fuel CEO who plans to use the conference to … sell oil. Because why not, if your major customers are there?

[B]ehind the scenes, the Emirates has sought to use its position as host to pursue a contradictory goal: to lobby on oil and gas deals around the world, according to an internal document made public by a whistle-blower.

In one example, the document offers guidance for Emirati climate officials to use meetings with Brazil’s environment minister to enlist her help with a local petrochemical deal by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, the Emirates’ state-run oil and gas company, known as Adnoc.

Emirati officials should also inform their Chinese counterparts that Adnoc was “willing to jointly evaluate international LNG opportunities” in Mozambique, Canada and Australia, the document indicates. LNG stands for liquefied natural gas, which is a fossil fuel and a driver of global warming.

There’s not much moral distance between this and using 12-step meetings to peddle drugs. Except that this is far worse. You could screw up, at most, a few hundreds of lives by perverting some 12-step meetings. Oil and gas dealers doom billions.

Carrots or Sticks? Let Corporations Decide

All of this takes place in a world where the powerful struggle to decide whether to use carrots or sticks to address the climate change. In this case, the carrots are subsidies for renewable energy, and the sticks are quotas and controls.

As Yves Smith points out in this article at Naked Capitalism, the classic way to choose between quotas and subsidies is to assess the private costs of each. Since the private cost of the sticks approach — taxes on carbon, carbon credit schemes, or (my personal favorite) outright bans — is bound to be both high and painful, the powers-that-be in the West have opted for carrots. That is, they will (grudgingly) allow subsidies in order to avoid taxes and bans.

But the subsidy approach is now encountering a problem: no profit there either. From the Wall Street Journal:

In the past few years, Washington and Wall Street started fantasizing that the transition to net-zero carbon emissions could be an economic bonanza. “When I think climate change, I think jobs,” President Biden said. When Wall Street heard green energy, it saw profits.

Keep the last sentence in mind as you read the rest.

For years, the cost of wind and solar plummeted, but since 2021 they have risen, according to investment bank Lazard. Interest rates are an important factor, which Lazard estimates affect offshore wind and solar more than natural gas.

Many developers can no longer economically supply power at the rates previously agreed to. Denmark’s Orsted, the world’s largest wind developer, took a $4 billion charge in early November for pulling out of two projects off New Jersey. The company today is worth 75% less than in early 2021.

ClearView Energy Partners estimates about 30% of state-contracted offshore wind capacity has been canceled, and another 25% may be rebid. ClearView analyst Timothy Fox noted lawmakers often mandate increased renewables, but utility regulators must approve the contracts, and one of their primary considerations is cost to ratepayers. …

Regarding electric vehicles, “automakers are still losing money on every EV they sell.”

And of course, the private sector’s in charge. As a result, as the article says, “The green transition remains critical, but its path will be fraught until someone agrees to pay for it.” Unspoken: That won’t be us.

The Cost Will Indeed Be High

The private sector, which loves only money, is not wrong about the cost of truly addressing the crisis. Carbon taxes will extract wealth from their pockets. Even if that wealth is directly returned to the people, they’ll tout it as a tax on everyone. It’s what they do.

But the people will also suffer from the transition as well. If Kalmus is right and “the only way out of this emergency is to … end the fossil fuel industry,” given the deadlines we’re on

…it’s not hard to imagine some rationing will be involved. Perhaps a lot of it. After all, declaring a World War II-style emergency for the real World War II meant a lotof rationing.

The fossil fuel industry uses “goodbye big-screen lifestyle” to scare people toward carrots for a reason — “goodbye big-screen lifestyle” may be in the cards.

Infinite Growth

The final angle from which to view this year’s conference is this one, and it’s stark. Emilia Reyes, a contributor to the 2022 IPCC Working Group 2 report, Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, writes this:

Solving the climate crisis means ending our addiction to economic growth

But degrowth in the Global North will not work unless it is done alongside reparations for the Global South

… [W]ith the Global North responsible for 92% of the world’s excess carbon dioxide emissions and 74% of excess material use (half of which is extracted in the Global South), it’s clear the current ecological crisis is the responsibility of the industrialised economies who will be sat around the table.

The source of the problem lies in the very economic system that prioritises economic growth, profit and wealth accumulation over the wellbeing of people and the planet. The blind pursuit of exponential economic growth has propelled economic decision-making. But exponential economic growth brings about exponential extraction and exponential deepening of inequalities.

Let’s pause for a second. You’ve probably heard this before: The modern (capitalist-driven) pursuit of unlimited growth is not consistent with addressing climate change, since pursuit of unlimited growth is one of its causes.

To decide if this is right, consider: The two main causes of the coming climate crisis are 1) the growth in world population, and 2) the socially-blessed greed of those with all the power.

Which means:

  • As long as population grows, consumption will increase.
  • As long as greed rules our world, economic entities — companies, businesses, countries — will be forced to grow, be taken over, or die.

Running in place is death for a major enterprise. Think of Sears, or Braniff, or any of a dozen dead or recycled enterprises you recall from youth. It’s entirely possible that the system we’re trying to fix can only be fixed by its death, our death, or both.

The details behind this argument are convincing:

Governments of industrialised economies have presented ‘green new deals’ (GNDs) as the solution. But their aims and measures are reinforcing the economic structures that rely on colonial extraction in the Global South. Building the entire infrastructure of the so-called energy transition proposed by GNDs will require a new wave of extraction of rare and critical minerals. The global demand for lithium alone would go up to 4,200% by 2040.

Imagine a world where global lithium use increases 42-fold in 15 years. That’s the world that supports our “big-screen lifestyle” into the future.

But let’s say we succeed. What happens ten years after? Increased extraction, of course. See where this goes?

The Path to Degrowth

Reyes lays out a process that gets us there, to a growth-free and fairer world. But it’s a big ask.

Picture Jamie Dimon agreeing to that list. “Over my dead body,” he would say. And he’d be right. We’ll never get there while the rich are in charge.

See where this goes?

Back to the Caves?

Let me close with Sultan Al Jabar. In the interview in which he said what I quoted above, he also said this:

Show me the roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socioeconomic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves.

Is he right? Does he think he’s right?

If so, he’s choosing for humans go out with a bang, in a last grand danse macabre

…than to re-enter caveman life while he’s still alive.

I’m not sure he’s right. The caves may come sooner than that.

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  1. vao

    As a result, as the article says, “The green transition remains critical, but its path will be fraught until someone agrees to pay for it.”

    And that means that many of those “green transition” projects will be abandoned. It is already happening.

    Germany had an ambitious project to help re-orient (part of) its economy towards the so-called “green hydrogen”: Westküste100. The idea:

    1) Offshore windfarms produce renewable electricity,
    2) which is used by an electrolytic plant to generate hydrogen out of water,
    3) which is pumped to a refinery, where it serves to produce methanol,
    4) which is the main input to produce jet fuel, sent via pipeline to the Hamburg airport.
    5) The oxygen generated by the electrolytic plant is sent to a cement plant, where it serves to capture CO2,
    6) which is itself sent to the refinery to help synthesize methanol.
    7) Surplus hydrogen is to be mixed (to a maximum proportion of 20%) with natural gas that is delivered to residential areas,
    8) while remaining excess hydrogen gets stored in underground reservoirs near the refinery.
    9) The heat generated durying electrolysis is captured and fed into the remote heating network for residential areas.

    Many parties were involved, including Holcim, Oersted, ThyssenKrupp, EDF-Hynamics, the refinery Heide, network operator OGE (formerly E.On), and various local utilities. Budget: €89M, including €36M State subsidies.

    The project has collapsed. Oersted (the same company mentioned in Neuburger’s article) cannot produce electricity viably at the price required by hydrogen producers and consumers, and it is economically more advantageous to import hydrogen from Namibia (!) than to buy it from Oersted at a price making its operation profitable.

    Of course, there have been many criticisms. Some state that the project was too complex and thus doomed anyway. Others state that the hydrogen sector is barely in its infancy, that Westküste100 was the chance to gather crucial experience and develop and master the technology, and that the total project costs are a trifle, literally a thousandth of what is going to be spent on the re-armament of Germany. Others criticise the fundamental orientation towards hydrogen as inefficient and fraught with technical dangers.

    So where can Germany get hydrogen for its industry? From Canada!

    At least this was the plan: World Energy GH2 was to build a giant 320-turbin strong windpark in Labrador and Newfoundland, an electrolytic plant, and associated storage and delivery facilities. Budget: $12G! The hydrogen (250000 tonnes/year) would then be exported to Germany from 2025 onwards, as German economy minister Robert Habeck and Canadian energy minister Jonathan Wilkinson agreed upon in 2022.

    Well, the production is delayed, so that customers should not expect any hydrogen before 2027. First of all, the environmental impact study proves to be anything less than a formality. Second, World Energy GH2 wants to secure contracts from customers before comitting to construction. And third, customers make their orders dependent on a 40% tax rebate for capital costs incurred to build the facilities for storing and transporting hydrogen.

    Conditions are a bit more auspicious for other similar projects, such as the one by EverWind — wind farms, electricity, ammonia (not hydrogen, but comparable utilization), to be sold to Germany companies (Uniper, E.ON). For one, environmental authorities have already given some green lights. Additionally, Canada agreed to lend $125M. The total budget has not be revealed.

    Conversion to hydrogen processing was also seriously considered regarding the German refinery Schwedt (about which I reported recently), and it will be interesting to see what happens on that front (I am a bit skeptical).

    All this seems to confirm the gist of Neuburger’s article: the financing of those large green transition programmes do not work out (at least in the current economic framework).

    1. Uncle Doug

      “Of course, there have been many criticisms. Some state that the project was too complex and thus doomed anyway.”

      It doesn’t take much more than a glance to see that it was always doomed, because the Second Law of thermodynamics isn’t repealable.

    1. nippersdad

      Years ago I got this strange invitation in the mail, just out of the blue, to attend Al Gore’s global warming presentation in India. Never met the guy, not associated with him in any way. I wonder how many random people he invited, and how many actually went.

      I am still agog at that one.

    2. Otto Reply

      Would a remote COP necessarily be a greener COP? A 2021 study suggests no: Zoom isn’t carbon-free. The climate costs of staying home.

      “The journal Resources, Conservation & Recycling recently published a first-of-its-kind study looking at the internet’s land and water footprints in addition to its greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers from Purdue University, Yale University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that data centers used roughly 687 million gallons of water every year, and had an estimated land footprint of 1,300 square miles, nearly three times the size of Los Angeles. On emissions alone, the group found data centers push out 97 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year.”

      Yale’s take on the study: Surge in digital activity has hidden environmental costs

      But wait, this past September, Microsoft and Cornell come to the rescue.
      “Remote workers can have a 54% lower carbon footprint compared with onsite workers, according to a new study by Cornell and Microsoft, with lifestyle choices and work arrangements playing an essential role in determining the environmental benefits of remote and hybrid work.”
      Note the neoliberal “personal responsibility” clause.

      WaPo does its job. “Fully remote workers could produce less than half the climate-warming emissions of people who spend their days in offices.” (as Lambert might say, “could” is doing a awful lot of work here.) Note also the emphasis on “climate-warming emissions” in the 2023 study but no mention of land use and/or water use. So not an apples-to-apples comparison to the 2021 study.

      This caveat appears mid-way through the article: “The study found that working remotely more than one day per week could cut emissions, mainly driven by less office energy use and commuting. But the researchers cautioned against assuming that any amount of remote work could be good for the planet.” [emphasis added] Hmmm, why wasn’t that the lede?

      1. JustTheFacts

        COP 28 = 14 days = 336 hours = 102 kg of CO2 according to your article, assuming they spend 16 hours a day on their zoom call.

        Distance from Washington DC to Dubai: ~7000 miles. Let’s be nice and say John Kerry’s private jet gets 5mpg. That’s 1,400 gallons, which each emit 9.6 kg of CO2 for jet fuel. So John Kerry’s one-way trip emitted 13,400 kg of CO2. Double that for the return trip: 26,800 kg. The cost would have been 3000 kg had he flown commercially according to https://flightfree.org/flight-emissions-calculator

        So 263 attendees could have attended via zoom for the same amount of carbon used as John Kerry used coming via private jet.

        Given that over 100,000 people are attending COP28 coming either via private jet, or commercially, it seems totally clear that virtual would have saved our atmosphere unnecessary damage.

    1. JustTheFacts

      Seeing things like this makes me wonder whether the aliens Michael Shellenberger suggests might be here, shouldn’t be figuring out how to ethnically cleanse us off this planet, and move us to a planet called Sinai, where we can’t do so much damage. I guess they could leave some “museum humans” on the planet for tourism purposes, with strict instructions to preserve the ancient ways and not innovate.

  2. Martin

    >>> Show me the roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socioeconomic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves.

    The last time humanity was sustainable, according to some scientists, was in the imperial era (think roman empire). According to others, it was before we developed agriculture. So it might be cavetime whatever path we take.

    We are not unlike a microorganism in a petri dish. Said petri dish receives a continuous stream of food, which has stockpiled through millenia, and humanity is exponentially growing as it consumes the stockpile. Some are already seeing that food will run out and waste is piling up, so they urge for slowing down the rate of consumption. But we will compete instead. And eventually the petri dish will experience collapse, and humanity will have to take whatever it has learned so far, and see what kind of a life it can deliver for itself by sipping from the stream.

    1. GF

      Why doesn’t some renown organization conduct the study to “Show me the roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socioeconomic development” Isn’t it a no-brainer to try at least to see if it is even possible??

      1. JoeC100

        Definitely possible and we missed our first opportunity to move the key technology to do this back in the 1980s when DOE (in their first year or two) did not fund a joint proposal to move this technology, based on extensive R&D conducted by Los Alamos lab and others as part of NASA’s Lunar Rover program..

        I have been working on innovative energy technology for about thirty years and this “antique” concept that was never followed up turns out to be the game changer – low capital costs (much equipment is “off the shelf” marine diesel parts), effectively free fuel (some fuel sources may have negative costs) and essentially no fuel logistics, quite safe and readily licensable, etc. Early discussions about establishing a collaborative project plan involving two National Labs are in progress. And first electricity production from a sub-scale commercial is plausible in seven to ten years. A few serious people at this COP have been briefed on this technology, but I don’t think serious awareness will begin to occur until the proposed collaborative project plan is formally initiated. In the process of exploring options for initial start-up fuel. And a recent discovery was that plausible fuel options could solve some nuclear waste management challenges considered “hopeless”.

        When this finally comes together I will, provide some details and links in a relevant topic comments section.

  3. dave -- just dave

    When spouse and self review the morning links here, we use a Firefox add-on “Read Aloud.” When it encounters COP28 it says “twenty-eight Columbian pesos.”

    I am pretty sure that our species will continue – there are pockets of people here and there who would probably be able to survive using local resources even if all commerce ceases – but science, technology, engineering and mathematics? I wonder. However, I have faith in the Harvard Law of Behavior: Under carefully controlled experimental conditions, the subject organisms will do what they damn well please.

  4. Alice X

    “There is no science out there that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5 [degrees Celsius].”
    —Sultan Al Jabar, COP 28 President-designate and CEO, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company

    He is probably correct in a perverse way, we are going to blow through 1.5 no matter what, and maybe 2 as well. But if we phase-out fossil fuels today, we might head off worse than that. And that is already going to be plenty bad.

    So I guess I’m not much of an optimist.

  5. Cassandra

    This does not address the elephant in the room:

    The two main causes of the coming climate crisis are 1) the growth in world population, and 2) the socially-blessed greed of those with all the power.

    Those with all the power are irredeemably greedy and have no intention of changing. They are also aware that the growth in world population is driving unsustainability. Therefore, the logical and efficient solution is massive global population degrowth, and sooner rather than later.

    In my opinion, the process has already begun.

    1. NYMutza

      It’s even worse than that, The powers that be in many countries are bewailing low birth rates in countries such as Japan, South Korea, Italy, Russia, and even China. After all, lower populations lead to lower economic growth. And recently some economists have pointed out that lower birth rates will lead to fewer young people available to fight wars. Well, we simply can’t have that!!!

    2. Vesa

      This causes odd thoughts in my mind. If it is right thing to do to eliminate bad people like Hitler and it is also right to kill bad people (opinion by only western people) like Saddam or Gaddafi then why it is forbidden to suggest eliminating these greedy people. They are killing millions and maybe in the future billions of people while Hitler managed to kill only maybe 50 million. And eliminating could be just taking away their money and not lives.
      Just saying…

  6. upstater

    Rest assured Mayo Pete is on site in Abu Dhabi touting performative Green washing of rail freight:

    U.S. and Canada pledge to work together on zero-emissions locomotives

    “Together, we intend to: establish a joint research agenda to test the safe integration of emerging technologies, including hydrogen-powered and battery-electric locomotives; coordinate strategies to accelerate the rail sector’s safe transition from diesel-powered locomotives to zero-emission technologies to ensure a net-zero rail sector by no later than 2050; and collaborate on the development of a U.S.-Canada rail sector net-zero climate model by 2025,” they said.

    I want to call out the pathetic BS on this one:

    The locomotives referenced here use hydrogen fuel cells and are low horsepower, unsuitable for heavy long distance freight (think of the 2.5 mile, 15,000 ton PSR freights) . I don’t know how much platinum is contained in each locomotive, but i wouldn’t be surprised if it would exceed annual world production to transition 30,000 heavy locomotives to fuel cell power. And where does the green hydrogen come from?

    The most obvious solution to decarbonize rail freight is to string electric catenary and use electric locomotives. Russia, China and much of Europe electrified mainlines long ago. The US had only short segments of mainline electrification (1% of the network) and none is used today for freight. Electric locomotives increase capacity because of faster starting and stopping. Regenerative braking supplies 20% of the energy used. Mainline electrification requires a long term investment outlook. Like the Pennsylvania Railroad had in the 1930s. We don’t do long-term anymore…

    The US has mandated cleaner Tier 4 emissions for new locomotives. Hardly any are produced; the class 1s rebuild 30 year old locomotives, grandfathered in with much higher emissions, more costly than new builds, to evade Tier 4 emission requirements. The higher polluting locomotives have lower maintenance costs.

    The elites are not serious about anything…

    1. playon

      Yes that’s BS, however rail transport of people and freight are much more energy efficient than cars and trucks.

  7. sunny129


    We ALL are frogs in a slowly boiling water, complaining about increasing temp, with accusation against each other, until we, all are RED. Nothing changes just never ending pontification

    A LOW value commenter (free to delete)

  8. Henry Moon Pie

    Kate Raworth of Doughnut Economics interviews Nate Hagens, on Hagens’s own podcast, on the occasion of Nate’s 100th episode. Two forward thinkers cover degrowth vs. post-growth, the appropriateness of civil disobedience and MMT along with the basics of Nate’s Great Simplification and Kate’s Doughnut Economics.

  9. GGully Foyle

    Who cares when you have this?
    Carrington event anyone? Back to the stone age for everyone.


    Giant Sun ‘Hole’ Bigger Than 60 ‘Earths’ Spewing Solar Wind Towards Our Planet
    Spaceweather.com has unveiled information about a visible coronal hole, which is a massive dark spot on the Sun’s surface. The fissure is now emitting intense streams of cosmic wind, a type of radiation that is remarkable due to its unusually high speed.
    The coronal hole formed on December 2, and reached a maximum width of 800,000 km. To put it in perspective, this vast expanse is five times the size of Jupiter and a staggering 60 times larger than Earth. Scientists believe that the fissure’s size is unprecedented at the current stage of the solar cycle.
    Initially, researchers predicted that a dark spot like this would lead to a moderate geomagnetic storm on Earth, which could potentially disrupt radio communications. However, the cosmic wind turned out to be less intense than anticipated. Despite this, its passage did trigger polar aurorae in high-latitude regions.
    Coronal holes form when magnetic fields of the Sun open up, causing material from the star (also known as stellar matter) to be sent out into space. Consequently, these areas appear as dark spots since they are colder and have lower density than the surrounding space plasma.

    Solar activity has been steadily increasing throughout the year as the Sun is slowly approaching the explosive peak of its 11-year cycle. However, coronal holes can occur at any time throughout the cycle. The other thing that left the scientist puzzled is the fact that the new hole is close to the equator. Even though they normally appear further towards the poles of the Sun.

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