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Estonian climate scientists skeptical over practical steps taken at COP28

The COP28 climate conference in Dubai.
The COP28 climate conference in Dubai. Source: COP28 / Mahmoud Khaled

The 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC, or COP28 for short, is entering its last few days in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, while, based on some reports, options for meeting the Paris climate agreement goals in practical terms and limiting global temperature rises are fading.

Some Estonian climate scientists, too, remain skeptical about COP28's effectiveness going forward.

The 2015 Paris Agreement set as a long-term goal confining mean global temperature rises to well below 2 degrees celsius above "pre-industrial" levels; preferably within a 1.5-degree range of those levels.

Velle Toll, associate professor of climate physics at the University of Tartu, and Dr Halliki Kreinin of the University of Münster, Germany, spoke to ERR's Novaator portal.

Toll and Kreinin have diverging opinions on the effectiveness of COP28 so far. 

Krenin said: "It's been one big circus. Carbon dioxide emissions were higher in 2023 than they have been at any time in history. This means the opposite to what should be happening globally."

Krenin noted that this did not mean culpability was evenly spread across the human populace, but more a situation of natural asset stripping on the part of a small proportion of humanity.

"It is not a case of 'all of us' causing it. It is the global elite who are ransacking the planet to the point of destruction. The richest 1 percent produce more emissions than 60 percent of the world's population combined," she went on.

Velle Toll meanwhile said that UN climate conferences – the COP conferences take place annually – still bring real benefits, as does current climate policy.

Toll said: "The continuation of today's trends towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions would lead to a global warming level of nearly three degrees [Celsius] by the end of the century."

"This would exert an enormously harmful effect on the natural environment and on human society. At the same time, emissions would be even higher than they are, without climate policy. The question is how to make climate policy significantly more effective than it has been hitherto," Toll went on.

Kreinin said that in any case a socially conscious and scientifically justified climate policy will not arise from COP28. In Kreinin's opinion, this would require that COP's pushy "elite" impose the greatest restrictions on themselves, rather than just the masses, a move which Kreinin said is inconceivable.

This confirmed by the speech by this year's COP president-designate, Sultan Al Jaber, who said limiting the use of fossil fuels is not scientifically justified. 

"Practical measures are required for both people and the environment so that everyone can live well. Ordinary people and communities are already taking steps to ensure well-being, security and sustainable access to their community's basic needs. This is true climate policy," the expert went on.

"When we say that the COP has failed, we already assume that the real goal of the meeting was to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. Unfortunately, I think the goal has instead been to maintain the status quo," Kreinin said, adding that this included "green-washing," in other words giving actions and policies a veneer of green-ness while making no substantive changes, to divert attention from the looting of the planet and its natural resources.

Toll said that, however, imposing incrementally higher goals towards the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is in fact viable.

A prerequisite is a regularly updated overview of greenhouse gas emissions and the climate policies deployed by all the world's countries. 

This would also makes it possible to assess whether the continuation of current global trends might lead humanity, Toll said.

At the same time, it is clear that the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions must be significantly accelerated, Toll.

Ultimately it is still too early to talk about the clear results of COP28 Toll, said, adding the range of issues under discussion is very broad. 

The appointment as COP president of Sultan Al Jaber, who is both the UAE special envoy for climate change and head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, the 12th-largest oil company by production worldwide, caused Kreinin concern even before the conference began. 

Nothing which happened during it assuaged those concerns; if anything, they have been heightened further still.

"For example, the host of COP has published a plan to boost oil production by 42 percent by 2030. This goes against the scientific consensus that fossil fuel use should have peaked [for all time] by 2025. It seems the host is deliberately undermining the goals of the COP," Kreinin said.

On this, Toll agreed – saying this is not just a question of politics or economics, but one of empirical data and science.

"The science is absolutely clear: Giving up fossil fuels is an unavoidable step towards halting climate change. The climate will warm for as long as human activity adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere," Toll said.

"The question now is when the global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will take place and how to speed it up. Hopefully, clearer goals for the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will finally be agreed upon at this climate conference," Toll said.

Professor Velle Toll and Dr Halliki Kreinin were talking to Andres Reimann of ERR's Novaator science and research portal.

In addition to uncertainty over progress made at COP28, controversy about the choice of venue relates to claims that it will in fact have been used as a forum for large-scale international oil and other fossil fuel deals, under the guise of climate change concerns.

That of 140 COP28 summit speakers, only 15 were women, has also seen push-back.

The very fact that world leaders, and their entourages (totaling around 70,000 people) descended upon the UAE for the event, mostly in fossil fuel-burning aircraft has not been lost on the commentariat, prompting charges of elitism such as those noted above.

In short, this line of argument goes, elites will be able to continue to fly long distances, while the mass of the populace will be required to remain around 15 minutes from their place of residence, presumably living in pre-industrial conditions.

Even the term "fossil fuels" has been questioned. The colocation has been called misleading in that oil etc. do not in fact derive from fossils as such, though the origins are organic nonetheless, and as such, the fuel source is not renewable.

Other claims have been made that while non-renewable, the world's oil supply is unlikely to run out – a separate issue of course from whether their burning alters the climate (as synthetically-made oils might do also), or even that oil fields may in fact be naturally renewable.

Yet another theory has it that there is a climate "cult" at play, which finds its expression at events like COP28 and which includes sacrifices having to be made to placate the wrath of some sort of deity, or face catastrophic weather conditions. Britain's King Charles concluded his address to COP28 by stating that "'The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth.''

Who will be hosting next year's COP29 summit has not yet been announced.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

Source: ERR Novaator, reporter Andres Reimann.

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