An article by: Dušan Proroković

Held in Dubai in 2023, the major "global conference" on climate change, COP28, was declared controversial by a number of environmental activists even before it took place. The reason for such a finding is the choice of host. Dubai is in many ways an interesting city, for the organization of such events and a convenient place, but the United Arab Emirates is the seventh largest producer of crude oil in the world and has the seventh most abundant reserves of this energy. The meeting was chaired by Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, who is also the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, which was another reason for suspicion. How to fight against climate change if the process is led by rich oilmen? That's why there were a lot of pessimistic evaluations after the conference.

UN: A course to reduce dependence on fossil fuels is needed

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres pointed out that “the previous cracks are turning into canyons” and that it is necessary to change course and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. The leading author of this year’s UN report on emissions of harmful gases, Ann Olhoff, warns that existing projections about the slowdown in the growth of the “average temperature” at the global level may not mean much, because the insistence on average values can also be misleading. According to her, an increase of about 3 degrees in the “average temperature” at the global level could mean that in some parts of Africa the temperature has increased by an incredible 60 degrees.

Realistic goals should be set

Seen from a global perspective, some goals can still be achieved, but seen from the point of view of the development of the situation in certain macro regions, things are becoming dramatic. Vast territories of the planet may become uninhabitable, the people who now live in those parts of the world will have to look for a new place to live. What this will cause on the geopolitical level is easy to guess: in addition to rapid deforestation and accompanying desertification, there will be problems of lack of water and arable land, which will cause mass migrations and thus induce endless armed conflicts. True, since it is very difficult to predict the further development of the situation, it may eventually turn out that such predictions were wrong and exaggerated. Certainly, there is room for pessimism, but should one be this pessimistic!? In any case, some measures must be taken. For this reason, it is not so bad that the summit was held in Dubai. Because the measures that must be taken at the same time must also be realistic. What would unrealistic measures serve for? A comprehensive agreement, among other things, must be made with fossil fuel producers. It is a slower way to harmonize specific measures and their full implementation, but also a safer way.  Otherwise, if the measures are based on the good wishes of environmental organizations and the aggressive imposition of those measures by certain actors of international relations – there will simply be no solution. Then global politics, on this issue, will first enter a phase of sharp confrontation between advocates of the green agenda and producers of fossil fuels, and then into a phase of interstate conflicts, since some countries will support the green agenda, and some will base their development on the exploitation and processing of fossil fuels. In the search for a comprehensive solution, one cannot start from unrealistic positions.

Conflict between the West, the Global South and hydrocarbon producers

In this context, the conflict that arose even earlier between the bloc gathered around the countries of the collective West on the one hand, and China and India, but also fossil fuel producers and developing countries on the other, should be analyzed. There are two mutually opposing concepts: “out” or “down”. It seems that European countries, with the support of traditional allies, are striving towards the implementation of the first concept. “Out” means to set a deadline for the complete elimination of fossil fuels from use. This would entail signing new agreements and devising new principles in international relations, thanks to which all actors who do not adapt to this concept would suffer certain sanctions or pay penalties. This is why China and India, as the first and third largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the world, are under attack. Interestingly, although the USA is in second place on this list, it is mentioned less often or not at all in these strikes. On the other side, therefore, are all those countries that promote the “down” concept. That is, the gradual reduction of the share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix.  The issue of energy security is directly related to economic development, and yet the fight against poverty depends on economic development. In the interesting monographs entitled “The Communist Party of China: the Past, Present and Future of Party Building” (by Liu Jingbei et al.) and “China’s New Strategies for Governing the Country” (by Feng Yun et al.) one of the most frequent expressions used is “the fight against poverty”. China’s struggle to eradicate poverty, which has been persistently waged for four decades, is still not over, and its continuation implies stable access to energy resources in order to achieve satisfactory rates of economic growth. What is particularly significant is that the Chinese model represents a model for other countries that are also becoming “hungry for energy”. It is impossible to ensure satisfactory rates of economic growth and fight poverty without relying on fossil fuels. Absolutely impossible! This can be proven with a few elementary mathematical operations.

A balanced approach to reducing the use of fossil fuels is needed

Imposing the concept of “out” is actually an attempt to freeze the existing state of power distribution at the global level for the long term. Or, more precisely, it is a means to prevent further transformation of the structure of the world political system towards a multipolar one. One of the indicators of power is economic power. The rich countries of the collective West, true with enormous costs and great consequences – can afford to abandon fossil fuels. They will turn to the full use of energy obtained from renewable and ecologically clean sources. Regardless of the enormous costs and great consequences that can be argued about. What will happen to other countries and regions? Especially: what will happen to developing countries? How should they carry out the energy transition? Where will they get the money for that? How will this affect their economic power and then their position in the world political system? Does this mean that they have to give up the fight against poverty? And if they can’t eradicate poverty, will there be major internal destabilization sooner or later?
For this reason, the concept of “down” is far more realistic and achievable. Fossil fuels can be phased out as new green energy capacity is installed. China’s top climate envoy Xie Zhenhua was cautious in assessing the success of the Dubai conference. On the agenda were difficult discussions about increasing the capacity for the production of green energy. The goal is to triple the capacities by 2030. The cause of the misunderstanding was in the question: where to determine the starting point? Chinese investments in this area were grandiose in previous years, and this cannot be ignored. In addition, in 2020, the USA and China signed the Sunnylands Declaration, which actually confirms certain guarantees to the Chinese side and acknowledges what has been achieved up to that point. Why now choose 2022 as the starting point, and on the basis of it demand a tripling of the capacities of all participants in the agreement!? Parts of the offered agreements are also not acceptable to India, because the emission of harmful gases in this country, measured per capita, is far below the average. All this is followed by another matter of a political character. Climate change is not a consequence of the exploitation and use of fossil fuels in the last ten or twenty years. It is a consequence of the exploitation and use of fossil fuels in the last hundred years. And the USA and Western European countries, which have been the biggest polluters for a long time, during intensive and expansive industrial development, are the most responsible! The Chinese special envoy’s caution is clearly not only the result of a lack of agreement on the specific topic, but also due to the context.
New proposals did appear on the COP28 agenda and the actors were required to commit to tripling the green energy production capacity by 2030, but the context remained the same. The new proposals are about trying to impose the concept of “out” and they should serve to ultimately define a specific deadline for banning the use of fossil fuels. Hence such a short deadline. Which seems unrealistic.

Global warming affects everything, including international relations

Unfortunately, the Dubai summit did become controversial even before it took place. However, that did not happen because of the choice of host. But due to the fact that the issue of the fight against climate change and energy transition is deeply politicized. The consequence of global warming will certainly be and regardless of whether more or less pessimistic predictions will be realized, they will reflect on international relations. However, despite being aware of this, actors of international relations try to use this issue in order to maintain or improve their own position. And here, the difference between the approaches of the two opposing blocs is already noticeable. Some would slow down or prevent the creation of a multipolar order by “freezing the existing state” through the energy transition. Others would project the energy transition gradually and use it to achieve completely different goals. That is why it can be said that the next climate conference will again be controversial to a certain extent. Because, when something becomes politicized, the long-term oriented political interests of opposing actors collide. Then all available means and all available mechanisms are used for the political struggle. Among them is the way to fight against climate change.

Professor, PhD

Dušan Proroković