An agreement is only as good as its implementation. This historic consensus is only the beginning of the road.— H.E. Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, President COP28, United Arab Emirates
One afternoon in Chuuk I saw a sign near the powerplant. The sign proclaimed a novel clean energy initiative for Chuuk, courtesy of U.S. Agency for International Development.
“Great,” I quipped to myself, likely out loud as I tend to talk to myself, “If USAID is behind the electric grid, here come the rolling brownouts.”
The power went out that afternoon.
My prediction was not exactly astute. Foretelling a power outage is like predicting a recession: wait long enough and you’ll be right.
The politics of climate change is particularly obsessed with energy. Certainly, there are other sectors fueling climate change (please excuse the dreadful pun), transportation, manufacturing and agriculture, but even in those carbon is released to power stuff, which is to say energy, constituting what the UN Climate Change website describes as a “large chunk of global emissions.”
"Large chunk" must be an industry term. I should have been an engineering major.
Almost everyone wants cleaner energy, almost everyone, but almost everyone also wants a reliable power supply. No electricity in the midst of your Netflix binge, anyone?
So I have come to envision myself as a cautious realist. For this, I’ve developed a glossary on statecraft and the environment.
Here are a few entries, in no particular order.
Climate Change Olympics: the annual Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Popularly known as COP.
Climate Change Fan Army: the hordes of climate change enthusiasts who have both the free time and money to travel around the world and converge across the street from the COP convention center with signs. Tend to congregate on certain social media platforms. Prefer to call themselves “activists” or “warriors.”
Also includes energy company executives who state a commitment to a cleaner environment with carefully worded qualifications, such that their actions never directly contradict corporate policy, and diplomats who similarly craft very carefully worded statements about their concern in such a way as to not let the actions of their country contradict them, or vice versa.
International Development Industry (I use the term industry deliberately): self-explanatory. The undertaking between governments, inter-governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and more, carefully undertaking projects and trainings to develop those why by their standards are underdeveloped, but whose track record has trended towards entrenching economic divides.
Petroleum: a fossil fuel that is too valuable to burn. It’s the chemical feedstock for virtually everything, like industrial chemicals and pharmaceuticals. The basis for my support of new energy technology; we should not burn petroleum because petroleum is too valuable to burn.
Self-interest: motivation. Applies to individuals, corporations and nations. Probably self-explanatory. Doing something of benefit to yourself. Not sure why it’s denigrated.
In case this sounds like I’m being dismissive toward clean energy, nothing could be further from the truth. See petroleum, above.
COP28 concluded in late 2023. Compared to recent meetings it was low-key. The long slog in Ukraine, Israel-Hamas, the economic hangover from the pandemic all created a new global context to the detriment of standing in water that used to be dry land and Palau’s president alluding to bombing the island.
But there was a consensus – or rather a “stocktake” – that nations need to transition away from fossil fuels. On top of that, 118 nations agreed to triple global renewable energy capacity and double energy efficiency by 2030, while 22 governments pledged to triple global nuclear energy capacity by 2050.
Nuclear. The unwanted bastard step-child interloper of renewable energy.
At this point, my cautious realist kicks in. The 30-some annual meetings on the topic of climate change have resulted in protocols, accords and agreements.
Different words for the same thing. To make anything happen, nations need to implement specific policies, which normally come in the form of national legislation.
These are not treaties. Nations do not specifically commit to anything.
Instead, nations act out of self-interest. Less developed, I won’t say poor, coastal states (the IMF and World Bank, for starters, do not believe that Palau, as one example, is poor. I share that view) have a self-interest in getting guilt funding from the major carbon-emitting nations, which also tend to be military powers.
And military powers have a self-interest in continuing what they do, and if throwing what amounts to pittances to other nations to keep military and mineral rights is what it takes, so be it.
I became a cautious realist by circumstance, not by choice. While I love the idea of internationalism, I must believe that sovereignty trumps it, another unfortunate pun. Shinzo Abe, the late prime minister of Japan, approached regionalism as a vehicle to advance sovereignty. I suspect mid-sized powers might follow his approach. Global environmental politics, however, elude regions, at least in rhetoric.
As far as the COP28 agreement goes, it’s always important when an intergovernmental body agrees to say something. Even when it deliberately creates no obligation.
For the time being, petroleum is too valuable to burn.
Gabriel McCoard is an attorney who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. Send feedback to email@example.com.