This article is part of the Road to COP special report, presented by SQM.
LONDON — World leaders will touch down in Dubai next week for a climate change conference they’re billing yet again as the final off-ramp before catastrophe. But war, money squabbles and political headaches back home are already crowding the fate of the planet from the agenda.
The breakdown of the Earth’s climate has for decades been the most important yet somehow least urgent of global crises, shoved to one side the moment politicians face a seemingly more acute problem. Even in 2023 — almost certainly the most scorching year in recorded history, with temperatures spawning catastrophic floods, wildfires and heat waves across the globe — the climate effort faces a bewildering array of distractions, headwinds and dismal prospects.
“The plans to achieve net zero are increasingly under attack,” former U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, who set her country’s goal of reaching climate neutrality into law, told POLITICO.
The best outcome for the climate from the 13-day meeting, which is known as COP28 and opens Nov. 30, would be an unambiguous statement from almost 200 countries on how they intend to hasten their plans to cut fossil fuels, alongside new commitments from the richest nations on the planet to assist the poorest.
But the odds against that happening are rising. Instead, the U.S. and its European allies are still struggling to cement a fragile deal with developing countries about an international climate-aid fund that had been hailed as the historic accomplishment of last year’s summit. Meanwhile, a populist backlash against the costs of green policies has governments across Europe pulling back — a reverse wave that would become an American-led tsunami if Donald Trump recaptures the White House next year.
And across the developing world, the rise of energy and food prices stoked by the pandemic and the Ukraine war has caused inflation and debt to spiral, heightening the domestic pressure on climate-minded governments to spend their money on their most acute needs first.
Even U.S. President Joe Biden, whose 2022 climate law kicked off a boom of clean-energy projects in the U.S., has endorsed fossil fuel drilling and pipeline projects under pressure to ease voter unease about rising fuel costs.
Add to all that the newest Mideast war that began with Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7.
On the upside, investment in much of the green economy is also surging. Analysts are cautiously opining that China’s emissions may have begun to decline, several years ahead of Beijing’s schedule. And the Paris-based International Energy Agency projects that global fossil fuel demand could peak this decade, with coal use plummeting and oil and gas plateauing afterward. Spurring these trends is a competition among powers such as China, the United States, India and the European Union to build out and dominate clean-energy industries.
But the fossil fuel industry is betting against a global shift to green, instead investing its profits from the energy crisis into plans for long-term expansion of its core business.
The air of gloom among many supporters of global climate action is hard to miss, as is the sense that global warming will not be the sole topic on leaders’ minds when they huddle in back rooms.
“It’s getting away from us,” Tim Benton, director of the Chatham House environment and society center, said during a markedly downbeat discussion among climate experts at the think tank’s lodgings on St James’ Square in London earlier this month. “Where is the political space to drive the ambition that we need?”
Fog of war
The most acute distraction from global climate work is the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The conflagration is among many considerations the White House is weighing in Biden’s likely decision not to attend the summit, one senior administration official told POLITICO this month. Other leaders are also reconsidering their schedules, said one senior government official from a European country, who was granted anonymity to speak about the sensitive diplomacy of the conference.
The war is also likely to push its way onto the climate summit’s unofficial agenda: Leaders of big Western powers who are attending will spend at least some of their diplomatically precious face-time with Middle East leaders discussing — not climate — but the regional security situation, said two people familiar with the planning for COP28 who could not be named for similar reasons. According to a preliminary list circulated by the United Arab Emirates, Israeli President Isaac Herzog or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will attend the talks.
A threat even exists that the conference could be canceled or relocated, should a wider regional conflict develop, Benton said.
The UAE’s COP28 presidency isn’t talking about that, at least publicly. “We look forward to hosting a safe, inclusive COP beginning at the end of November,” said a spokesperson in an emailed statement. But the strained global relations have already thrown the location of next years’ COP29 talks into doubt because Russia has blocked any EU country from hosting the conference, which is due to be held in eastern or central Europe.
The upshot is that the bubble of global cooperation that landed the Paris climate agreement in 2015 has burst. “We have a lot of more divisive narratives now,” Laurence Tubiana, the European Climate Foundation CEO who was one of the drafters of the Paris deal, said at the same meeting at Chatham House.
The Ukraine war and tensions between the U.S. and China in particular have widened the gap between developed and developing countries, Benton told POLITICO in an email.
Now, “the Hamas-Israel war potentially creates significant new fault lines between the Arab world and many Western countries that are perceived to be more pro-Israeli,” he said. “The geopolitical tensions arising from the war could create leverage that enables petrostates (many of which are Muslim) to shore up the status quo.”
Add to that the as yet unknown impact on already high fossil fuel commodity prices, said Kalee Kreider, president of the Ridgely Walsh public affairs consultancy and a former adviser to U.S. Vice President Al Gore. “Volatility doesn’t usually help raise ambition.”
The Biden administration’s decisions to approve a tranche of new fossil fuel production and export projects will undermine U.S. diplomacy at COP28, said Ed Markey, a Democratic U.S. senator from Massachusetts.
“You can’t preach temperance from a barstool, and the United States is running a long tab,” he said.
U.N. climate talks veterans have seen this program before. “No year over the past three decades has been free of political, economic or health challenges,” said former U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa, who now heads the consulting firm onepoint5. “We simply can’t wait for the perfect conditions to address climate change. Time is a luxury we no longer have — if we ever did.”
The EU backlash
Before the Mideast’s newest shock to the global energy system, the war in Ukraine exposed Europe’s energy dependence on Russia — and initially galvanized the EU to accelerate efforts to roll out cleaner alternatives.
But in the past year, persistent inflation has worn away that zeal. Businesses and citizens worry about anything that might add to the financial strain, and this has frayed a consensus on climate change that had held for the past four years among left, center and center right parties across much of the 27-country bloc.
In recent months, conservative members of the European Parliament have attacked several EU green proposals as excessive, framing themselves as pragmatic environmentalists ahead of Europe-wide elections next year. Reinvigorated far-right parties across the bloc are also using the green agenda to attack more mainstream parties, a trend that is spooking the center.
Germany’s government was almost brought down this year by a law that sought to ban gas boilers — with the Greens-led economy ministry retreating to a compromise. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has joined a growing chorus agitating for a “regulatory pause” on green legislation.
If Europe’s struggles emerge at COP28, the ripple effect could be global, said Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank.
The “EU has established itself as the global laboratory for climate neutrality,” he said. “But now it needs to deliver on the experiment, or the world (which is closely watching) will assume this just does not work. And that would be a disaster for all of us.”
The world is also watching the former EU member that stakes a claim to be the climate leader of the G7: the U.K.
London has prided itself on its green credentials ever since former Prime Minister May enacted a 2019 law calling for net zero by 2050 — making her the first leader of a major economy to do so.
According to May’s successor Boris Johnson, net zero was good for the planet, good for voters, good for the economy. But under current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the messaging has transformed. Net zero remains the target — but it comes with a “burden” on working people.
In a major speech this fall, Sunak rolled back plans to ban new petrol and diesel car sales by 2030, bringing the U.K. into line with the EU’s 2035 date. With half an eye on Germany’s travails, he said millions of households would be exempted from the gas boiler ban expected in 2035.
In making his arguments for a “pragmatic” approach to net zero, Sunak frequently draws on the talking points of net zero-skeptics. Why should the citizens of the U.K., which within its own borders produces just 1 percent of global emissions, “sacrifice even more than others?”
The danger, said one EU climate diplomat — granted anonymity to discuss domestic policy of an allied country — was that other countries around the COP28 negotiating table would hear that kind of rhetoric from a capital that had led the world — and repurpose it to make their own excuses.
Sunak’s predecessor May sees similar risks.
“Nearly a third of all global emissions originate from countries with territorial emissions of 1 per cent or less,” May said. “If we all slammed on the brakes, it would make our net zero aspirations impossible to achieve.”
The U.S., the largest producer of industrial carbon pollution in modern history, has been a weathervane on climate depending on who controls its governing branches.
When Republicans regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2022, it created a major drag on Biden’s promise to provide $11.4 billion in annual global climate finance by 2024.
Securing this money and much more, developing countries say, is vital to any progress on global climate goals at COP28. Last year, on the back of the pandemic and the energy price spike, global debt soared to a record $92 trillion. This cripples developing countries’ ability to build clean energy and defend themselves against — or recover from — hurricanes, floods, droughts and fires.
Even when the money is there, the politics can be challenging. Multibillion-dollar clean energy partnerships that the G7 has pursued to shift South Africa, Indonesia, Vietnam and India off coal power are struggling to gain acceptance from the recipients.
Yet even more dire consequences await if Trump wins back the presidency next year.
A Trump victory would put the world’s largest economy a pen stroke away from quitting the Paris Agreement all over again — or, even more drastically, abandoning the entire international regime of climate pacts and summits. The thought is already sending a chill: Negotiations over a fund for poorer countries’ climate losses and damage, which Republicans oppose, include talks on how to make its language “change-of-government-proof” in light of a potential Trump victory, said Michai Robertson, lead finance negotiator for a bloc of island states.
More concretely for reining in planet-heating gases, Trump would be in position to approve legislation eliminating all or part of the Inflation Reduction Act. Biden’s signature climate law included $370 billion in incentives for clean energy, electric vehicles and other carbon-cutting efforts – though the actual spending is likely to soar even higher due to widespread interest in its programs and subsidies – and accounts for a bulk of projected U.S. emissions cuts this decade.
Trump’s views on this kind of spending are no mystery: His first White House budget director dismissed climate programs as “a waste of your money,” and Trump himself promised last summer to “terminate these Green New Deal atrocities on Day One.”
House Republicans have attempted to claw back parts of Biden’s climate law several times. That’s merely a political messaging effort for now, thanks to a Democrat-held Senate and a sure veto from Biden, but the prospects flip if the GOP gains full control of Congress and White House.
Under a plan hatched by Tubiana and backed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, countries would in the future log their state and local government climate plans with the U.N., in an attempt to undergird the entire system against a second Republican blitzkrieg.
The U.S. isn’t the only place where climate action is on the ballot, Benton told the conference at Chatham House on Nov. 1.
News on Sunday that Argentina had elected as president right-wing populist Javier Milei — a Trump-like libertarian — raised the prospect of a major Latin American economy walking away from the Paris Agreement, either by formally withdrawing or by reneging on its promises.
Elections are also scheduled in 2024 for the EU, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Russia, and possibly the U.K.
“A quarter of the world’s population is facing elections in the next nine months,” he said. “If everyone goes to the right and populism becomes the order of the day … then I won’t hold out high hopes for Paris.”
Zack Colman reported from Washington, D.C. Suzanne Lynch also contributed reporting from Brussels.
This article is part of the Road to COP special report, presented by SQM. The article is produced with full editorial independence by POLITICO reporters and editors. Learn more about editorial content presented by outside advertisers.