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Hello from London, where residents are enjoying the last bank holiday of the summer. And if the northern hemisphere summer is coming to a close, that can only mean one thing: COP is drawing near.
This year’s COP28 has already sparked some stark disagreements among those pushing for climate action — as exemplified by the differences of opinion between US elder statesmen John Kerry and Al Gore, as I explain below. Where do you stand in this debate? Let us know at [email protected], or just reply to this email. — Simon Mundy
A telling divide between two climate warriors
A few weeks ago, former US vice-president Al Gore went viral with the latest of his TED talks on the climate crisis, which have become increasingly furious with years of inadequate global action.
Then, last Friday, US presidential climate envoy John Kerry shared his thoughts on the state of the struggle, in a roundtable interview at the FT’s London headquarters.
There are many obvious commonalities between these two tall, wealthy, booming-voiced, septuagenarian former Democratic presidential nominees. But there are also some striking differences between their current positions on the fossil fuel industry, which highlight some increasingly important divisions in the wider climate debate.
Some of Gore’s most searing rhetoric was reserved for the United Arab Emirates, host of this year’s COP28 climate conference, and for Sultan al-Jaber, serving concurrently as COP28 president and chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
“He has a blatant conflict of interest,” Gore thundered. “I think it’s time to say, wait a minute, do you take us for fools?”
Kerry, in contrast, stressed the US’s “very close relationship” with the UAE, which he has previously defended against “unfair” criticism given its “enormous steps, historically, to be on the forefront of the transition”.
It’s true that Kerry, as a serving diplomat, has to watch his words far more carefully than Gore. But his words echoed my conversations with various thoughtful people in the climate space with no diplomatic or economic “skin in the game”, who argue that the UAE’s COP28 presidency could prove a good thing. By putting a major fossil fuel producer — and by implication the other ones too — in a glaring spotlight, it will force them into more serious climate action, these people argue.
Others side strongly with Gore, arguing that the UAE presidency amounts to an effective “capture” of the COP process by the fossil fuel sector. This debate will have a massive impact on the perceived integrity of COP28, and of any agreements that come out of it.
A specific looming flashpoint at COP28 is around carbon capture technology, which the UAE — as well as Saudi Arabia, and private-sector companies such as ExxonMobil — have been strongly promoting. To its proponents, this will enable the “clean” continued use of fossil fuels for many years to come, with minimal impact on the climate. To critics like Gore, this is a cynical attempt to deflect attention away from the need to reduce fossil fuel usage altogether and rapidly scale up alternative energy sources.
“It’s useful to give them an excuse for not ever stopping oil,” Gore said, adding that the technology was unproven and far from ready for large-scale commercial deployment. “They’re using it in order to gaslight us . . . Let’s don’t pretend it’s for real.”
While Kerry said there was “a risk that it won’t be able to” achieve the impact its backers claim, he was far more positive about investment in carbon capture, which he stressed was already in commercial use as part of the oil extraction process by US drillers.
Technical as it might seem, the carbon capture debate will have huge implications for the energy transition. International climate discussions and agreements in recent years have focused heavily on tackling “unabated” fossil fuel usage — that is, without carbon capture. The extent of “abated” usage in the coming decades is a giant question hanging over COP28, not to mention the share prices of global oil companies.
Gore reserved a fair slug of vitriol for those private-sector energy giants, slamming Shell and BP for watering down their clean energy commitments amid rising oil prices. “The industry as a whole has not been acting in good faith,” he said.
Kerry sounded a less hostile note, citing a recent conversation with BP chief executive Bernard Looney, who assured him that the company had not abandoned its climate targets, but merely “changed the pace” at which it would pursue them. Where Gore decried the soaring number of fossil fuel industry representatives at COP events, Kerry stressed the need to have the sector “come to the table” and commit to action, calling that a priority at COP28.
Of course, there is far more that the two men agree on. Both stressed the need for much larger amounts of funding for green energy in developing countries, and the need for more ambitious action by the World Bank as an important part of this. Both hailed the galvanising effect on green investment of Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. And both voiced concern about the effects of fossil fuel industry lobbyists on the US political process.
Two days before Kerry’s London visit, Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, riding a recent surge in the polls, declared in a televised debate: “The climate change agenda is a hoax.” The leader in the Republican race, Donald Trump, previously pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement, and would surely blow up the country’s climate policy once more if re-elected next year.
Widespread differences among those pushing for climate action are only to be expected, given the complexity and magnitude of the challenge. The big question — given the clout of the interests pushing in the opposite direction — is whether these differences will galvanise momentum through productive debate, or undermine it. (Simon Mundy)
European clothing companies are widely seen as the original creators of the “fast fashion” industry, which is blamed for ruinous impacts on the environment. “Now, the birthplace of fast fashion is making moves to end it,” write Lauren Indvik and Alice Hancock in this FT Big Read.