Science points to ‘climate collapse’ as UN chief calls COP28 to action

View of the dais during the plenary (Photo: Earth Negotiations Bulletin)

The world is heating up at an unprecedented pace, new climate data shows, and leaders gathered for the COP28 conference which opened in Dubai on Thursday must get us out of “deep trouble”, UN Chief António Guterres said.

While 2023 is not yet over, a provisional report from the UN World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) confirmed that it is set to be the warmest on record, with global temperatures rising 1.4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Guterres said that the race is on to keep alive the 1.5-degree limit agreed by world leaders in Paris in 2015.

“We are living through climate collapse in real time – and the impact is devastating,” he warned in a video statement accompanying the launch of the report on the first day of this year’s annual UN climate talks. 

The UN Secretary-General recently visited two global warming hotspots, Antarctica and Nepal, where he bore witness to record low sea ice and was “shocked at the speed of receding glaciers.”

According to WMO’s report, the maximum Antarctic Sea ice extent for the year was a staggering one million square kilometres less than the previous record low, at the end of southern hemisphere winter.  

Glaciers in western North America and the European Alps also experienced an “extreme melt season.”

Because of continued ocean warming and melting of glaciers and ice sheets, record sea level rise was also observed, WMO said.  

Meanwhile, concentrations in the atmosphere of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide reached a record high last year and continued to increase in 2023.  

WMO stressed that carbon dioxide levels are 50 per cent above the pre-industrial era and that the gas’s long lifetime “means that temperatures will continue to rise for many years to come”.

“These are more than just statistics,” said WMO chief Petteri Taalas, calling for action to “limit the risks of an increasingly inhospitable climate in this and the coming centuries.”

The science is clear: SG Puna

Meanwhile, Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General, Henry Puna, has expressed disappointment at the lack of responsiveness from the world’s biggest emitters to the Pacific’s urgent call for access to climate finance and commitment to the Paris Agreement 1.5 threshold.

“Our priority in the Pacific on climate change is the 1.5 degrees’ Celsius threshold. Unfortunately, the big emitters are not listening to science, which is very surprising because we all claim to be guided by science, and yet the science is clear: unless we reverse the track, we are overshooting the 1.5 threshold,” said SG Puna.

Despite the disappointing response, Puna affirmed the Pacific’s commitment to advocating for climate action at COP28.

“We have our political champions here at COP28 who continue our advocacy on the importance of the 1.5 threshold to us and the rest of the world,” he emphasised.

Pacific political climate champions include –Oceans and climate nexus – Fiji Prime Minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, Global Stocktake – Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, Climate Finance – Tonga Prime Minister, Huákavameiliku, Siaosi Sovaleni,Loss and Damage – Vanuatu Minister of Climate Change Ralph Regenvanu, the Just Transition – Tuvalu Minister of Finance and Climate Change Seve Paeniu,  Mitigation – Samoa Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Toesulusulu Cedric Schuster, and Adaptation –Republic of the Marshall Islands(RMI) Minister of Natural Resources and Commerce, John Silk.

He credited the Pacific leaders’ involvement at COP 21 in 2015, leading to the Paris Agreement, as a pivotal moment setting the global agenda for a 1.5-degree Celsius target and a net-zero fossil fuel future.

Responding to criticism that COP events are mere “talk fests,” Puna acknowledged the historical inaction following COP21 commitments. 

However, he stressed that for the Pacific, COP serves as a crucial global platform to address climate change priorities. 

“While others may be treating it as a talkfest, we from the Pacific are very serious about the messages that we want to advocate and will continue to advocate at COP,” he stressed.

Espen Ronneberg, Adviser to the SPC Climate Change and Environmental Sustainability Programme, supported Puna’s perspective, noting that since COP21, the Pacific region has better prepared for each subsequent COP.

“Climate finance was raised, and we’ve analysed it in great detail. We have suggested solutions to how we can improve. The problem is we have to negotiate, get consensus with other parties,” Ronneberg explained. 

Despite challenges in wider negotiations, he highlighted the region’s success in securing agreement among island countries facing similar challenges.

Ronneberg emphasised the need for fair distribution of resources, stating, “We’re trying to get our fair share, the share that we think we should be getting because we’re simply not getting it at the moment.”

He noted the region’s practical steps, translating concerns into negotiation proposals, and the persistence in addressing issues like Loss and Damage introduced in 1991.

While acknowledging the challenges, Ronneberg concluded, “Yes, it’s challenging, but we can only do what we can.” 

End fossil fuels: Pacific activists

Meanwhile, Pacific climate activists say the anticipated global energy package must include a phase out of fossil fuels and access to increased climate finance.

A global renewable energy target is also poised for adoption at this year’s UN climate talks, but climate activists and frontline communities have “non-negotiables” for the proposed energy package.

Joseph Sikulu, Pacific Managing Director says, “We do want to see the tripling of safe, clean and fair renewable energy capacity, but there will be nowhere for solar panels if our islands are under water or flattened by the next cyclone. Year in and year out, we from the Pacific have called for a phase out of coal, oil and gas, and still we are let down by the lack of ambition and political will.

“If this process is to have any credibility, we cannot allow climate negotiations to be overrun by fossil fuel lobbyists and empty pledges. The global renewable energy target must be a pathway to 1.5, not a distraction from it.”

Australia will also be present at COP28 with Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen advocating for their bid to host the 2026 COP with Pacific Island nations. While Australia says they would like a “genuine partnership” with the Pacific for the 2026 climate talks, Climate Change Ambassador Kristin Tilley recently said they won’t back Pacific’s calls to urgently phase out fossil fuels.

Tamala Pita, Tuvaluan Climate Warrior says, “This contradiction from Australia is extremely harmful. It is not enough for the proposed 2026 climate talks to “look and feel like a Pacific COP”, there needs to be genuine commitment to keep us below the 1.5-degree target and the only way we can do that is to urgently phase out all coal, oil and gas.

“We are already fighting an uphill battle with oil-heavy nations dominating the climate conversation, we can’t have that dynamic play out in our region. We will say the same thing here that we will say at COP31, any outcome that does not include the phase out of all coal, oil and gas is a hollow win at best.”

The UN climate conference taking place from 30 November to 12 December in Dubai is the 28th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which entered into force in 1994.   It will see the first-ever “global stocktake” to assess collective progress on cutting emissions and ramping up adaptation efforts and support to developing countries hard hit by a warming climate.