The Dubai talks have forced a confrontation of the misplaced belief that efficient, affordable emissions abatement is around the corner.

COP28 has been a moment of reckoning for spurious oil and gas claims


Posted By:

Dr Ashok Sinha


First published in Business Green.

As I often say to colleagues, being right is not enough. The numbers clearly show that putting cash into the green transition is an investment in prosperity, not an act of economic self-harm. Likewise, nobody sensible doubts huge potential for the UK to be a global leader, from cleantech to climate finance. At the other end of the telescope, the case for retrofitting our homes to reduce bills and keep people warm and dry is uncontested. Yet we hit barrier after barrier in making these things happen. Why? It’s not just a question of complexity and handling the challenging near term trade offs – serious, but not insurmountable. The obstacles are often cognitive, social, and emotional, not logical.

Those obstacles have been writ large so far at COP28. One of the most striking things is the prevalence of the have-your-cake-and-eat-it delusion. It’s not just the over-my-dead body stance of Saudi Arabia regarding ongoing negotiations on including a phase down (let alone out) of fossil fuels. Or the sight of the CEO of Exxon Mobil pitching up to advocate scarcely diminished use of oil on the basis we can convert it hydrogen for domestic heat (cue another energy price crisis) or capture and store the carbon emissions (an “illusion”, in the words of the IEA – certainly at the scale needed and anything remotely like an affordable price). Indeed, our own government walked into the talks on defending (unconvincingly) renewed support for oil and gas extraction on the grounds of energy security, a claim so spurious that some ministers disowned its original outing almost immediately.

Like many, I arrived at COP28 dosed up with skepticism: how could a petrostate committed to expanding the fossil fuel economy possibly wrangle the world onto a climate safe pathway that by all logic means phasing out fossil fuels?

Think again. It is precisely because this COP has thrown such contradictions into stark relief that it is proving so valuable. We are being forced to confront the misplaced belief that efficient, affordable emissions abatement and removal from the atmosphere is just around the corner, in a very public way. Further, this backdrop is providing added motivation for everyone from big business and investors to those, like Ashden, who work in the grassroots innovation space, to step in and step up. While state actors are butting up against each other behind closed doors, the rest of us at COP are getting on with getting stuff done.

The UK has done well over the last 20 years to deliver bigger emissions reductions than any other major economy, even if a lot of this was due to deindustrialisation and increased imports. The bulk of what remains will one way or another be under the aegis of local and regional actors. Ashden’s experience of supporting local climate innovation for two decades tells us that we need new sorts of institutions and governance to unleash the innovations of SMEs and social enterprises, in partnership with communities. This includes closing the skills and training gap, unblocking supply chains and aggregating local action into a pipeline of investable opportunities to attract the hundreds of billions of pounds needed (with government stepping in to de-risk, near term).

For me, that is the message we all need to get across to the next UK government, whatever its hue. It’s all well and good charity CEOs like me making this case, but the voice of business, especially in the SME and finance sector, is arguably what will swing it. 2024 will be a big year for UK politics: we need to hear that voice loud and clear.

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