Last week, I attended my first United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). Formally known as the Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC, or COP28, it is the 28th meeting of the Parties (countries) who have signed the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC).
There were about 100,000 attendees at this year’s COP28. The number of attendees has grown from year to year, signifying the importance of this event on the global stage. While members of the Arava Institute staff have attended this conference in the past, this was the first year that the Arava Institute had its own delegation under our official NGO observer status. We had originally planned to send a larger group both as part of the Israeli delegation and our own Arava Institute delegation, but due to the war in Gaza, we decided to reduce the number of our representatives. Executive Director Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed, Fareed Mahameed, Assistant Director of the Center for Transboundary Water Management, Angelina Heil, Environmental Diplomacy intern, and myself made up the Arava Institute delegation.
Over the 6 days I participated in the conference I met people from all over the world, including many from Middle Eastern countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and of course the UAE. I attended the opening of the Israeli pavilion where Dr. Abu Hamed spoke about the Arava Institute. The next day, we attended a talk by the Palestinian Minister of Environmental Quality in the Palestinian pavilion. We were welcomed by the Palestinians and exchanged contact information.
During the conference, I was exposed to the cumbersome negotiating process in which 196 parties to the 2016 Paris Agreement, the latest itineration of the UNFCC, tried to negotiate the details and reach agreements on how to operationalize the Paris Agreement. The goal of the agreement is to prevent the average temperature of the planet from rising beyond 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial times, while pursuing means to limit the increase to 1.5°C. Beyond the formal negotiation sessions, I was able to attend many side events, panels, and special events where experts and politicians discussed some of the biggest challenges to reducing CO₂ emissions into the atmosphere. One of the largest obstacles is the current electric grid infrastructure which was designed to “evacuate” (load) electricity from a small number of central fossil fuel power plants to a distribution network. Transitioning to solar and wind energy requires a distributed network which can evacuate electricity from multiple locations and redistribute. Therefore, transitioning to an infrastructure appropriate for renewables will require a financial investment ten times higher than currently planned.
Another obstacle is the supply chain for minerals used to create lithium batteries such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, coltan, rare earth metals and others. Many of these minerals are mined in the developing world under human rights violations and environmental degradation, and the proceeds from mining often fund warlords and armed militias. These metals, however, are critical for the transition to renewables because lithium batteries store electricity from intermittent energy sources such as wind and solar, making it possible to supply energy 24/7.
The many challenges to transitioning away from fossil fuels and to avoid passing the average 2°C rise in temperature from pre-industrial times are daunting. The global effort it will take to come to agreements which are just and effective is enormous. As I walked around the Dubai Expo 2020 campus where this year’s COP28 was held, I marveled at the thousands of people from across the globe coming together to find the solutions which will save our planet. Hopefully, we are not too late.
Submitted by Dr. David Lehrer, Director of the Center for Applied Environmental Diplomacy