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The carefully choreographed scenes of the first day of COP28 give a clear indication of where this annual shindig is headed.

COP28 President and UAE national oil company CEO Sultan al Jaber, who has been under fire since the announcement of his nomination for COP28’s presidential role due to his obvious conflict of interest as the head of an oil company, was evidently keen on giving the distinct impression that his country, whose wealth is based almost entirely off its oil interests, is serious about climate financing.

While Jaber was called out by the Centre for Climate Reporting for making plans to secretively use his position as COP28 president to lobby foreign governments for oil deals, he presented a very different facade in his opening speech.

In what was obviously a coordinated PR stunt whose outcome was pre-determined, Jaber’s first announcement was about the confirmation of a tenuous agreement, known as the loss and damage fund, which sets up an entirely voluntary framework in which wealthy countries can contribute money that is set to be used by poorer countries who face the brunt of climate change damage but have contributed very little in terms of the greenhouse gas emissions which cause climate change itself.

The agreement, which is being hailed as an early win and is being presented as a token of wealthy countries’ goodwill as the real negotiations are set to begin today, is a far cry from the original proposals which sought to oblige wealthy countries to pay their share rather than ask them nicely to do so.

In other words, an existential threat is being treated like an issue which can be addressed through charitable contributions rather than mandatory ones, leaving no room for redress should recipient countries later find out that this goodwill turned out to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

So far, the pledges have been paltry in comparison to the financing that is necessary to truly address climate change and drive forward investment in green technology. The UAE, the US, the UK, Japan, and Germany are the leading contributors, with the total tallying up to $420 million as of yesterday evening. To put that into perspective, governments across the globe subsidised $7 trillion in fossil fuel investments last year alone.

More importantly, while such pledges are welcome and, if delivered speedily and in a transparent manner, provide some measure of reassurance that countries which are struggling to modernise their energy infrastructure will be able to do so through the support provided by these contributions, the fact remains that unless COP28 delegates walk away with an agreement which specifically outlines the phasing-out of fossil fuels across the globe, this conference can be considered a failure. Politico has all the details on what the conversation on the ground is like at the moment.

More worryingly, the fact that oil-rich countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia – which was exposed for its plans to shift the attention of its oil portfolio away from rich countries who are seeking to go green and towards poorer countries who are ripe for oil-dependent infrastructure – are evidently intent on burning every last drop of oil they have in their fields is the real cause for concern.

In fact, leading anti-oil activists are not impressed. The Guardian reports:

“This is going to be a festival of distraction, of miracle tech fixes including carbon capture and storage which will be framed as essential. But this is no substitute for the full phase out of fossil fuels which must be fast, full, fair and funded; it’s about these four Fs,” said Romain Ioualalen, global policy campaign manager at Oil Change International.”

Climate justice activists, who focus on the intersection between climate change and the systemic inequality which enables it, gatecrashed the summit to call for justice for Palestine amid the ongoing genocide that is being perpetrated by the Israeli state. Asad Rehman, director of the UK-based organisation War on Want, was describing how “the Palestinian struggle is woven into every struggle for justice, including climate justice” before the event’s livestream cut him off.

Evidently, in spite of the conference’s apparent call for unified global action, there is a gaping divide between experts, activists, and scientists on the one hand and policy-makers, lobbyists, and C-level executives on the other. While the former group’s authoritative, unequivocal declarations on the subject attest to the urgency of the kind of action that is required for us to avert climate disaster, the latter are busy with policy carve-outs, generous transitional periods, and technological solutions which address symptoms rather than the cause of the problem.

While on the one hand, we have indigenous and native voices who have been crying out for justice for generations, we have cold, calculating political operatives on the other who attempt to seek watered-down compromises which are simply not up to the gargantuan task of pivoting away from fossil fuel dependency once and for all.

The initial, pessimistic sentiment about COP28 will either be overturned if delegates hammer out an agreement which tightens plans for the total phasing out of fossil fuels or it will be further entrenched if we instead walk away with yet another voluntary scheme that does not oblige anyone to do anything. When bearing in mind that 2023 has smashed all records in terms of climate change aberrations, now is hardly the time to skirt the issue instead of facing it head on.

Fraudulent systems like carbon credits, which are just another avenue for wealthy players in the energy sector to capitalise on, are not the solution. Pie-in-the-sky ‘miracle’ technologies like carbon capture are not the solution. The only solution is to cut off fossil fuels completely by halting any new fossil fuel based investments and heavily incentivising the mass adoption of renewable energy production. Anyone else telling you otherwise is wasting precious time which none of us have.

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