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Formal Opening of COP28. Photo: UNFCCC

COP28 begins in an extremely serious context for the entire planet

04 December, 2023 | Ricardo Changala

On Thursday, November 30, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, COP28, commenced in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Although various activities related to the theme had been carried out in the preceding days, such as exhibitions, sectoral meetings, or the caucus of the Indigenous Peoples of the world, it was officially inaugurated on the specified date. This COP hosts about 70,000 participants, including government delegates, diplomats, experts, businessmen, civil society, and other participants.

These climate conferences are large-scale annual meetings focused on climate action, termed COP, Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Convention entered into force on March 21, 1994, with the aim of preventing and mitigating dangerous human interference in the climate system. Presently, 198 countries have ratified it, leaving almost no countries that have not done so.

The Paris Climate Agreement, adopted in 2015, is an extension of that convention; since that year, the different COPs have revolved around the implementation of its key objective: to stop the increase in the global average temperature below 2°Celsius and to continue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Plans were approved in Katowice (COP24) and Glasgow (COP26), while discussions in Sharm el-Sheikh (COP27) focused on the implementation of the Paris Agreement. This new COP is expected to yield concrete progress.

According to the information released by the UN, the first day of sessions culminated with good news: the delegates agreed to launch a fund that will help compensate vulnerable countries struggling to cope with the losses and damages caused by global warming. This fund has been a demand from developing countries, which are at the frontline of the impact of climate change, facing the cost of devastation caused by increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods, and sea-level rise, originating in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases, which generate global warming, overwhelmingly caused by the most developed countries.

It has been reported that Sultan Al-Jaber, president of COP28, declared that his country, the United Arab Emirates, will allocate $100 million to the fund, matching Germany’s contribution. Other countries, without specifying amounts, have expressed their intent to contribute to the fund, including Great Britain, the United States, and Japan.

The current environmental situation is extremely serious. Reports published on the eve of COP28 have shown that the world is far from achieving the climate goals of that treaty. Without ambitious measures, we are headed towards a temperature increase of 3 degrees by the end of this century, which would have catastrophic consequences for life on the planet.

In a recent report published by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), frankly alarming data are included[1]. The global average annual near-surface temperature in 2022 was 1.15°C [1.02°C to 1.28°C] higher than the average of the pre-industrial era (1850 to 1900). The year 2022 was the fifth or sixth warmest ever recorded according to six datasets, despite the cooling effect of La Niña. The years 2015 to 2022 were the eight warmest ever recorded in all datasets.

Over the past two decades, the rate of ocean warming has increased, and the heat content of the oceans in 2022 was the highest ever recorded. Ocean warming and the accelerated loss of mass from the ice sheets contributed to a global average sea level rise of 4.62 mm per year between 2013 and 2022, reaching a record in 2022.

Between 1960 and 2021, the oceans absorbed about 25% of the annual anthropogenic CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. CO2 reacts with seawater, decreasing its pH. The limited number of long-term observations in the open sea has shown a decrease in pH; the global average surface ocean pH value has decreased from 0.017 to 0.027 pH units per decade since the late eighties. This process, called ocean acidification, affects many organisms and ecosystem services, threatening food security by endangering fisheries and aquaculture.

The UN Secretary-General recently visited two global warming hotspots: Nepal and Antarctica, where he witnessed a record level of sea ice and was “shocked by the speed of glacier retreat.”

According to the meteorology agency’s report, the maximum extent of Antarctic Sea ice during the year was astonishingly one million square kilometers less than the previous record minimum, at the end of the southern hemisphere winter. Glaciers in western North America and the European Alps also experienced a season of extreme melting.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, between 1991 and 2022, an average warming trend of approximately 0.2 °C per decade is observed (higher in Mexico and the Caribbean), the most pronounced since 30-year climatologies began to be recorded in 1900. Sea levels continued to rise at a higher rate in the South Atlantic and the subtropical North Atlantic than the global average, endangering continental coastal areas, several countries, and small island developing States in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Rodney Martínez, representative of the World Meteorological Organization for North, Central America, and the Caribbean, told UN News that the months of July, August, September, and October 2023 became the warmest in the history of the planet. Since July, it has been found that several days of the year have exceeded 1.5 degrees Celsius, the threshold established in the Paris Agreement as a goal for temperature increase.

Exceptionally high temperatures, low air humidity, and severe drought led to unprecedented periods of forest fires in many South American countries. In January and February, Argentina and Paraguay recorded an increase of 283% and 258%, respectively, in the number of outbreaks detected compared to the average for the period from 2001 to 2021. CO₂ emissions caused by forest fires from January to March were the highest in the last 20 years.

There have been heatwaves never seen in South America, such as in the City of Buenos Aires, where on August 1st, the temperature exceeded 30°C, marking the warmest beginning of August in 117 years of data. In Rio de Janeiro, temperatures above 42 degrees and thermal sensations above 53 degrees were recorded.

In the Paraná-La Plata basin, the drop in hydropower production in 2022 due to low river flows forced countries to replace hydropower sources with fossil fuels, hindering energy transition measures aimed at achieving net-zero-value emissions. The drought in the Amazon has left dry rivers, dead dolphins and fish, and indigenous populations at serious risks to their food security.

Hurricane Otis escalated from a storm to a Category 5 hurricane in just hours, resulting in loss of lives, economic losses, and severe interruption of activities on which thousands of families in Acapulco depend. Large forest fires are registered in Bolivia concurrently with serious restrictions on the passage through the Panama Canal due to lowered water levels. Meanwhile, floods recently affected the south of the continent, leaving thousands of people displaced.

To adapt more effectively to the consequences of climate change and the consequent increase in the intensity and frequency of many extreme weather and climate phenomena, the WMO notes that the population of Latin America and the Caribbean must become more aware of climate-related risks, and the region’s early warning systems must employ improved multidisciplinary mechanisms.

[1] World Meteorological Organization (WMO)El estado del clima en América Latina y el Caribe 2022, OMM-N° 1322, Ginebra, 2023