A British scientist who helped negotiate the Paris Agreement on climate change has urged leaders attending Cop28 in Dubai later this year to keep the door open to carbon removal from the air, after the 2015 deal failed to slow emissions as much as hoped.
Speaking to The National, Sir David accused Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of undermining British diplomats in climate talks by taking an axe to the UK’s own net-zero commitments.
Cop28, opening on November 30 at Dubai’s Expo City, will see leaders complete the first ever “global stocktake” of whether they are living up to the 2015 deal in Paris.
That agreement set the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial times, calling on countries to achieve this by slashing greenhouse gas emissions.
But the historic deal “hasn’t produced the kind of reduction in emissions we were hoping for”, said Sir David, who as UK special climate envoy made 96 foreign visits in two years to help get a deal in Paris.
“We have put so much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere today that even if we stopped all emissions tomorrow, we are still faced with these extreme weather events getting worse and worse,” he said.
A key UN report underpinning the stocktake says all countries “need to undertake rapid and deep reductions” in emissions. A backup option is to undo the damage by removing CO2 from the atmosphere.
Carbon removal and capture is a hotly debated topic among environmentalists, some of whom see it as a distraction tactic that lets polluters kick emissions cuts into the long grass. Methods can include planting trees or more sophisticated “direct air capture” systems.
The head of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, on Tuesday warned against making the road to 1.5°C “dependent on the massive deployment of carbon removal technologies, which are expensive and unproven at scale”.
Sir David, having once shared similar sentiments, is now in the camp that says carbon removal should be part of the solution. The UK has plans to use carbon capture but faces an estimated £45 billion ($56.5 billion) funding gap.
The current greenhouse gas concentration in the air is “unmanageable for humanity going forward” and “we need to get to net zero and then bring it down”, said Sir David.
“There’s a bit of opposition to what is termed geoengineering. There are even groups of people saying we shouldn’t do experiments in that area. This is totally counterproductive.”
At the talks in Dubai, he said he did not “expect 195 nations to simply give it the green light”.
“I just want to stop them, if we can, from being negative about this.”
A new International Energy Agency forecast says the path to 1.5°C is being “kept open” by record growth in solar power and electric car sales, charting a path away from polluting fossil fuels.
The cost of clean tech has fallen and Dr Sultan Al Jaber, UAE Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology and Cop28 President-designate, has made “fast-tracking the energy transition” one of the four pillars of his summit plan.
“The message from the IEA – and this is the important message to get across in Cop28 – is ‘move into the future’,” Sir David said. “Whether you’re a country or a company, becoming future-proof means reducing your dependence on fossil fuels.”
Sir David, a former chief scientific adviser who has worked for four UK prime ministers from Tony Blair to Theresa May, says Britain is no longer the leader on climate action he believes it was in his day.
He said his well-funded round-the-world diplomacy before Cop21 in Paris made him “convinced we were going to get an agreement” despite what he calls the “stodgy” and “unwieldy” UN climate process.
Now, he has criticised Mr Sunak for rowing back key net-zero policies in a pre-election gamble. The move saw Britain’s ban on petrol and diesel cars postponed from 2030 to 2035 and the phasing out of gas boilers has also been delayed.
“Britain was leading the way. Unfortunately our prime minister is undermining our capacity as a negotiator now,” Sir David said.
“A negotiator needs to be able to say, ‘We are doing all we can to meet the targets and we now want to hear from you’. That’s far better than saying, ‘If we do this and you do that, then we’ll all make a little progress’”.
The Paris Agreement leaves it up to each country to set its own “nationally determined contributions” to the global effort – unlike the earlier Kyoto Protocol, which mandated specific emissions cuts, but only for rich nations.
The absence of binding emissions cuts was a compromise to get the US on board, with then-president Barack Obama facing dim prospects of getting specific spending plans past a hostile Congress.
Governments are expected to update their NDCs every five years and take the global stocktake into account. But ultimately there is no way of forcing them to do anything.
“Countries have been making promises, and then not delivering, because there is no comeback.” said Sir David.
“It was a sacrifice. And I think it was worthwhile. But at the same time, it means obligations are not taken seriously.”