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Adirondack Council’s Aaron Mair recounts trip to COP28

Aaron Mair at Brant Lake, NY
Nancie Battaglia
Adirondack Council
Aaron Mair at Brant Lake, NY

The United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change, or COP28, ended Wednesday with an agreement calling on countries to triple renewable energy capacity and double energy efficiency by 2030. It also calls for accelerating efforts to transition away from fossil fuels. The Adirondack Council’s Forever Adirondacks Campaign Director Aaron Mair traveled to Dubai to attend COP28. He tells WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley while he’s disappointed with the final agreement, the conference was an intense experience:

This is the critical COP before 2030, where they're talking about the phase out. And this was one of the bigger goals and bigger ambitions: the phasing out of fossil fuels. And this COP was very critical in having that as I say on the palette because, you know, we're looking at, under the optimistic scenario, by 2030 of trying to maintain the Paris Agreement goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius. As you know, this past summer, being one of the hottest summers and hottest years on record, we actually poked through the two-degree Celsius barrier. Now, it didn't stay above there. We're not at that point where that’s the chronic state of things. But it's a harbinger of action that we need to take within the next four to five years. And that drawdown or that phasing out and dependence on fossil fuels is a critical piece and that was part of the stakes and the action going in. But by being held at a fossil fuel state in Dubai, where the emirate is the head, you know, of their big petrol, chemical and petrol extraction process, you know, they don't want to talk about phase out. And that's one of the dangers of holding it in a state like Saudi Arabia, like Dubai or any other major fossil fuel producer. Because, you know, when you have the chairmanship, which is, as I say, really guiding the conversation, it’s a bit like the chair of a meeting, that controlling the discussion, and then they are saying that the moving away from fossil fuels really is not an option. And that really changed the culture and the tenor of the debate and the conversation and the discussion. And, in fact, the outcome and final document is even much more distressing because now it becomes more or less a voluntary commitment rather than, as they say, a firm commitment and agreement like we had started out with in Paris. And so we were supposed to be at the place and space to talk about weaning off. Now let's be clear, they're not going to get rid of the use of fossil fuels. But the actual phasing out our nations and nations around the world dependency upon fossil fuels is a critical and essential step toward us staying below two degrees Celsius. And where we are right now, basically just talking about policies and pledges, but no major action. But just as I say we are doing some green stuff. We are putting clean technology out there, but not at the scale that hey, we need to be. At the same time, we're not drawing down and phasing out fossil fuels. So that current plan of action will put us at about two and a half degrees Celsius, more than a whole degree above where we want to be at one point five that we agreed in Paris. And so that's a scary prospect. And then pushing off the issue of phasing down, in this case they're saying phasing down not phasing out fossil fuels, pushing it off to 2050 really puts us in very, very dangerous waters with regards to the science and the evidence behind climate change. At the end of the day once we go past these thresholds, we don't, you don't get to reverse them. You know, this is what we call future steady states that we're trying to fight against and trying to, as I say, maintain a future in which the planet can basically maintain humanity and creation. So right now, the current agreement as it stands it is a significant departure from the urgency that began in Paris.


Aaron Mair, COP closed the conference and issued the agreement that you were just discussing calling for a tripling of renewable energy capacity, doubling energy efficiency improvements by 2030 and some of the other things that you just mentioned. Also talking about the Paris Accord, when COP28 actually acknowledges that most of the parties involved are off track with the Paris Accord, if the parties couldn't make the Paris Accord caveats, do you think the latest agreement will be met at all?


Well, the answer is that yeah they're taking stock. And yes they're calling for the trebling of clean energy technology. But if that's occurring while at the same time you're doubling and tripling the production of fossil fuels, you're no longer really on the path towards that Paris commitment. And if we have failed, in my opinion, right now, today, it's a failure. Coming out with rosy language and piecemeal language that kind of obfuscates the reality that we're actually increasing the production. Right now the United States of America, despite all the things that we're doing relative to clean energy and clean technology, in fact we've doubled clean energy, almost tripled clean energy scaling up in the United States. But at the same time, we almost more than doubled the production of fossil fuels. We're drilling more. So on one hand we're increasing our green assets. But at the same token we're also doubling and tripling our dirty assets. So what does that mean? Well the thing is, is that Paris is more than an aspirational. Again Paris is rooted and anchored in a science and a reality that we're trying to avoid. We're trying to avoid a crisis. What does a two-degree Celsius world looked like? It will be disrupting ocean currents. It will be disrupting airflow. You know, when we talk about climate change it's not just the daily weather events. It's the dynamic relationship of air and ocean currents and their impacts globally on humanity as well as creation. You know, the food web that we enjoy this day has taken billions of years to evolve. It's now got to the point that critical food protein sources that we depend upon are right now at threat and at risk. But that's very much part of, you know, a post 2030 to 2050 future that we will be seeing at crisis. But what we are witnessing, in the wake of the current increases and the current climate disruption and the droughts that are happening in Central and South America, we're seeing human populations move and shift and migrate. And here's the thing: it is just going to get worse. The clock is running out. And it's not enough to say no longer talk about 2030 and look to 2050. 2030 is a very, very significant milestone where we will be locked into a level of climate increase and impacts that will be here for time to come. So now we're looking at a climate bomb that's coming at us. And it right now will have significant global impacts, not only on just the weather and temperature, but also species and major species extinction as we face a hotter planet that's going to be at a struggle to support humanity as well as species.


I'm curious, Aaron Mair, when you were attending COP28, having conversations with the general attendees, what was the general atmosphere?


There’s a lot of hope on the ground. There's a lot of things to be hopeful because we don't need new technology. We have a technology right now. The issue is scaling them up. And, you know, what we really need is now more than ever, and I think the main theme on the ground even in Dubai, was the need for political action and the need for political will. And the Sultan of Dubai was a damper on that. In fact, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, India, a number of key fossil fuel dependent, Australia, a number of key entities that are, you know, dependent upon coal, etc. You know, they have been really the voices that have been dragging the conversation to what it is right now, which is basically voluntary action with no significant calls with regards to drawdown. I think it's going to be more demands placed upon NGOs like the Adirondack Council and other environmental organizations globally to scale up their action and their activism within their various states and countries to ensure aggressive action is taken by a lot of nations within the global north: the Germany, the France to England, United States. We need to really scale up that action which is equally distressing. But that said right now is the battle for the political will for action because we already have the assets that we need that we all just need to invest more in and scale up and as we seek to decarbonize our economy and decarbonize our state and decarbonize our country. I went over with a high degree of optimism and thinking that it was going to really be about that drawdown and phasing out of fossil fuels. And the fact that we're going to be doing something less than that on top of the urgent work that we need to do, relative to our respective portfolios, ours being wilderness, etc. The fact that we're going to have to work even harder now is somewhat distressing. But I want to also be optimistic and tell people we do have the technologies and the resources to really bend the curve. But what we do in the next four to five years is going to be very, very essential and very critical to keep us below that 1.8 degrees Celsius and at the 1.5 degrees Celsius that we signed on to in Paris. It's literally a hair on fire moment.

Aaron Mair is the Adirondack Council’s Forever Adirondacks Campaign Director and is a former president of the Sierra Club.