11 Dec 2023

New Zealand 'extremely quiet' at COP28, indigenous expert says

6:02 pm on 11 December 2023
Kaeden Watts of Ngāti Tuwharetoa, Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāi Tūhoe.

Kaeden Watts of Ngāti Tuwharetoa, Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāi Tūhoe. Photo: Supplied

A climate expert attending his fourth world climate summit says New Zealand has been unusually quiet this year.

Kaeden Watts of Ngāti Tuwharetoa, Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāi Tūhoe is at COP28 in Dubai as a member of the indigenous communities platform.

He says there has been a sense of urgency from some of the big players, including the UK, Germany, US and Japan, but New Zealand was less visible than usual during the early part of the negotiations.

"What has been quite notable has been the lack of New Zealand presence within that [push for urgency] and that is quite an unusual sight.

"We have been extremely quiet this year. Inaction here is still an action... it has implications for our people back home.

"The lack of news coming out about New Zealand at COP is news in itself."

The summit was due to end on Tuesday, however, climate talks typically run into overtime because of the difficulty reaching consensus.

COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber told nations over the weekend it was time to shift gear.

There was no clear sign yet of a strong agreement on the most important part of the negotiations - agreeing language on getting fossil fuels out of the global economy.

Although the science was clear on the need for rapid phase-out of fossil fuels, the UN process requires consensus.

OPEC nations (most notably Saudi Arabia) have tried to block text that threatened oil-producing interests.

Despite fossil fuels being the major driver of climate change, none of the 27 annual summits so far have agreed on including mention of ending the use of oil and gas. The previous summit named only coal, after failing to get wording covering all fossil fuels across the line.

Countries have discussed possible alternative wording, for example "phasing down" fossil fuels or only phasing out "unabated" fossil fuels, meaning fossil fuels that aren't attached to technology for catching and storing the carbon underground. At this point, such technology is expensive and only capable of handling a tiny proportion of fossil fuel emissions.

Ralph Regenvan, Minister of Climate Change of Vanuatu, delivers the national statement during the Resumed High-Level Segment during the COP28, UN Climate Change Conference, held by UNFCCC in Dubai Exhibition Center, United Arab Emirates on December 9, 2023. COP28, running from November 30 to December 12 focuses on national climate goals. The Conference in Dubai focuses also on the most vulnerable communities and Loss and Damage Fund. (Photo by Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto) (Photo by Dominika Zarzycka / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP)

Ralph Regenvan, Minister of Climate Change of Vanuatu. Photo: DOMINIKA ZARZYCKA / AFP / NurPhoto

Speaking at an official forum for leaders over the weekend, Vanuatu's climate change minister Ralph Regenvan called for all nations to support the phase out of fossil fuels.

Without that, the summit could not be a success, he said. He praised the summit's early progress on funding for climate damage in vulnerable countries, including Pacific islands.

"We have come here with high hopes for something we can bring back home. Critically, however, for COP28 to be a success it needs to deliver on fossil fuel phase-out."

So far, close to 100 countries have agreed to support this.

New Zealand's climate change minister Simon Watts did not use the words 'phasing out' fossil fuels in his official speech at the summit. Instead, he said New Zealand was committed to "quickly and justly moving to a future where we no longer use fossil fuels".

On Morning Report on Monday, the newly appointed minister said the focus of the push to phase out fossil fuels was "primarily coal", and suggested New Zealand could use more fossil gas to replace coal in some industries.

His official statement at COP28 over the weekend said New Zealand was committed to meeting its international target for slashing emissions in half before 2030, as well as doubling renewable energy by 2050.

New Zealand was also "committed to collaborating with our Pacific neighbours", for whom climate change was the "number one security threat", he said.

Simon Watts also told fellow leaders climate change was being felt in this country, citing the heavy rainfall of Cyclone Gabrielle, and said New Zealand was bracing for more fires this summer with the hot and dry weather ahead.

Observers said New Zealand was in an incongruous position, having officially given its negotiators permission to push for a phase-out of fossil fuels, but then deciding to restart exploration for new oil and gas reserves offshore after a change of government.

This was the first summit where countries have had to respond to a 'global stocktake' on how collective efforts were going. An assessment before the meeting found collective promises would still leave the planet 2.5C hotter from human emissions, far above the safer goal of 1.5C or at worst 2C.

Kaeden Watts said despite being the "main kaupapa" of the summit, agreement on how to address the global stocktake was progressing slowly.

Even on loss and damage, the early win of the conference: "We're still tens of billions off what is needed every single year to fund the losses that are being experienced," he said.

Kaeden Watts said it was important to have Māori at the summit to hear what is being said and how it might affect people at home, especially Māori.

Other recent developments included:

  • Azerbaijan's capital Baku was named as host of the next summit, COP29, following an unusually long process, during which Russia blocked the EU as hosts and Armenia initially appeared as if it might block Azerbaijan. Baku will be the second major oil producer in a row after Dubai to host the summit
  • Reuters reported OPEC wrote to its allies and members calling for them to block mention of fossil fuels
  • UN secretary-general António Guterres has returned to the summit, saying on X (formerly Twitter) he has come back "because we are on the brink of climate disaster and this conference must mark a turning point"
  • The top climate envoys from China and the US were reported to be in private talks, a possible sign of bilateral progress
  • The UN's food and agriculture organisation released a report on ways to reduce climate change caused by eating animal products. The report, launched on Friday, said cutting methane from farming was crucial and discussed shifting diets in meat-hungry nations as well as using efficiency and new technology

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