COP28 and the scourge of eco-imperialism

It’s the ideology of environmentalism that should be ‘phased out’.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics Science & Tech World

It feels like at COP28 the delusions of Western greens finally crashed against the shores of reality. The luxuriant doom-mongering of privileged eco-warriors who insist the world will end if we don’t phase out fossil fuels was confronted by a truth no reasonable person can deny: that fossil fuels remain vital to human life. In the gleaming oasis of Dubai it became clear that oil, gas and even coal are not going away anytime soon, however much the Gretas of the West might want them to. Why? Because – brace yourselves – India, China, Brazil and other nations are not prepared to sacrifice their economic health at the altar of our deranged anti-modernism.

On the surface, COP28 was like every other UN climate-change conference of recent years. There was the usual hypocrisy. Kings and sultans flew in on private jets to wag a collective finger at the rest of us for our eco-sins. There was the foot-stomping of pampered greens who think the final agreement didn’t go far enough. ‘This text is bullshit’, they chanted, outside the conference venue. (How did they get to the Arabian desert? Not by bicycle.) And yet those who looked harder, beyond the decadence, will have glimpsed one of the key clashes of our time – a global conflict of interests that is likely to shape humanity’s future. That’s the clash between Western ideologues who are exhausted with the modern world and developing nations who want in on the modern world. Between our misanthropic turn against the Industrial Revolution and their longing for such revolutions.

Most of the coverage is focusing on the final agreement. Some say it’s radical. This is ‘the first time’, says an excitable BBC, that a COP has ‘taken explicit aim at the use of fossil fuels’. Others say it’s disappointing because it only talks about ‘transitioning away from fossil fuels… in a just, orderly and equitable manner’. That’s a far cry from the ‘phaseout of fossil fuels’ eco-activists wanted to see. The absence of a promise to phase out such fuels is a ‘tragedy for the planet’, wails the Guardian, next to a photo of green activists blubbing outside the conference venue.

Yet it pays to look at why the idea of a ‘phaseout’ was, well, phased out. It’s because winding down fossil-fuel use would be suicidal for the developing world. It’s all very well for Westerners whose Industrial Revolutions took place 150 years ago to dry heave at the sight of coal-fired power stations, but for billions of people such stations are the difference between life and death, light and dark, food and no food. In admirably restrained language, African diplomats said at COP that ‘the idea of a fossil-fuel phaseout [is] unworkable’. A Bolivian official, speaking on behalf of a bloc that includes India, China and other large developing nations, went further: we cannot accept the targeting of ‘any sources of energy’, he said (my italics). ‘Any phaseout or phasedown… is unacceptable to us.’

Representatives of India dared to touch on one of the ugliest elements of the annual COP whingefest – the fact that it’s always well-off countries telling less well-off countries to stop being so bloody industrious. ‘Discussions on a phaseout of fossil fuels have been led by developed economies’ and this too often overlooks ‘the economic realities of developing countries like India’, said an official. A spokesperson for G77 – a coalition of 135 developing nations – made it clear that its members will not stop using coal. Why? Because we must ‘meet the energy needs and ensure a dignified life for our people’. Sounds good to me. In the stand-off between rich, bored Western youths who want to keep coal in the ground and a country like India that intends to carry on digging up coal so that its 1.4 billion citizens might enjoy energy and dignity, I know whose side I’m on.

There was a distinctly eco-imperialist feel to this COP in particular. India – no stranger to being bossed around by external powers – clocked it. It seems Western nations ‘that have already taken up their carbon space’ are leaving ‘very little space for us’, it said. For all its diplomacy, COP28 was a war of sorts between Americans and Europeans beholden to the eco-religion and developing nations more interested in growth. The Financial Times described ‘European diplomats fanned out across the expansive grounds of the futuristic conference venue… in a final push to galvanise support for a global agreement to dump fossil fuels’. And on the other side were developing nations insisting on their right to ‘fulfil our aspirations’ – that is, carry on using fossil fuels in order that they might become as rich as we are.

It was an unspoken showdown between a depressed West and an aspirant South, between our fashionable frustration with industry and other people’s yearning for it. Yet where India, Bolivia and other nations were diplomatic in their criticisms of the climate-change agenda, some in the West were less so. ‘This obsequious [agreement] reads as if OPEC dictated it word for word’, thundered eco-hothead Al Gore. It wasn’t dictated by OPEC, Al, but it was influenced by pushback from developing nations who understandably don’t take kindly to being lectured by powerful Westerners worth $300million. It seems it’s fine for Gore to .get rich from eco-hysteria but not for developing nations to get rich by industrialising like America did.

Let’s be frank: phasing out fossil fuels is a demented dream. Fossil-fuel use has remained remarkably steady over the past 25 years, regardless of all the windbaggery at the annual COPs. In 2000, 84 per cent of the world’s energy came from fossil fuels – in 2022, it was 82 per cent. Developing nations’ use of coal has soared. As a consequence, humanity is now burning more of the black stuff than at any point in history. Coal consumption rose by 3.3 per cent in 2022, hitting 8.3 billion tonnes – a new record. This year, China, India and South East Asian countries accounted for three out of every four tonnes of coal consumed around the world. You think they’re going to stop because New York Times readers in Park Slope don’t like pollution? Get real.

Indeed, at COP developing nations openly stood up for coal. There was a striking side-clash over the agreement’s singling out of coal for special opprobrium. The agreement does not specifically mention oil or gas but it does point towards a ‘phasedown of unabated coal’. The BASIC nations – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – objected to this demonisation of coal. They see it as an effort by America, the new natural-gas giant, and the petro state of the UAE, which is swilling in oil, to make a moral distinction between their fossil fuels and other nations’ fossil fuels. They’re not wrong. India and others ought to have the exact same right to dig for coal as the US has to frack for gas.

It’s the ideology of environmentalism we should be phasing out. Its neocolonial arrogance, its indifference to the needs and rights of people in the developing world, stands starkly exposed. This luxuriant creed might flatter the pretensions of Westerners in search of some meaning in their lives, but it is the implacable foe of the billions in the industrialising world who only want what we already have.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics Science & Tech World


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