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Catholic climate activists concerned COP28’s modest steps will fall short

(OSV News) -- As COP28, the United Nations' Climate Change Conference, closed its multinational gathering in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Dec. 13, participants congratulated one another upon reaching an agreement they declared signals the "beginning of the end" for fossil fuels.

However, Catholic climate advocates -- responding to the urgent call of Pope Francis' encyclical "Laudate Deum" ("Praise God") for immediate and extraordinary changes to avert a climate crisis -- are concerned that COP28's outcomes, while promising, may become "too little, too late" if nations do not muster the resolve to implement them.

"Whilst we didn't turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end," said Simon Stiell, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, in his closing speech. "Now all governments and businesses need to turn these pledges into real-economy outcomes, without delay."

As a Dec. 13 COP28 press release reported, "Negotiators from nearly 200 Parties came together in Dubai with a decision on the world's first 'global stocktake' to ratchet up climate action before the end of the decade."

The "stocktake" (akin to an inventory of resources) is considered the central achievement of COP28, since "it contains every element that was under negotiation," the same COP28 release notes, "and can now be used by countries to develop stronger climate action plans due by 2025."

The final agreement urges countries to engage in "transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science."

It also calls for tripling global renewable energy capacity by 2030; doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030; acceleration of efforts to "phase down" coal power; and development of "zero- and low-emission technologies."

These measures, however, also rely upon equitable climate financing -- most particularly for developing countries. The United States made a commitment of $3 billion in funding for climate adaptation -- but debt forgiveness for those same developing countries, it is estimated, would result in even greater resources.

 However, none of the participants' pledges are in any way enforceable.

"I feel like COP28's results were a mixed bag," said José Aguto, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, a partnership of 20 national groups formed in 2006 with the help of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It is a step forward -- but it is a very modest one. And the sobering reality is that we likely are not going to prevent global temperatures from rising; we're likely going to exceed the 1.5 (degrees Celsius threshold), which is going to be disastrous."

The 2015 Paris Agreement -- a legally binding international treaty on climate change adopted by 196 Parties -- was dedicated to pursuing efforts to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 to 2 C above pre-industrial levels.

"The language with regard to transitioning away from fossil fuels is non-committal; it's voluntary; we don't have any measurables; there are loopholes," Aguto told OSV News. "So it's disappointing. It is a moral signal -- but it's not enough. Pope Francis asked for it to be drastic and measurable. We're not there."

"There's not enough of a global commitment to phase out fossil fuels," Aguto added. "Those nations which have strong fossil fuel interests have a lot of leeway to continue business as usual."

Pope Francis canceled a trip to COP28 after experiencing flu-like symptoms. U.S. President Joe Biden did not attend either.

"From a faith perspective, we need to elevate the moral call that Pope Francis asked of us in 'Laudate Deum,' paragraph 60, where he's asking us to appeal to the powers that be -- both economic and political," said Aguto. He paraphrased the pope's remarks: "We all know what the science says and what the reality is on the ground. How can you continue to engage in these pernicious activities with the knowledge that you have? Why would you have the power, and choose not to exercise it for the common good?"

Catholic Relief Services, the international aid agency of the Catholic Church in the U.S., in a Dec. 14 statement was cautiously positive.

"While certainly not perfect, the COP28 agreement marks the beginning of our collective journey toward better environmental stewardship," CRS said. "We pray that the global collaboration shown at COP28 continues, especially with regard to decarbonization -- and a decisive acceleration of energy transition -- increasing funding for climate adaptation and supporting climate justice and equity."

 Nonetheless, CRS was also blunt about the scale of need, asserting "climate finance for adaptation continues to be woefully insufficient, falling far short of what is required to effectively support vulnerable populations. It is imperative," the CRS statement continued, "that developed nations significantly scale up their commitments to ensure these marginalized communities receive effective support in their fight against climate change and for climate justice and equity."

Anna Johnson, North American senior program manager for Laudato Si' Movement, a global network of over 900 Catholic organizations in 115 countries inspired by Pope Francis' encyclical of the same name, stressed interdependency.

"In 'Laudate Deum', Pope Francis raises the convictions that have been repeatedly shared since his first exhortation: 'Everything is connected' and 'No one is saved alone,'" she said.

"These convictions ring true; all of us across our common home need each other as we respond to the ecological crises," Johnson added. "With the rich Catholic tradition lifting up the preferential option for those who are poor, we are called to ensure that our response listens to and acts with those most impacted by the crisis, which includes the implementation of the (COP28) Loss and Damage Fund."

But Johnson, too, also had cautionary words.

"We applaud the work done towards achieving the financing towards a just energy transition," Johnson said. "However, we also recognize that the results from the COP fall short of the scale, urgency and accountability that is needed to address the climate crisis as Pope Francis and the scientific community continue to remind us."

She said, "We encourage all of the faithful to join together in lifting our voices to our local, national, and regional government officials to urge expedient and just implementation of the vital transition away from fossil fuels, for the health and glory of all of God's creation."

(Kimberley Heatherington writes for OSV News from Virginia.)