COP28 Host Had Plans to Promote Oil and Gas, Documents Show

12:14 minutes

A man stands at a podium speaking to a crowd. Behind him is a sign that says "COP28UAE"
The November 30 reception of COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Credit: UN Climate Change / Kiara Worth

The United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP28, began this week in Dubai. This is an annual event, where leaders and delegates from around the world come together to discuss how to collaboratively reach important milestones for the future of the planet. Goals like slowing the rise of temperatures on Earth will require buy-in from all major players to be successful.

But this week, a document leaked that showed the United Arab Emirates planned something at odds with the event: promotion of the oil and gas industries. This has led to increased skepticism of COP and its goals among both critics and attendees. 

Ira is joined by Tim Revell, deputy US editor of New Scientist, to talk about this story. Plus, how a single bitcoin transaction uses enough water to fill a swimming pool, the way nutrients in soil drive biodiversity, and how amino acids could be formed alongside stars.

Segment Guests

Tim Revell

Tim Revell is Deputy United States Editor for New Scientist in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

Later in the hour, why maintaining strong social bonds is critical for your long-term health as you age. Plus, inside the bilingual brain, how speaking multiple languages shapes memory, cognition, and might even prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s.

But first, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP28, started this week in Dubai. This is an annual event, where the world comes together to discuss how to reach important milestones for the future of the planet– big things like climate change resiliency, slowing the Earth’s rise in temperature. But this week, a document leaked that showed that the president of the United Nations Climate Conference planned to lobby for oil and gas interests during this event, a position counter to the interests of the conference.

Joining me to talk about this and other science stories of the week is my guest, Tim Revell, deputy US editor of New Scientist and host of the New Scientist weekly podcast, based in New York.

Welcome to Science Friday. Good to have you back.

TIM REVELL: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s get right into this. Let’s talk about COP28. What is this conference normally like, and do things actually ever get accomplished there?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, it’s that time of year again, where the world’s biggest climate summit gets underway. And this year it’s expected to be a record 70,000 people attending, with representatives from nearly every country. So it is the big climate summit of each year. And not all of them have been that successful, but some, too, do have a really lasting impact.

So one particularly notable one was in 2015, in Paris. That’s when the world settled on this 1.5 degrees Celsius goal of limiting warming to that temperature. And since then, that’s been something that’s been repeated and repeated and repeated.

And so this year, as you say, there was questions around whether the United Arab Emirates, in Dubai, was the right place to host it, given their links with fossil fuels. And then also this story about how they might use the event to lobby for fossil fuel contracts, though the UAE does deny that, has also put a bit of a dampener on the early stages of the conference.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So what’s the reaction about all this drama? Are people worried? Are they trying to power through this, or just business as usual?

TIM REVELL: I think it’s a bit of both. People are worried. The conference venue was set around a year ago. And obviously there was a bit of questioning of that at the time. And then this BBC story, about the leaked documents and the lobbying, has also put a bit of a dampener on it.

But this is where countries come together to discuss these big, big issues. And so I think it is still possible that we’re going to have a hopeful outcome out of this event. And we’re already starting to see some movement on that front.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk about it. It’s getting started, right? What should we keep an eye out for?

TIM REVELL: Yeah. So it kicked off on Thursday. And something we’ve already seen is the announcement of a new Loss and Damage Fund of about 300 million. And that’s a fund that’s meant to help poorer countries deal with the impacts of climate change.

But things that we also should really keep an eye on is that this is the first conference where countries are going to have a proper global stock-take of how well the world is doing to meet that 1.5 degrees Celsius limit on global warming.

And then, as part of that, they’ll have to work out, well, what more do we need to do? And so given that is what is at stake, it seems like this year is particularly important.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about another environmental impact story. And this one is about Bitcoin. We’ve known that cryptocurrencies use a lot of electricity, but it turns out they also use a lot of water. Is that right?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, that is right– a shocking amount of water. So a single Bitcoin transaction uses, on average, 4,000 gallons of water. And across the whole network, across the world, a team estimate that it’s about half a trillion gallons of water that the Bitcoin network is responsible for.


TIM REVELL: To put that into perspective, that’s about enough to fill 10 billion bathtubs.

IRA FLATOW: Are we talking about water– power stations, things like that?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, it’s power stations. Effectively, Bitcoin uses a lot of electricity throughout its network to process transactions. And a team looked at where that electricity comes from, the different regions where the computations happen. And they we’re able to estimate the power mix and, from that, the associated water usage. And that’s how they reached these figures.

IRA FLATOW: Now, there is another cryptocurrency, Ethereum, which made changes that slashed its energy use. How did they do that?

TIM REVELL: Yeah. So Ethereum, when they made this change that you referenced, that reduced their energy use by 99.99%. So it had a huge impact. And what they did was they changed the way that transactions are authenticated. They moved from a system where computation was the main thing to one where, instead, it was about how much cryptocurrency you have.

The problem is Ethereum has a steering group that can make those changes, but Bitcoin is fully decentralized. And the amount of power you have in the Bitcoin network is directly tied to how much computation you can do. And therefore, there’s an incentive for you to keep things the way they are. So it seems very unlikely Bitcoin is going to change anytime soon.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And Ethereum is probably the biggest competitor to Bitcoin.

TIM REVELL: Yeah, it is.

IRA FLATOW: And so yeah, Bitcoin is going to stay doing what it does. Let’s move on to our next story about an AI that hunts crystals. Whew, tell me about that.

TIM REVELL: Yeah, this is an amazing story. So DeepMind, they’re a research company owned by Google. And they’ve created an AI that they are hoping will lead to the discovery of some new amazing materials.

Now, this AI is called GNoME. And that stands for Graph Networks for Materials Exploration. And it was made to look at what sort of inorganic crystals could be possible. And those are crystals that don’t arise in biology. And we only know of about 48,000 crystals like that at the moment, but GNoME has come up with a list of 2 million.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. And what are the implications of this? I mean, what kinds of new materials are we talking about here?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, the hope is that these materials will be useful for things like batteries and solar panels. But with AI, when it makes these sort of predictions of what things might be possible, the question is always, well, is it true or not? How accurate is it?

IRA FLATOW: Oh, details, details,


TIM REVELL: Yeah, details, details. But something the team found is, in the time that they were making these predictions, other labs had been just working on inorganic crystals. And 700 of those ones that the AI didn’t know about, but predicted, are actually possible and have now been created, suggesting that, in that 2 million, there are certainly some that are real and could be really useful.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Another use for AI that you would not think about when you are having coffee in the morning.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah, let’s move on to something really interesting because it involves one of my favorite topics, which is soil and dirt. Tell us how dirt drove evolution back in the day. How long ago are we talking about?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, we’re talking a long time ago. So this study looks at the last 540 million years. And it turns out there is a surprisingly close link between how soil moved around the ancient world and the blossoming of biodiversity on land.

So this team– a team from the University of Sydney– they built a computer simulation that looked at this period– about 540 million years– and up to about 400 to 300 million years ago, soil just ended up getting washed into the ocean from land because much of the world’s land masses were just coastal mountain ranges. But then, what changed was that super continents began to form, and then the land became better at keeping hold of soil. And this meant that soil and nutrients stopped washing away and the land became a much nicer environment for life to thrive in.

IRA FLATOW: So there’s a lot of soil disruption happening in the world today, with development, climate-related degradation. Can you see what kinds of implications are here?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, this link that they found worked in both directions. It was really strong that, as soil went up on land, life and biodiversity went up, too. But it also worked the other way around. In these situations where human activity is affecting soil, we need to be extremely careful that it doesn’t also affect biodiversity.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because soil erosion is a very big problem around the world today, isn’t it– the loss of topsoil?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, it is a really big problem. And there’s quite a lot of human activities and also things like deforestation that factor into that and affect the ability of land to keep hold of its soil.

IRA FLATOW: And as far as climate change is concerned, soil can be a great sink for carbon dioxide so you want to keep it around, right?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, that’s right.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we can’t have a news roundup without a space story. And you’ve got one about how a key molecule for life may have formed far out in space. Tell us about that, please.

TIM REVELL: Yeah, this is really cool. So this is a story about amino acids. And amino acids are what proteins are made of. So they’re absolutely crucial for life on Earth. But how they arose on Earth is a bit of a mystery. And one idea is that they came from outer space, transported by meteorites and asteroids. But then how they would have formed there has also been a bit of a mystery.

And so a team at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, they have found that one simple amino acid, called carbamic acid, can actually be created on clumps of ice in space.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Because as we know from the theory of chemical evolution on life here on Earth, for life to have evolved chemically, we need these building blocks, right? We need these amino acids.

TIM REVELL: That’s exactly right. We need those amino acids. And what this team found is that there are conditions around young stars and planets– these sort of clouds that form there– that are extremely cold. But even in those circumstances, carbamic acid, which is a mixture of carbon dioxide and ammonia, could actually react to form that amino acid. And then it could have ended up on a meteorite or an asteroid that made its way to Earth.

IRA FLATOW: And that would solve two things– one, basically, how life may have evolved here on Earth and the possibility of life in other places.

TIM REVELL: Yeah, exactly. And it also gives researchers a new place to look with their telescopes for amino acids in space. For example, the James Webb Space Telescope, we could point in these clouds where young stars and planets form and specifically look for some of these constituent parts.

IRA FLATOW: I love that story. We are running out of time, but I want to get to our last story, which is coincidentally about clocks. You get it?


Just how accurate can a clock be? I mean, can a clock be– is there a limit, I guess, is what I’m asking?

TIM REVELL: Yeah. So that’s what this story is about. It says that there’s a fundamental trade-off in how accurate a clock can be. But this is a real, like– it’s quite a heavy physics story. It’s all about the second law of thermodynamics. And in case you need a reminder, that’s the one that says, in any system, disorder increases over time.

IRA FLATOW: Entropy.

TIM REVELL: Entropy, exactly. Entropy in a system increases over time.

And what this team found is that, with any clock, there is a bit of a trade-off between two forms of what you might call accuracy. And the analogy is that, with a sand timer– for example, if you had a 10-minute sand timer, it’s very good at measuring 10 minutes. But if you tried to measure smaller increments by following individual grains of sand, there’s lots of randomness that comes into play. Meaning that if you counted those grains, it wouldn’t be very accurate at counting much smaller amounts of time.

And what they found is, through a lot of math, that the second law of thermodynamics eventually gets you to this idea that there is a trade-off between that long form of accuracy, the 10 minutes, and the much shorter form of accuracy for individual sand grains.

IRA FLATOW: There you have it. You cannot cheat Mother Nature after all. Thank you, Tim.

TIM REVELL: Thanks very much.

IRA FLATOW: Always great to have you. Tim Revell, deputy US editor of New Scientist and host of the New Scientist weekly podcast, based in New York.

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