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COP28: A Perspective from a Climate Figuran

Expert Opinion
This article was written by YEP
Lawan emisi pun aku hanya figuran
Tak cukup penting ‘tuk bikin perubahan
Nasibku tak karuan, tidak digenggam tangan”
- Hindia, Masalah Masa Depan
The above excerpt was taken from a song premiered on YouTube in May 2023, coinciding with my 20th month of working on a climate job which involves capturing a specific class of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (a.k.a. “refrigerants”; commonly known as “freon” in Indonesia and are typically emitted from cooling/AC units) that are hundreds to thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide by tapping into the carbon market’s potential. As much as I understood that such privilege to be “in the game” in such a nascent “space” — coupled with the moral obligation that comes with the profession to (at least pretend to) be a beacon of optimism — squarely banished me from the lyric’s target population, it could not be helped that I felt represented by the song nonetheless: in a year that began with a global newspaper publishing an article mercilessly questioning the worthiness of 90% of rainforest-related carbon credits issued by world’s biggest carbon-credit certifier (which could be argued to have sparked l̶a̶r̶g̶e̶-̶s̶c̶a̶l̶e̶ ̶p̶a̶n̶i̶c̶s̶ critical conversations among relevant practitioners across various platforms about how to rebuild trust in the voluntary carbon market) and was somberly closed in its Q4 with a note that it is on track to be a record-breaking year in terms of the frequency at which the sacred 1.5 °C limit is breached (thus, moving humanity a step closer to the beginning of climate apocalypse), climate professionals could potentially feel like a bunch of small figuran (English: an “extra”, or a background role in a motion picture) in a global-scale historical drama titled Bending the Climate Curve: A Human Story.

Following hundreds of climate startups and institutions — initially as a low-key effort to understand the who’s-who in the industry faster — had unintentionally pushed my LinkedIn homepage into a bubble falsely portraying a universe in which #COP28 was the sole world event happening in December 2023, which only served to perpetuate the intensity of such melancholy. As I scrolled through an endless queue of posts celebrating the signing and launching of this and that “next big thing in climate” or calling for RSVPs in panel discussions promising to address this and that “climate topic of the year”, I wondered whether the distinction between the “extras” and the “main casts” is real and not just a construct in my head: how could I possibly reconcile those big tawks on the Grand Stage of climate a̶c̶t̶i̶o̶n̶s̶ panel discussions taking place in a city more than 6,500 kilometers away from Jakarta, with the not-so-fancy mechanics of preventing super-potent GHG emissions from AC units (which would probably never make a clickbait headline comparable to a photograph showing important figures grabbing their spades and symbolically planting tree seedlings) or, to give a rather fascinating example, reconcile those with an innocent hope from a local AC technician that global warming does not happen because “if the world got hotter, my AC maintenance workload would increase for sure”?
A baby penguin: “Hey, what are you guys playing? Can I join too?” (photo by author)
Alas, the moral obligation to be a beacon of optimism prevails, even as this year’s COP is notoriously marked by a public relations blunder. At the very least, amidst criticism from a leading intergovernmental institution warning that the pledges made so far “would not be nearly enough“ to keep the world cool and deadlock in the fossil fuel phase-out negotiation as the conference nearly ends, a large number of countries still managed to commit to a Global Cooling Pledge (yes, just one more additional climate pledge on top of myriads that have already been made would definitely not hurt!) promising the reduction of “cooling-related emissions across all sectors by at least 68% globally relative to 2022 levels by 2050”, which puts heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) sustainability right under the spotlight at an unprecedented level of attention. This is a notable progress, taking into account that Montreal Protocol and Kigali Amendment do not directly address emissions associated with refrigerant venting, which in Indonesia alone could amount close to 1 billion tCO2e through 2050 and would not be fixed even by carbon removal (which has been gaining traction in the last couple of years, but does not “remove” refrigerants), which therefore makes it an imperative that the next COP in Azerbaijan and subsequent COPs until 2050 allocate attention to monitor and review the annual progress of the pledge’s implementation.

It does not matter that Indonesia, the largest AC market in Southeast Asia, had not yet signed the pledge at the time this article was written: COP member states respect Indonesia as a “climate superpower” by virtue of the country’s immense responsibility to conserve its vast rainforests, which include world’s largest forest-based avoided emissions project. I understand that if I keep doing my job, of preventing refrigerant emissions 1 tCO2e at a time from buildings in Jakarta, other cities and beyond, Indonesia will shine (a tad bit) brighter without even knowing that it does.

After all, “Masalah masa depan, aku punya peranan is how Hindia chose to conclude the second verse of their overall pessimistic song. Even a figuran practitioner, far removed from the glam and glitter of climate negotiations, has a role in determining whether human civilization has a future, or whether it deserves a future.

Disclaimer: This article represents the opinions and free will of the author, not of his current, past or future employers.

About the Author

Yosaka works on a climate job aiming at preventing climate apocalypse and human extinction by supplying carbon credits generated from refrigerant capture and destruction. In his spare time, he reads climate-related news and philosophizes whether consciousness and free will are just illusions.
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