By Shailendra Yashwant
The extreme heat of 2023 may have shattered all climate records, devastated economies, claimed lives, and reversed progress, but it failed to inject any sense of urgency or emergency among world leaders deciding the course of global climate action at COP28, the UN climate summit held in December 2023 in Dubai, UAE.
Scientists predict that 2024 will be a second consecutive record-breaking year and will be our first glimpse of Earth at 1.50C. A temporary exceedance of 1.5 0C won’t mean a breach of the Paris Agreement but a sign that the opportunity to forestall this is about to close. Photo: Shailendra Yashwant.
Presided over by the CEO of the UAE’s national oil company, Dr. Sultan Al-Jaber, COP28 was the venue for the first Global Stocktake (GST) – the “temperature check” of the Paris Agreement – to assess progress, identify gaps and correct trajectory of global efforts to deal with the climate crises. The process and its product were intended, according to UN Climate Change, “to ratchet up climate action before the end of the decade – with the overarching aim to keep the global temperature limit of 1.50C within reach.”
The good news from COP28 is that the goal of limiting warming to 1.50C remains at the centre of the GST text in the final outcome, also known as the UAE Consensus, with an explicit recognition that achieving this would require deep, rapid and sustained reductions in global emissions of 43 per cent by 2030 and 60 per cent by 2035, from 2019 levels. This is the first time in history that all fossil fuels are targeted for retirement, and as such it is a signal that the end of the fossil fuel age may indeed be coming. On non-carbon dioxide (CO2) greenhouse gases, the final text calls for “accelerating and substantially reducing” emissions, “in particular methane emissions by 2030”.
The bad news is that the final compromise deal calls for “transitioning away from fossil fuels” without clear obligations or hard timelines. It outlines, in the vaguest terms, the need for ramping up renewable energy capacity. In the weak phrasing that is typical of the nonbinding COP agreements, it recommended “accelerating zero- and low-emission technologies” such as carbon capture and storage – an unproven strategy.
Climate scientists opined in an editorial in Nature that this failure of COP28 to call for a phase-out of fossil fuels is “devastating”, “dangerous”, and “more than a missed opportunity”, given the urgent need for action to tackle the climate crisis. Observers were quick to point to the role of specifically Saudi Arabia and the unprecedented number of fossil fuel industry lobbyists present at COP28 for this outcome.
The gathering at COP28 is a who’s who of about 150 of Earth’s top decision-makers. Many of the leaders represent countries hard hit by floods, storms, drought and heat waves, worsened by climate change from the burning of coal, oil and gas. However, guess who is missing in the picture? Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping of the United States and China. The leaders of the two most carbon-polluting nations were glaringly absent. Photo: Public domain/The President s Office Maldives.
In the run up to COP28, various reports had brought into sharp focus the scale of the climate crisis. UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report revealed that based on current climate-related pledges by governments, the Earth is on pace to warm by between 2.50C and 2.90C this century, well above the goals of the Paris Agreement. The Production Gap Report, produced by UNEP and partners, found states were planning to produce more than twice as much fossil fuel as would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.50C.
In 2023, carbon emissions from fossil fuels hit another record high, while nature continued its precipitous decline, with nearly one million species threatened with extinction, soils turning infertile, water sources drying up and pollution claiming millions of lives. The UNEP’s Adaptation Gap Report found developing countries alone need to devote $215 billion to $387 billion a year to contend with extreme weather, rising seas and other climatic upheaval. This at a time when the Israel-Hamas war and Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine are exacerbating carbon emissions and leaving millions homeless, creating economic hardships and weakening the prospect of wealthy countries delivering on climate finance promises for poor nations, as many industrialised countries are giving emergency aid to Israel, Gaza and Ukraine – or even funding more arms, as in the case of the United States.
That said, going by the past outcomes from nearly 30 years of annual climate summits, the COP28 UAE consensus can be best described as much better than expected but far less than required; whether it was “historic” as celebrated by many, including the UAE presidency, is open to interpretation and dependent on commitments by countries. For instance, all parties at COP28 unanimously agreed on the first day to operationalise the Loss and Damage Fund, the sole meaningful outcome from COP27, but were only able to collect a measly sum of $792 million in early pledges with no clarity on how and where future funds will come from.
In the end, climate finance, the key to any climate action, has been put on the agenda of COP29, with the adoption of a new climate finance goal – called the New Collective Qualitative Goal (NCQG). This new goal will replace developed countries’ current commitment of providing $100 billion annually in climate finance to developing nations, first agreed to in 2009. The new goal will need to take into account developing countries’ needs and priorities, estimated at $5.8 trillion - $5.9 trillion up until 2030.
Sultan Al-Jaber, the man in charge of COP28, in addition to being the United Arab Emirates’ Minister of Industry, is the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, the eighth-largest oil company in the world. Despite his controversial remarks in the middle of the summit, “no science” indicating that the world needed to phase out fossil fuels , Al Jaber led COP28 this year towards what some countries and he himself have termed as a historic agreement. Photo: Public Domain/Christopher Pike.
For what it’s worth, the UAE consensus underlines the urgent “need” to address the “interlinked global crises of climate change and biodiversity loss” and “emphasises” that halting and reversing deforestation and forest degradation by 2030 will be key to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement – the first time such a pledge has garnered formal recognition under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The final GST text references “nature” eight times and “biodiversity” five times while underlining the “vital importance of protecting, conserving, restoring and sustainably using nature and ecosystems for effective and sustainable climate action” even as it “notes” the need for “enhanced support and investment, including through financial resources, technology transfer and capacity-building” in order to meet the deforestation goal.
The outcome document goes on to say that the climate change and nature targets should be achieved “in line” with the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), that was successfully adopted in Montreal, Canada in December 2022. The framework included concrete actions to halt and reverse the loss of nature, including protecting 30 per cent of the planet and restoring 30 per cent of degraded ecosystems. Beyond forests, the GST notes the importance of “ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems”, including the ocean, mountains and the cryosphere.
Outside of the COP28 negotiations, 159 nations, covering close to 80 per cent of the world’s land, signed the COP28 UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action, committing to integrate food and food systems into their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by the year 2025, an issue that has historically been left out of the COP. Nature-based solutions and ecosystem-based approaches are specifically mentioned in section 55 of the GST, which “encourages” their implementation, along with some other “solutions” such as sustainable agriculture and land-use management.
In a joint statement on Climate, Nature and People, the UNFCCC COP28 presidency (UAE) and CBD COP15 presidency (China) pledged to work collaboratively and expeditiously with all parties to “foster stronger synergies, integration and alignment in the planning and implementation of national climate, biodiversity and land restoration plans and strategies, with specific emphasis on ambition, comprehensiveness and coherence between the next round of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), updated National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), and forthcoming revised National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs), as appropriate/within their respective mandates, and the implementation of a whole-of-government approach that mainstreams coherence, coordination and the efficient use of resources within and between relevant ministries and departments.”
During the World Climate Action Summit, $2.5 billion wer mobilised to protect and restore nature, including over $186 million in new financing. Brazil proposed a global Tropical Forests Forever fund, which would direct finance toward the protection of tropical forests.
COP28 featured much-improved Indigenous representation with more than 300 delegates, yet despite intensive lobbying most Indigenous and civil society leaders were left disappointed at the end of the summit in Dubai. Most Indigenous communities fear the increased demand for transition minerals for renewable energy uptake such as lithium, copper, cobalt and nickel found in their backyard , could lead to their eviction or subject them to the adverse effects of pollution and environmental degradation involved in mining, significantly impacting their livelihoods. Photo: Shailendra Yashwant.
It is important to recall that the UN adopted an Oceans pact in 2023 that extends, for the first time, environmental protections to two-thirds of the ocean that lie beyond national jurisdictions. The so-called “High Seas Treaty” offers an updated framework to The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that came into force in 1994. Currently, just 1.2 per cent of international waters are protected, with most threatened by overfishing.
Another important multilateral process, the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution, hosted by the UNEP, has released a revised draft of a legally-binding global instrument to end plastic pollution. The draft, which covers the full life cycle of plastic, was reviewed during the third session (INC-3) in Nairobi, Kenya in November 2023. The INC sessions mark a key step in the effort to finalise a planet-wide agreement by the end of 2024.
Lest we forget, the Global Stocktake negotiated in Dubai is an extension of the Paris Agreement and suffers from the same weakness – it is non-binding, and therefore relies on the goodwill of states.
The multiyear stocktake process, specified in the 2015 Paris Agreement, is designed to motivate ever-stronger voluntary pledges for emissions reduction from each nation. The first round of pledges was finalised in 2020; the next round will be submitted by 2025, ahead of the COP30 meeting to be held in Brazil.
At COP30, parties are “encouraged to come forward with ambitious, economy-wide emission reduction targets, covering all greenhouse gases, sectors and categories and aligned with the 1.50C limit” in their next round of climate action plans or NDCs. Those updated pledges will be in force through 2030 and will determine whether the planet will keep global warming from exceeding 1.50C over pre-industrial values. The updated pledges are also critical for meeting the net-zero-emission goals that almost 100 nations have set, mainly for the mid-21st Century.
Photo: Public Domain/Greenwash Gureilla.
The decarbonising pledge by oil and gas companies to reduce emissions, and a commitment by 118 countries to triple the world’s renewable energy capacity and double energy savings efforts without stopping production of oil and gas sparked cries of “greenwashing” even before world leaders had boarded their flights home from COP28. Critics also pointed out that all the pledges were “voluntary and broadly repeat of previous pledges”. Photo: Shailendra Yashwant.
Despite the signal to phase out fossil fuels, there is considerable scepticism and lack of faith in the ability of countries to move away from fossil fuels quickly enough. Writing in the Washington Post, Shannon Osaka says, “The truth is no country or fossil fuel company has a real plan for phasing out fossil fuels. On the contrary, almost all expect to continue extracting coal, oil and gas far into the future and far beyond what is needed to cut emissions enough to meet established climate goals. Part of the reason is that almost every country and company sees itself in a unique position – the future last producer of fossil fuels.”
Indeed, there has been a mad rush for oil and gas exploration and extraction in the last one year led by the USA and several European nations, while countries in the global south continue to expand their coal mines and coal-fired power capacity; however it is also true in the light of the UAE consensus, expanding new oil and gas licences or opening new oil fields will only create stranded assets of the future. As the exponential growth of renewable and clean power continues, there can be no case made for increasing fossil fuel production at a time when investment should be made in ensuring a just transition, and in the industries and businesses of the future, and not of the past.
For all its bluster and bravado, and nearly 80,000 participants (the highest ever), COP28 was a reminder that we should not dismiss the importance of multilateral processes. The 1992 UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) brought countries together to acknowledge that global warming is a problem and provided the basis for governments to develop the necessary knowledge base, systems and infrastructure to launch an institutional response that led to the development of renewable technologies, which now have become competitive with fossil fuels, and moreover brought together 198 governments to engage, agree and act together to face the climate crisis.
And yet there is no denying that there is an urgent need for a substantial overhaul of the COP rules and processes. The weak outcome from COP28, the role of Saudi Arabia in scuttling the call for phase out of fossil fuels, the dominating presence of fossil fuel lobbyists, the greenwashing of the otherwise poor outcome as historic have given credence to the allegations that the process has been co-opted by fossil fuel interests. Given the glacial pace to achieve consensus, many have even proposed that the COP rules should be changed to allow for a super majority of, say, 75 per cent of nations to approve a decision, rather than the current consensus rules that allow even one holdout to veto any agreement.
Keeping in mind that 2024 is likely to break the 1.50C barrier according to scientists at the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (CCCS), to conclude, in the words of author and activist Bill McKibben, the COP28 outcome “…may not seem like much. But it is – and this is important – a tool for activists to use henceforth. The world’s nations have now publicly agreed that they need to transition off fossil fuels, and that sentence will hang over every discussion from now on – especially the discussions about any further expansion of fossil fuel energy.”
Shailendra Yashwant is an independent environmental journalist and senior advisor to Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA).