What COP28 needs to address to avoid climate disaster

The climate is on its way to exceeding a 1.5°C increase in the global temperature. World leaders can stop it – but they have to act now.

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In the run up to COP28, its incumbent president, Dr Sultan Al Jaber made an impassioned plea, saying: ‘We must deliver, let this process prove that multilateralism still works.’

But optimism is in scant supply. Russia’s war in Ukraine and now the war between Israel and Hamas has ratcheted up tension, enhancing distrust and undermining willingness to cooperate, and retrenching the idea that fossil fuels are key to energy security in turbulent times. 

This palpable distrust was not helped by revelations, this week, that the COP presidency had allegedly planned to use COP28 as an opportunity to discuss new oil and gas deals for the UAE.  This has led to yet further calls for Al Jaber – notably also head of the giant Abu Dhabi National Oil Company – to step down. The UAE team said meetings were private and insists it is still focused on delivering ‘meaningful climate action.’

On Monday, OPEC struck back at critical claims in an International Energy Agency report which said that oil and gas producers have been only a ‘marginal force’ in the energy transition – saying the industry ‘must not be vilified.’

All this feeds into the suspicion that petro-states, vested interests and COP28 itself will resist efforts to the phasing down or out of fossil fuels. Climate campaigner Greta Thunberg said that the COP – the annual meeting of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) – has been ‘hijacked by fossil fuel lobbyists’ and is incapable of delivering anything other than greenwash.

So, is there even a risk that the inherent tensions erupt to undermine previous agreements?

Barriers

COP28 is a milestone in the Paris agreement process – the consensus reached by almost 200 countries in 2015 to hold the increase in global temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to attempt to keep it within 1.5 degrees.

Extreme weather is already a daily event; 2023 will be the warmest year on record.

The agreement was based on countries putting together their short-term plans – Nationally Determined Contributions (or NDCs) which are then collectively assessed in a ‘Global Stocktake’ and used to drive greater ambition in the next set of NDCs. COP28 is the first stocktake and the technical report highlights how far off the world is from a 1.5 degrees pathway.

Currently the world is on track to being 2.52.9°C warmer by the end of the century. Extreme weather is already a daily event; 2023 will be the warmest year on record and perhaps this year or next the average global temperature may cross the 1.5 degree threshold temporarily.  

With 1.5 degrees seemingly slipping out of reach, one element of COP28 will be whether the politics of the Paris Agreement will itself come under strain. One of the major stumbling blocks of previous summits has been the onus upon high-income countries to lead.

Key to this is the $100 billion of annual climate financing promised back in 2009 to lower income nations, but still not transparently delivered. The new ‘loss and damage fund’ agreed at COP27 needs money to work from high-income countries: how much will be donated?

Many look towards the planet’s biggest emitters – China, the US, Russia and India particularly for indications of real commitment. But geopolitical tensions between these great nations have rarely been so high. A meeting between Presidents Biden and Xi did present some optimism on climate –although details are yet to be seen. The conflict in Israel and Palestine – and a threat of escalating regional violence have done little to calm nerves in Dubai; distrust is rife.

Any reasons to be cheerful? 

The Paris agreement is not not working – climate action collectively has reduced emissions and brought down the original trajectory from 3.6-4.2 degrees warming to the ‘current policies’ scenario of 2.6-2.9 degrees. If countries adopted all of their previous pledges and targets, 2 degrees remains within reach, so there remains hope of accelerated ambition.

Progress IS being made: China is currently predicted to hit its wind and solar target five years early, and is estimated to deploy over 200 gigawatts of solar in 2023 (approximately double the entire US installed capacity). There is a growing consensus that setting global deployment targets is the way to energize action. 

If countries adopted all of their previous pledges and targets, 2 degrees remains within reach, so there remains hope of accelerated ambition.

There is a new focus on the vital area of transforming food systems which in the past were perhaps too politically complex to address, and progress on new alliances finding a voice and trying to change the art of what is possible.

Conclusions

Agreements on limiting emissions like those reached in Paris are the last bastions of a multilateral approach to our greatest shared global problems – with the United Nations, World Trade Organization and other post-Second World War Bretton Woods bodies weakened in the modern world.

Success in Dubai cont.

But any success in Dubai will be judged on delivering what is already on the table: ambitious targets, significant loss and damage funds, greater focus on adaptation and, most importantly an urgent sense that action will happen. We cannot delay until COP29 or when some future technology emerges to ‘save us’.

A weak COP28 result will simply mean more action, more cost and more disruption needed in future. As we power towards, and possibly past 1.5 degrees, and away from our ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change, will COPs, and the Paris agreement, survive without radical change?

That is the challenge the world faces this week – and we can’t afford leaders to let united efforts fail. Let’s hope that Mr Jaber is right and that COP28 will show that self-interest can be redefined as common interest and ‘prove that multilateralism still works.’

A version of this article was originally published by the Independent newspaper.