COP28: What was achieved, and what needs to happen now

The UAE Consensus is both groundbreaking in scope, and insufficient for the most climate vulnerable groups. Now countries must prepare ambitious new national climate plans to build on the agreement.

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If COP28 started with the bang of a landmark agreement on loss and damage, it ended with a cacophony over the ‘UAE Consensus’ on the Global Stocktake (GST). Hailed as groundbreaking by hosts the UAE and criticized as insufficient by climate vulnerable groups such as the alliance of small island states (AOSIS), the agreement is in fact both.

The context for this duality is the slow speed of climate action to date. COP28 marked the first conference in which any explicit reference to moving away from ‘fossil fuels’ has made it into the final decision text.

This long-overdue achievement follows considerable shifts among the public and businesses, as understanding of climate change and rhetoric on climate action are increasingly mainstream, and climate impacts grow more severe.

The Global Stocktake

This year, negotiations on the response to the GST, which assesses progress towards meeting the Paris Agreement goals, took the place of the normal conference wrangle over a ‘cover’ text agreement.

Riding on the coat tails of the swift agreement to operationalize the loss and damage fund, and the first swathe of pledges to the fund that followed, the atmosphere of the COP was, at first, hopeful.

This air of optimism was reinforced by a raft of initiatives, side deals and agreements.

This air of optimism was reinforced by a raft of initiatives, side deals and agreements, covering food systems transformation, the tripling of renewable capacity, the doubling of the average annual rate of energy efficiency improvement at a global level, and climate-resilient, sustainable and equitable health systems. All pushed forward the COP’s transformational remit outside the claustrophobic context of the official texts.

The initial GST draft negotiating text itself contained options for strong language on both fossil fuel ‘phase out’ and ‘phase down’ – and many climate activists pinned their hopes on this terminology. Then a new draft landed in which these options disappeared, replaced by weak language that ‘called upon’ parties ‘to take actions that could include’ a list of potential measures.

Outrage followed, with the EU and others issuing ‘battle cry’ videos on social media in response. Following a tense period of revisions and redrafting, a new text arrived on the morning of the 13 December. A plenary quickly followed, at which the new text was speedily approved (within seconds of the opening) and met with a standing ovation.

A PR win for the UAE

The Consensus is a dramatic feat of climate diplomacy and a huge PR win for COP28 hosts the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and COP president, Dr Sultan Al Jaber.

As head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Al Jaber has been a controversial figure from the moment his presidency was announced. Even in the last days of the conference, his ability to be objective was again called into question by the leaks of allegedly ‘private’ letters from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), urging its 13 members – including the UAE – to ‘proactively reject any text or formula that targets energy, IE fossil fuels, rather than emissions’.

Loopholes

The UAE Consensus has pointed out a path, albeit a rough one. It is now down to governments to wear this path into a wide road, and to support, guide and call each other back from the side-tracks which the many loopholes in the agreed text leave open.

These loopholes include the false promise of abatement technology; vagueness around the global goal on adaptation (which rather than a North Star is currently a constellation of poorly defined targets); and reference to ‘low carbon transition fuels’ which essentially green light gas use until mid-century.

Only once Al Jaber had taken the podium and delivered his victory speech did the objections of AOSIS, among others, rise from the packed plenary floor.

Vulnerable countries called out a text they saw as insufficiently transformative to build their hopes of thriving or even surviving in a post 1.5 degrees Celsius world of rising seas and increasing wild weather.

Dilemmas for developing nations

The UAE Consensus repeats Paris’s call for a new round of national climate plans (NDCs) ahead of COP30 in Brazil, and for these plans to be in line with keeping global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius. For this to happen, global emissions must have peaked before 2025, and must decline 43 per cent from 2019 levels by 2030.

To achieve this, fossil fuel phase down is essential, whether or not those words made it into the final decision text. But this phase down will not be simple, and COP30 host Brazil exemplified the dilemma many developing countries face with its contradictory behaviour at the conference.

President Lula arrived at COP28 with ‘head held high’ off the back of the country’s ambitious new climate targets and rapidly falling deforestation. But he was undermined by his energy minister’s tone-deaf use of his opening statement to share his country’s enthusiasm for joining OPEC+.

This was symptomatic of a current that ran through the whole COP – inequality.

Climate change is every country’s problem, but none more so than those countries which are least responsible. Developing countries need, and have been vocal in calling for, the support of those who have benefitted most from fossil fuel wealth to help fund their own transition and development.

Unless developing nations receive international support, such as concessionary finance for capital intensive infrastructure… their energy transitions will be far too slow.

Without this, they point out, they are unlikely to be able to beat a new path to renewables-based development for the benefit of all. Unless developing nations receive international support, such as concessionary finance for capital intensive infrastructure or renewable projects, their energy transitions will be far too slow to contribute to keeping the Paris temperature goal within reach.

Actions not words

‘An agreement’, as Al Jaber said in his closing statement, ‘is only as good as its implementation’. With this in mind, every national government will now need to start preparing its NDC in advance of the Paris-defined 2025 deadline.

These NDCs will need to show that countries will strive to implement the transition away from fossil fuels and speed up the deployment of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency. 

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But no country can do it alone. International finance and technology cooperation will be at the heart of future mitigation and adaption plans. If developing nations need to go slower, then developed nations will need to lead the race and go faster to balance this out.

Whether or not this will happen remains to be seen. Despite the International Energy Agency having called for exploitation and development of new oil and gas fields to stop in 2021, many developed countries including the US and UK are still issuing new licences for fossil fuels.

If the UAE Consensus is to be considered a success, it will be off the back of what countries actually do next, rather than what they have agreed to at COP28.

If the UAE Consensus is to be considered a success, it will be off the back of what countries actually do next, rather than what they have agreed to at COP28.

This will include, perhaps especially, supporting each other in a transition that will not always be easy, and will not always be smooth, but which grows increasingly urgent for the future of all nations.