Thursday, December 21, 2023

COP28: Achievements Fall Short of the Goal

Arab Center Washington DC - The recently concluded United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai, otherwise known as COP28, marked a significant moment in global efforts to address climate change. Over the course of negotiations from November 30 to December 13, representatives from 198 countries grappled with crucial decisions that will shape the world’s response to the climate crisis. Key accomplishments included an agreement to transition away from fossil fuels, the creation of a fund to help vulnerable countries pay for climate-related damage, and the publication of a landmark assessment of the world’s progress in mitigating climate change. While these achievements are all steps in the right direction, COP28 still fell short due to shortcomings and loopholes in the agreements.

The overall sentiment at COP28 was clear: while the international community postpones taking action to address climate change, the window of opportunity may be closing. “We are living through climate collapse in real-time,” said António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General at the summit’s opening, underscoring the urgency of the situation. Without aggressive actions, global warming is on track to reach nearly 3 degrees Celsius (°C) this century—twice the desired 1.5°C. Scientists anticipate that at this warming rate, the world could pass several catastrophic points of no return, from extreme weather events to rising sea levels to loss of biodiversity.

COP28’s Major Decisions

Most important at COP28 was participant countries’ commitment to “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner…so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.” The announcement was a milestone: it is the first time that the world has pledged to move away from fossil fuels, the largest contributor to climate change. COP26, held in 2026 in Glasgow, pledged only to “phase down” fossil fuel and coal and to “phase out” inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. The concept of phaseout refers to the complete discontinuation or removal of fossil fuel usage, while phasedown suggests a reduction in or restriction on usage without eliminating them. COP28’s agreement to shift away from fossil fuels represents a compromise between more than 100 countries that advocated for a phaseout and the members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Companies (OPEC), led by Saudi Arabia, which argued that emissions can be reduced without abandoning specific fuels.

The proposed transition away from fossil fuels does not legally obligate parties to comply or specify mechanisms of enforcement, which is unfortunate because countries are expanding their fossil fuel production. In an effort to reduce reliance on fossil fuels globally, more than 100 governments pledged at COP28 to triple the world’s renewable energy capacity by 2030. As the International Energy Agency warned on December 10, however, such a move is not sufficient on its own to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

Delegates at COP28 also achieved a historic breakthrough by formally establishing a Loss and Damage Fund, which will provide financing for vulnerable countries hit hard by climate disasters. Climate change-induced loss and damage has severe, and sometimes irreversible, consequences for both nature and human beings. Developing countries, particularly those in the Southern Hemisphere, are the most vulnerable. For instance, the 2022 floods in Pakistan resulted in more than $30 billion in economic losses, affecting millions of people and causing significant infrastructure damage and highlighting the urgent need for robust funding mechanisms. The new fund will be hosted by the World Bank for a four-year period. So far, some $700 million has been pledged, including $100 million each from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Germany, $75 million from the United Kingdom, $17.5 million from the United States, and $10 million from Japan. But the fund remains critically underfunded, as the economic cost of loss and damage in developing countries is estimated to reach $400 billion annually by 2023 and nearly $1.8 trillion by 2050. Although the Loss and Damage Fund is intended for poor nations most severely affected by climate change, more developed countries like China or India may be able to utilize it as well. This raises concerns about the equitable distribution of resources and increases the prospect of clashes between developing and developed nations over climate finance.

Finally, COP28 published the first-ever Global Stocktake in the history of climate negotiations, representing a crucial step forward in assessing and monitoring global efforts to address climate change. The Stocktake reports on global progress in emissions reduction, adaptation to climate impacts, and provision of support and on the overall progress of countries and stakeholders toward the objectives of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement. The December 2023 Global Stocktake revealed that current actions are insufficient for maintaining a 1.5°C pathway. The text urged nations to triple renewable energy capacity and to double the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030, while advocating for the phasedown of unabated coal power and for a just transition away from fossil fuels.

Rich Versus Poor Sacrifices

The ongoing discussions surrounding climate change extend beyond mere dialogue—developed and developing countries have long-standing disagreements over financial accountability for climate change and environmental responsibility. Although developed countries are more responsible for causing climate damage, they have not made the necessary sacrifices to protect the climate, particularly in two crucial aspects.

First, developed countries are falling behind in fulfilling their commitment to fund climate finance. While there has been a collective pledge among wealthy nations to contribute $100 billion annually, there exists no official assessment of each country’s share in achieving this goal. Rich nations should provide substantial financial support to aid developing countries in transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy and in enhancing energy efficiency.

Second, developed nations are lagging in implementing environmental actions such as reducing carbon emissions, transitioning to renewable energy sources, and phasing out fossil fuels. Some of these countries rationalize their inaction by arguing that the burden of addressing climate change is unfairly placed upon them, especially when they perceive insufficient proportional efforts from developing nations. For example, developed countries are insisting that countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) be among the rich nations required to fund climate finance, although the GCC countries historically have not contributed to climate change as significantly as bigger countries have.

Developing countries are also expected to contribute to global efforts to address climate change, such as by mitigating their greenhouse gas emissions, by implementing adaptation measures, and by providing transparent and accurate information about their emissions. But numerous challenges hinder their progress, with finance standing out as a barrier. Developing countries often rely on loans and other financial assistance from developed nations and international financial institutions to fund their climate initiatives. As a June 2023 International Institute for Environment and Development report put it, “The world’s most climate-vulnerable countries are being forced to spend billions more paying off their debts than they are receiving in help to beat climate change.” These loans can contribute to a cycle of debt, especially if the terms are not favorable or the borrowed funds are not effectively utilized.

This financial imbalance has led to growing frustration among developing nations. Developing countries are angry that they have contributed least to greenhouse gas emissions heating the planet, yet they are suffering the most—and are the least equipped to cope with the death and destruction wrought by climate disasters. In recent years, developing countries’ demands of equity and social justice have been sidelined, creating a sense of being taken for granted or regarded as mere supplicants of foreign aid and humanitarian assistance.

Controversies at COP28

The controversy surrounding Dubai’s hosting of COP28 stems from the UAE’s status as one of the world’s largest oil-producing countries. Throughout the gathering the summit’s Emirati president Sultan al-Jaber took the heat. The Guardian exposed al-Jaber’s misleading November 21 comment defending the continued use of fossil fuels. During a live online event, al-Jaber stated that “there is no science indicating that a phase-out of fossil fuels is needed to restrict global heating to 1.5°C.” This stance can be attributed to al-Jaber’s role as the president of UAE’s national oil company, ADNOC, which is one of the world’s largest energy companies. Defending fossil fuels is hardly a new phenomenon, however. US President Joe Biden recently acknowledged that the United States—one of the world’s leading climate polluters—will continue to need oil and natural gas over the next decade.

What distinguished COP28 was the unprecedented number of fossil fuel lobbyists in attendance. This surge conveyed a powerful message: that the economic interests of major countries are still predominantly controlled by the need for fossil fuels. While it is crucial to involve oil-producing nations and companies in climate summits to address the root cause of global warming, such gatherings also offer them the opportunity to mobilize and to collectively resist a fossil fuel phaseout. Indeed, media reports indicate that Saudi Arabia and OPEC exerted pressure on the UAE to shift its focus away from advocating for a fossil fuel phaseout.

Climate Inaction: A Global Challenge

Despite knowing the necessary steps to save the planet, governments lack the political will to take decisive action. The United Nations emphasizes the urgent need to reduce emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and to achieve net-zero by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5°C, as outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement. But most global policies and alternative energy initiatives are falling behind these targets.

A critical concern is whether or not major economies will end their climate foot-dragging and meet their climate commitments. The United States, India, China, Germany, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Canada, Brazil, and Australia, among others, are out of reach of their climate targets.

Challenges also exist in fully replacing traditional energy sources with solar and wind power. Initial investments in renewable energy infrastructure have proven costly, and long-term success requires finding solutions to technical complications. During the slow transition to clean energy there is still a huge reliance on fossil fuels. OPEC, OPEC+ governments, China, India, the United States, and the European Union continue to urgently need fossil fuels to finance their economies during the transition.

It is doubtful that countries will be able to reach climate goals with quick solutions. Instead of merely setting pledges, the international community should implement a reward and punishment mechanism in which countries that exceed pollution quotas are penalized and fines are used to fund climate finance. In other words, such a mechanism would punish countries that pollute the planet more and reward those that demonstrate more effort to protect the planet. But the challenge lies in finding an entity with the power to enforce such measures. For example, it is impossible to imagine that the United Nations Security Council could do the job, given its ineffectiveness in addressing conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Sudan and Gaza, among other crises.

The global public must persist in exerting pressure on world leaders and vocalizing the jeopardy in which climate change places humanity’s future. The effectiveness of public pressure is evident in the progress made during climate summits in addressing fossil fuels and discussing their problems. Until a couple of years ago, fossil fuels were virtually taboo at these significant global gatherings. Notably, it was at COP26 that leaders officially acknowledged fossil fuel and coal as a problem for the first time. That a COP summit, after 26 annual UN climate meetings, finally recognized the problem of fossil fuel in its final agreement shows how important words are to the countries negotiating at these summits.

Scientists play a crucial role in maintaining momentum by continuously expressing their concerns. Their persistence is essential to prompt governments to devise practical procedures for meeting their commitments. Our planet, unable to articulate its distress, is already emitting warning signals, akin to pulling a rubber band. The question that looms is for how long we can stretch it before it inevitably snaps.

*This policy analysis paper was written for and published first on the Arab Center Washington DC website.