COP28 - what happened

A ‘historic agreement’? COP28 was the first such summit in three decades of UN climate negotiations to agree the necessity of moving away from fossil fuels. Which frankly says more about the failures of the process as a whole than the success of COP28. So what are the key outcomes from Dubai that we need to understand?

The final text, the ‘Global Stocktake’ did not in the end agree the ‘phase out’ of fossil fuels which more than 100 countries had called for, with oil producing nations, notably Saudi Arabia, implacably opposed. Instead, it called on countries to contribute to global efforts to transition “away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science”.

The overwhelming message from Global South countries was that while language might be significant, at COP28 it was much less important than the failure of richer nations to put money on the table. Poorer countries face three overwhelming costs they are unable to meet without this:

  • Adaptation: In a heated and unstable world, preventative investment in climate-resilient food production, coastal flood adaptation, management of scarce water resources, etc., is essential. But climate finance for this has been minimal. The adaptation finance gap is estimated at $194-366 billion. At COP28 an adaptation framework was agreed but not the money needed to deliver.
  • Loss and damage: Extreme weather events are increasingly causing severe losses, and those in poorer countries who have done least to cause the climate crisis are least able to bear the cost. At COP27, countries finally agreed to set up a fund to pay for this loss and damage, after a 30-year fight led by small island states and developing countries. On the very first day of COP28, the fund was formally adopted, and by the end of COP28 $770m had been pledged. Some countries, such as the UK, re-pledged funding already announced. Notably the US pledged a measly $17.5m. By comparison, estimates for the annual cost of climate damage have varied from $100bn-$580bn - the fund so far covers less than 1% of what is needed.
  • Transition: Richer nations built their economies on exploiting fossil fuels. The Paris agreement includes a commitment from developed countries to transfer funds not just for adaptation to climate impacts but so that poorer countries are able to develop without reliance on fossil fuels and meet their emissions targets. The commitment to provide $100bn a year by 2020 has not been met. The governments of countries such as Uganda say they cannot be expected to forgo the billions that exploiting their oil reserves would bring in when no alternative funding is forthcoming. Many countries are locked in a debt trap, forced to keep drilling to service their debts. 'Climate finance' as further loans is a bitter irony.

There are clear loopholes in the text, such as the call for the acceleration of carbon capture & storage, a technology which is unproven and expensive but can be used as a fig leaf for fossil fuel expansion. ‘Transitional fuels’ are ‘recognised’ for ensuring energy security, a clear reference to the idea that gas could be used as a ‘bridge fuel’ - which is not compatible with staying below 1.5C.

COP28 was supposed to finalise rules on carbon markets (Article 6). However, talks ended in deadlock. Despite multiple scandals around carbon trading, the US had been pushing for ‘light touch’ regulation, which would allow secrecy and potentially double counting of emissions cuts. This was blocked by countries demanding greater scrutiny as well as human rights and environmental safeguards. However this leaves the existing ‘voluntary’ carbon market unregulated for at least another year.

When it comes to climate breakdown, the bottom line is not politics but physics, which is not affected by words but only by the reality of cumulative global greenhouse gas emissions which continue to rise. The nations facing the most immediate existential threat, the Alliance of Small Island States, were clear in their statement, “It is not enough for us to reference the science and then make agreements that ignore what the science is telling us we need to do. This is not an approach that we should be asked to defend.”

A few hours after the agreement, Shell announced it would be boosting oil production in the US Gulf of Mexico. Other headlines that day underlined that it remained business as usual for the oil industry.

The COP process has been co-opted by fossil fuel corporations and governments doing their bidding. Next year COP29 will be held in Azerbaijan, another petrostate with a poor record on human rights and democracy. Yet this is the only existing framework for global climate negotiations. Reforms are badly needed, but it is hard to see how these reforms could be forced through. Stronger solutions such as a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty have as yet only a dozen countries backing them.

What of our own government’s role? Rishi Sunak dropped by, spending less time at COP28 than he did on the plane. Sunak's speech was confused and damaging, on the one hand urging climate action, on the other highlighting his own net zero rollback, boasting “we have scrapped plans on heat pumps and energy efficiency”. In contrast with other delegations, he and other UK ministers avoided meeting with the press. At these summits, most countries are represented by the equivalent of cabinet minister rank, however the UK’s delegation was headed by a junior minister, Graham Stuart. Who was then summoned back to the UK in a round trip of over 6000 miles to help vote through the Rwanda bill, possibly the worst piece of UK legislation in modern times.

Finally, a quote from our friend and climate justice campaigner Asad Rehman: "Those of us who fight for climate justice are often told we are on the fringe, or that we are being unrealistic. But it is the people with the most power at the moment who are being unrealistic. We are the ones who actually know this is a life-and-death fight. We are the realistic ones, and so we are the only hope for the future. So we will come back, stronger and more powerful, until it is the interests of people and not of profit that shapes the climate talks."

You can read more about the details of negotiations here

Photo credit: Denise Baker