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The view after COP28 in Dubai » Yale Climate Connections

Seldom are so many hearts and minds focused on a few simple words of global agreement as they are when a United Nations climate meeting draws to a close. That was the case once more at the 28th such global summit, formally known as the 28th Conference of Parties, or COP28, of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The summit wrapped up in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on December 13, about 23 hours later than planned, with the mixed bag of successes and shortcomings that’s been par for the course in a number of prior COP meetings.

We’ll get into what key leaders and thinkers have been saying in the aftermath of COP28.

But first, some context.

Pressure to formally call for an end to fossil fuel use

For several years, there’s been an intensifying demand for the COP meetings to call explicitly for a phaseout or phase-down of fossil fuel use. Variations of these terms appeared in early drafts of the COP28 closing document. By the near-final version, released on December 11, those words had been replaced by a reference that nations “could” carry out a variety of actions. The draft text prompted a global surge of fury.

“COP28 is now on the verge of complete failure,” posted Al Gore, who’s been active at COP meetings ever since they were launched during his tenure as U.S. vice president in the 1990s. “The world desperately needs to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible, but this obsequious draft reads as if OPEC dictated it word for word.”

As often happens at COP meetings, a blitz of last-minute wordsmithing led to some key changes. The final agreement still had only a tepid call for a “phase-down of unabated coal power” (with “unabated” open to much interpretation). However, it did become the first closing document in COP history to mention the energy source that’s driving human-caused climate change in the first place. It calls for “transitioning 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.”

“These climate conferences are of course a consensus-based process, meaning all Parties must agree on every word, every comma, every full stop … Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end.”

—U.N. Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell, from the closing speech at COP28

The response to the COP28 meeting in Dubai

Verbs can be crucial in COP agreements. “Calls on” is among the weakest of exhortations in United Nations lingo, compared to stronger alternatives such as “requests” or “urges.”

Some diplomats and activists praised the inclusion of fossil fuels but decried other aspects of the statement as exceptionally weak tea.

“It is unfortunate that with the inclusion of the word ‘unabated’, the outcome suggests there is a considerable role for dangerous distractions such as large-scale carbon capture and storage and ‘transitional fuels’. This is not the case. For a livable planet we need a full phaseout of all fossil fuels.”

—Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, WWF Global Climate and Energy Lead and COP20 President, in a news release from Climate Action Network International

The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which represents 39 vulnerable small-island and other low-lying coastal developing states, noted that the final agreement was gaveled in and followed by a standing ovation just as their representatives were entering the room.

“We have made an incremental advancement over business as usual [at COP28] when what we really needed is an exponential step-change in our actions and support … 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.”

—AOSIS Lead Negotiator Anne Rasmussen, in a statement released on December 13

For many, though, including some who were incensed about the lack of a comprehensive phaseout, it was the long-awaited use of “fossil fuels” that ultimately gave hope:

“That may not seem like much — it is, after all, the single most obvious thing one could possibly say about climate change, akin to ‘in an effort to reduce my headache, I am transitioning away from hitting myself in the forehead with a hammer.’… 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 the fossil fuel energy.”

—Author and activist Bill McKibben, from The Crucial Years (Substack)

The much-debated closing statement was far from the only outcome at COP28. The initial mechanics of a major Loss and Damage Fund for countries hard hit by climate change were formalized, although pledges to the fund remain minuscule compared to the assessed needs. In addition, there was progress on agreements involving food, forests, land, and nature.

What comes next after COP28 in Dubai

The closing agreement of COP28 was also the culmination of the first global COP stocktake. 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 finalized in 2020; the next round will be submitted by 2025, ahead of the COP30 meeting to be held in Brazil.

Those updated pledges will be in force through 2030, so they’ll be the last guide stars helping to determine whether the planet will keep global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial 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.

Even if the unprecedented heat surge of 2023 fails to push long-term global warming above 1.5 °C, it’s put a boldface exclamation point on just how close that threshold has gotten.

“This text is toothless and it is nowhere even close to being sufficient to keep us within the 1.5 degree limit … It is a stab in the back for those most vulnerable.”

—Activist Greta Thunberg, speaking to Reuters on Dec. 15, 2023

Years of research indicate that the 1.5 °C goal will be virtually impossible to meet unless emissions are cut drastically — on the order of 50% — between now and 2030. If there’s any hope of making such ambitious cuts, or even lesser cuts that would still be incredibly important, renewable energy will have to be stepped up quickly and the world will need to use energy more efficiently. The COP28 closing statement hits both of these needs, as it includes a call for tripling renewable energy capacity and doubling the rate of energy efficiency progress by 2030.

Running alongside these goals is a relentless growth in global energy demand, which is why boosting energy efficiency and renewables are both crucial. Otherwise, the continued growth in fossil fuel development threatens to swallow those gains.

Why an in-person COP meeting still matters

COP28 was projected to draw a record-smashing 70,000 people to Dubai. It ended up with some 80,000 registrants — once again raising the question of the value of so many people flying long distances on fossil-fueled aircraft (including hundreds taking private jets) to tackle climate change.

Cynics, dismissives, and even some scientists and activists have long pointed to the obvious carbon footprint of COP meetings. Others have argued that it’s crucial for leaders from throughout the world to discuss the thorny issues at hand in person, especially since smaller and/or poorer countries can otherwise get sidelined. And even with the emissions needed to get to physical COP meetings, at least one analysis has found that the carbon savings produced by COP outcomes can far outweigh the carbon footprint of the meeting itself.

“Each word is of importance; a delegate’s body language; the views and mood of the room … It is really hard to imagine how transporting this process to an online forum would not jeopardize the success and effectiveness of this process. It is hard to imagine how voices of vulnerable and less powerful nations and groups would not be muffled, or how this would not lead to producing an outcome that is the very lowest common denominator.”

—Joeri Rogelj, lecturer in climate change and the environment at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, quoted by David Vetter (Forbes)

Should petrostates be allowed to host COP meetings?

Those who chafed at the choice of a petrostate — the United Arab Emirates — as the host of COP28 weren’t happy that another leading fossil fuel producer, Azerbaijan, was chosen as the host for COP29 next year. Under COP rules, the 2024 meeting must be in the United Nations’ Eastern European region, and Russia had refused to accept any member of the European Union as host.

After the city of Baku was chosen for 2024, a foreign policy adviser to Azerbaijan’s president extolled the country’s production of natural gas in the context of COP29: “Azerbaijan is also a gas exporting country, and if you compare it with some other sources of energy — is a much cleaner sort of energy … Azerbaijan has quite serious potential of gas.”

Michael Mann (University of Pennsylvania) and Susan Joy Hassol ( argue in an op-ed that the COP process is in dire need of reforms. Under the banner “mend it, don’t end it”, they propose a range of actions, including prohibiting petrostates from hosting COP meetings; adding penalties such as tariffs or embargoes for nations who attempt to undercut the COP process; and adopting super-majority rather than consensus rules.

These reforms need to happen immediately. The window of opportunity to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius is closing. It will shut tight in a matter of years without rapid and meaningful progress. We must seize this moment to fix the broken COP process and stop the world from barreling down the road to ruin. It’s time to change the rules so we can change the world for the better.

—Michael E. Mann and Susan Joy Hassol in a Los Angeles Times opinion essay, December 11, 2023

Even more on the outcomes of COP28

For comprehensive coverage of the meeting and its outcome, see the in-depth package of reports from Carbon Brief.

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