As the hoopla around the latest annual UN climate summit begins to die down, it seems appropriate for healthy climate advocates to set aside a moment to ponder what just happened. The long runup to the 28th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP28), and the two-week meeting itself, generated some clear breakthroughs yet also left many delegates disappointed. The scope of the meeting was vast, covering nearly every area of climate change, so I will focus on what seem to me the most important takeaways. If you want more, I recommend the (quite readable) comprehensive summary of key outcomes published by Carbon Brief on December 13, the day that the final consensus agreement was reached among the 199 participating countries.
The need for a consensus agreement including all parties, a built-in aspect of the UN process, is worth emphasizing. As with the recent sixth IPCC report that provided the technical foundation for the discussions, it has always been considered paramount that the international community speak with one voice. This is thought to make the outcome as authoritative and persuasive as possible, essential features given that the treaty is not enforceable by any specific penalty on those failing to comply. One sees the stark difference between this UN paradigm and the operations, say, of the US Congress, where 50% + 1 votes were enough to pass the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act – the Biden administration’s signature climate law that was crucial to establishing the credibility of the US delegation.
A word on process before we look at some of the results. The final 21 page agreement is called the “Outcome of the First Global Stocktake,” a review of collective global progress on climate required by Article 14 of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The purpose of Article 14 is to ensure a timely assessment of how well the purpose and goals of that treaty are being met. For the past eight years, then, it has been anticipated that COP28 would be particularly significant as the meeting when the international community would “take stock” and adjust its efforts in light of progress toward limiting global warming to 1.5°C or at least 2°C compared to preindustrial temperatures. Numerous analyses concur that present policies will instead likely result in an average global temperature increase of 2.5 – 3°C, heightening the urgency for accelerating the green energy transition and raising the stakes and expectations for the meeting’s outcome.
Lost on no one were the implications of holding COP28 in the United Arab Emirates, the third highest oil producer in OPEC after Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and an authoritarian regime where the voices of protestors at the meeting were restricted. Also glaring was that the talks were presided over by Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. US climate envoy John Kerry took a big gamble by outspokenly supporting Al-Jaber, even giving a highly muted response to the Sultan’s shocking statement (reported by the Guardian on December 3) that there is “no science” showing that a fossil fuel phase-out is needed to reach the 1.5°C climate target. “Maybe it came out the wrong way,” Kerry told the news service Politico, while adding that Al-Jaber’s comment might need some “clarification.”
Indeed, the gaffe and ensuing controversy encapsulated much that was unique to this particular COP. “Phase-out” was especially prominent in the discussions and reporting, where it was understood that, if included in the final treaty, the word would signal agreement that the era of fossil fuels is definitively heading to a close. Fossil fuel producers preferred the term “phase-down,” with its implication that oil and gas might instead continue to play a prominent role for quite some time. But the basis for Secretary Kerry’s muted response rests instead in the word “unabated,” yet another term bandied about ad infinitum at the meeting. Al-Jaber strongly argues, and Kerry does not clearly disagree, that it is okay if fossil fuels continue to power the energy system as long as they are not “unabated.” Of course, abatement refers to carbon capture and storage technology, by which CO2 emissions from fossil fuel-powered manufacturing and power plants are captured and safely sequestered indefinitely, as mineralized forms, in geologic reservoirs.
If we are feeling extraordinarily generous, we might excuse Al-Jaber’s “no science” gaffe by understanding him to mean that fossil fuel burning could be consistent with the science underlying the 1.5°C climate target, as long as the emissions are captured. Presumably, this was Secretary Kerry’s position, which he was probably forced into given the difficult political circumstance that the gaffe created. But this view ignores things like infrastructure methane leaks and the impossibility of capturing emissions from fossil fuel-powered transportation, which together are probably already enough to blow the limited carbon budget left to stay below 1.5°C. We would then have to infer that Al-Jaber, no doubt a knowledgeable guy, would be okay with combining CCS with a sharp fossil fuel phase-down to curtail enough of these unavoidable emissions to stay within the temperature limit.
If this kind of language parsing drives you batty (as it sometimes does me), then a career in climate diplomacy might not be in the cards. But it is unavoidable in climate treaties, which have to capture the big picture of actions needed while also satisfying the often disparate interests of all the parties at the table. Which in this case is basically the entire world.
The most publicized and important part of the new agreement comes on page 5, paragraph 28, where the Parties (the 199 countries) are called on to contribute to eight global efforts, each Party in accordance with its own nationally determined contribution. Accelerated “phase-down” of “unabated” coal power is one such effort, especially relevant in Asia given the unfortunate recent buildout of new coal plants there. The biggest effort is the call to accelerate a transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, done with attention to social equity, and “acheiv[ing] net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.” Lest there be any doubt about the meanings of “unabated” and “net zero,” the very next clause calls for accelerating carbon capture, utilization and storage technology, particularly in hard-to-abate sectors. This is a call for a very broad expansion, including CCS for capturing emissions from power plants (both coal and natural gas) and from industry smokestacks (“hard-to-abate”), as well as direct air capture and/or other atmospheric or ocean carbon drawdown approaches (necessary to reach “net zero”).
The call to transition away from fossil fuels is arguably a major landmark in the history of environmental diplomacy. Some news outlets reported that this is the first time that fossil fuels have been mentioned in a COP agreement, but that is not true: the 2021 COP26 agreement already called for phasing down unabated coal power. But “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems” is much more expansive, and coupling this statement with the 2050 net zero goal, and with the phrase “accelerating action in this critical decade” clearly implies that the transition has to be fast. Former Vice President Gore called the final agreement an “important milestone,” and the delegates’ comments on the morning of the agreement showed that many were quite pleased with their accomplishment. Reporters on the scene spoke of high drama and even elation among the exhausted delegates in the room. Emotions were heightened by the fact that a quite different draft agreement circulated just two days before was widely criticized as a capitulation to fossil fuel interests, leading Mr. Gore to proclaim that the meeting was on the verge of “complete failure.” In the final days, with the meeting in overtime, victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat.
Which is far from saying that everyone was happy or that nothing problematic remains. In particular, the Association of Small Island States, representing countries highly susceptible to sea level rise, made clear that the agreement was not ambitious enough to satisfy them. Many other organizations and advocacy groups also pointed out the many loopholes and problematic language that remain. “Transitioning away from fossil fuels” may be a landmark, but it is perceived to be weaker than calling for a fossil fuel “phase-out.” Worse, the agreement calls for accelerating “low-emission” technologies, including “low-carbon” hydrogen, and recognizes that “transitional fuels” can play an important role in maintaining energy security – all language that many interpret as a license to continue the aggressive use of natural gas, including the very large recent expansion of the liquified natural gas industry by the US. And while the agreement calls for tripling global renewable energy capacity and doubling energy efficiency improvements by 2030, critics were quick to point out that the statements are not quantitatively grounded in specific baselines, almost certainly making them less effective.
Climate finance is addressed at every COP, but there is wide recognition that global efforts continue to fall far short. The final agreement notes that trillions of dollars are needed for clean energy investments through 2030, but offers very little in the way of tangible mechanisms to mobilize the funds. A key aspect of climate finance is assistance provided by developed to developing nations, in recognition of the fact that rich countries are mainly responsible for causing the problem while low-income countries have contributed little to damages but suffer the majority of losses. At COP15 in 2009, developed countries committed to mobilizing $100 billion per year for climate action in the developing world, but that goal has yet to be met – and the current agreement now estimates that adaptation in developing countries will require $215-387 billion annually through 2030.
One bright spot is that a long-envisioned “loss and damage” climate fund to compensate vulnerable communities for serious impacts was finally implemented at this meeting. Although the amounts offered by rich countries to the new World Bank-administered fund are still very small, the action is significant because it acknowledges that these monies, which amount to reparations, are demanded on ethical grounds. This money is compensation for already-incurred losses, and is distinct from the funds needed for adaptation.
Let’s close on an optimistic note. In the first week of November, John Kerry met with his Chinese counterpart in California, reflecting at least a partial thaw in relations between the US and China after a long period of mutual antagonism. The two countries are now establishing a working group to mutually engage on climate issues, are restarting a US-China Energy Efficiency Forum, and have agreed to advance at least five large-scale cooperative CCUS projects each by 2030. Perhaps most significantly, the US and China, in collaboration with the UAE, also decided to invite countries to a Methane and Non-CO2 greenhouse gases summit at COP28. The final agreement then included a call for all Parties to accelerate and substantially reduce non-CO2 emissions globally, including in particular methane emissions by 2030.
China is now by far the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and the US is the biggest contributor to legacy emissions, so this sort of joint leadership by the two countries is essential. Of course, its ongoing effectiveness depends on the countries taking their own actions, which is why the Inflation Reduction Act was so important. And China, for its part, is arguably outdoing the US. After years of explosive emissions growth, and despite the construction of many new coal-fired power plants, China’s greenhouse gas emissions are projected to decrease beginning next year – fully six years ahead of earlier projections. The reason is an enormous expansion in renewable energy. In 2023 alone, China is adding twice as much solar electricity generation capacity as is presently available in the entire US. There has also been very substantial growth in wind power, battery production and EVs. Another driver is the demographic transition: China’s population has peaked and is projected to fall continuously through the end of the century. This is all a promising harbinger of what will be coming worldwide – and an auspicious ending for 2023.
https://www.carbonbrief.org/cop28-key-outcomes-agreed-at-the-un-climate-talks-in-dubai/. This is Carbon Brief’s summary of Key Outcomes.
https://unfccc.int/documents/631600. Technical dialog on the first global stocktake (GST).
https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/cma2023_L17_adv.pdf. The final agreement (global stocktake report) signed on December 13.
https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/GST_2.pdf. The widely vilified draft global stocktake report released on December 11, which had a lifetime of two days.