COP28: Another Climate Conference Fails to Stand Up for Justice & Equity
by Madhurima Bakshi

The 28th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) hosted by the United Arab Emirates was held during November 30 to December 12, 2023 in Dubai with high anticipation for concrete actions to address the global climate crisis. This annual convention brings together nations that are signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of the UAE's state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, served as the COP28 President raising concerns among citizens and activists about potential conflicts of interest. The Presidency emphasized the need for limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5C above the preindustrial average, a goal they described as the “North Star.” After two weeks of deliberations, it concluded with 11 pledges and declarations covering issues like mitigation efforts, adaptation strategies, financing mechanisms, and the roles of developed and developing nations in addressing climate change.

Transition away from fossil fuel

Initially, the conference draft text included a call for a 'phase out' of fossil fuels. However, due to lack of consensus, in the final text, the language shifted to advocate for a 'transition away' from fossil fuels. Delegates from nearly 200 countries agreed on "The UAE consensus," which urges the global community to move "away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly, and equitable manner." Activists with concerns view it as a compromise under pressure from oil and gas-producing nations. According to the International Energy Agency, the commitments made at COP28 are projected to result in a reduction of energy induced greenhouse gas emissions by only 30% of the required amount by 2030.

The agreement also acknowledges the need to accelerate efforts towards phase down “unabated” coal burning and transition towards energy systems consistent with net zero emissions by 2050, while accelerating action in “the critical decade” of the 2020s. Those countries advocating for the ongoing use of fossil fuels diligently sought to incorporate the term “unabated” whenever discussions about phasing down or phasing out fossil fuels were raised during negotiations.

Moreover, the declaration also made reference to unproven and potentially risky technologies such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and carbon removal while calling for an accelerated approach to climate mitigation. The declaration singles out coal by urging the hastening of efforts to phase down unabated coal power. However, it omits restriction on permitting new, unabated coal power generation mentioned in the earlier draft. Oil and gas are not categorically addressed anywhere.

“Abatement” typically is used in the context of using CCS technology to stop CO2 emissions from burning of coal, oil and gas reaching the atmosphere by capturing emissions and storing them underground, which itself raises many pertinent questions among climate experts.

While companies and nations involved in oil and gas production view carbon capture as a crucial element in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, climate activists and experts caution that its effectiveness is limited and carbon capture technologies should not be considered a substitute for a substantial reduction in the use of fossil fuels and should not be overly relied upon.

When it comes to fossil fuels, “unabated” means those “without interventions that substantially reduce” greenhouse gas emissions. Conversely, “abated” refers to the attempts to decrease the release of polluting substances to an acceptable level. Nevertheless, the text lacks a universally accepted definition or distinction between "abated" and "unabated" fossil fuels. This lack of clarity opens the door to a broad and potentially misused interpretation of what qualifies as "abated" use of fossil fuels. Such ambiguity may lead to an extended reliance on fossil fuels, labeled as "abated" usage. This uncertainty poses a significant risk to the transition, as it permits ongoing investments in fossil fuel infrastructure, such as the construction of new coal plants, as long as a portion of the carbon they emit is captured (abated).

In terms of reduction in methane, a significant greenhouse gas,  the agreement discuss about reducing global non-carbon-dioxide emissions, with a focus on methane by 2030. Mandatory methane reduction would pose severe challanges to agriculture and livestock based developing countries like India. While  a voluntary commitment was made by approximately 100 countries in 2021 in Glasgow to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030, the recent agreement refrains from specifying methane reduction targets for 2030.

The issues of carbon credit and trading have been a major concern, though it was not specifically mentioned in the COP28 agreement. Numerous scientific studies have consistently demonstrated that claims of emission reductions within carbon trading schemes are frequently exaggerated or entirely unsubstantiated. Considering  Modi government’s declaration in last October, that Indian carbon credits would be allowed to be sold in both domestic and overseas markets and Narendra Modi’s pitch for “holistic” Green Credit, we must be vigilant towards any such greenwashing tactics aiming profit and private fund generation in the name of climate action and seek strict transparency and accountability from such organizations. 

Global Stocktake

The first Global Stocktake (GST) was also conducted during the Summit to track the progress towards meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. The GST text now titled as ‘UAE Consensus’ recognized the need for deep, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to keep parity with 1.5 degrees Celsius limit. Along with transitioning away from fossil fuels in their energy systems, GST urges countries to triple their global renewable energy capacity. It's important to highlight that the shift away from fossil fuels is confined to energy systems exclusively, and they can still be utilized in the plastics, transportation, and agriculture sectors.

At COP28, over 130 countries signed the Global Renewables and Energy Efficiency Pledge, committing to triple global renewable energy generation by 2030 and doubling the annual rate of energy efficiency improvements. This discussion for renewable energy initially emerged in September during the G20 Summit in Delhi. Nevertheless, India opted out of the commitment during COP28, citing its objection to the proposal that called for discontinuing investments in coal—a significant energy source for the country.

More than 20 countries led by the US also pledged to triple their nuclear energy capacity by 2050. Pushing for nuclear energy is not just technologically dubious; it also possesses health and environmental consequences. Even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is mandated with the task of increasing nuclear energy production in the world, admits, “Nuclear power is not a near-term solution to the challenge of climate change…The need to immediately and dramatically reduce carbon emissions calls for approaches that can be implemented more quickly than building nuclear reactors”.

The GST leaves an open role of "transitional fuels" in the pursuit of energy security, a reference to natural gas which the oil and gas-producing nations can exploit to increase producing nations production and utilization.

The Conference failed to address some challenges and differences between developed and developing countries in terms of differentiated timeline for fossil fuel phase out, fossil-fuel subsidies and impact on economic growth. The text fails to make developed countries accountable for their historical emissions and uphold the principle of common and differentiated responsibilities. The document has downplayed the emphasis on the immediate financial support obligation of developed nations to aid developing countries in their transitioning away from fossil fuels and in undertaking mitigation and adaptation actions. It seems to dilute the responsibilities of developed countries to phase out their fossil fuel use in this critical decade of 2020. In essence, the document weakens the principle of equity by imposing an equal burden for mitigation on all countries.

Global Goal on Adaptation

The text on Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA) is also adapted which was set up under the Paris Agreement to provide direction on how countries could increase their capacity to deal with the effects of climate change. The absence of the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities and no mention of an equitable process is contradictory to this goal. African countries, leading the charge for developing countries, stressed the crucial role of “means of implementation” like finance and technology in climate adaptation which is also missing. Despite the scientific imperative for affluent nations to adopt more ambitious goals, they are opting for less ambitious commitments and trying to persuade developing countries to do the same. This approach risks shifting the responsibility onto poorer nations, enabling wealthy countries to retain less challenging targets.

A September report by Oil Change International identified the US, Australia, Canada, Norway, and the UK (who alone plan to develop 51% of the projected oil and gas fields by 2050) as the “richest planet wreckers responsible for oil and gas exploration.”

On one hand, the Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA) got new additions of more than 10 new members including the US and the UAE. On the other hand, despite advocating for a phase-out of fossil fuels at COP28, the US maintains its position as the world's leading producer and consumer of crude oil, accounting for 20% of the global total. The cumulative emissions from their oil and gas sector between 2023 to 2050 are estimated to be equivalent to the emissions produced by 454 new coal plants. This year, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made a commitment to "max out" the country's oil and gas reserves, concurrently announcing new drilling permits for the North Sea. While Australia committed to ending overseas fossil fuel funding, it has approved numerous domestic projects, including coal developments. Overall, the summit appears to be influenced by the considerable impact of oil and gas powers.

Loss and damage Fund

COP28 operationalized and capitalized “loss and damage” fund which was agreed upon by the Parties in COP27 to help vulnerable countries cope with the increasingly costly and damaging impacts of climate disasters. The fund reached only around $792 million dollars committed by a few nations, falling significantly short of the annual target requiring $100 billion to more than $400 billion a year as estimated to deal with loss and damage from natural disasters and rising seas. Although the UN Convention urged developed countries to spearhead funding for climate initiatives, they consistently refrained from specifying precise financial commitments. Noteworthy is the fact that the U.S., the largest historical emitter, pledged only $17.5 million, while both the UAE and Germany committed $100 million each. While the fund was established, deliberations on its structure, scope, and nature were deferred to be addressed in Dubai. Even adding this up with the pledged Least Developed Countries Fund and Special Climate Change Fund ($174 million) and the Adaptation Fund ($188 million), its nowhere close to the required quantity. There are serious concerns especially for the developing nations and the communities affected by climate-related disasters, regarding the role of the World Bank as the agency for managing the Loss & Damage fund. Clarity about questions on limited access to the fund, legal autonomy, flexibility, decision-making authority, and the need to be able to directly access funding,  preferably in the form of grants instead of loans are lacking.

It also encourages to forge partnerships between the public and private sectors to mobilise investments in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and infrastructure raising questions on market mechanisms, financial resource allocation, and private sector engagement in climate action minimizing peoples access and increasing corporate profit-making.

With many ambitious promises on emission, health, farming and biodiversity goals, COP28 does not stand up enough for climate justice and equity and fails to respond to the issues on Loss & Damage metrics, fund management and disbursal, risky technologies, access to technology and finance, continued use of fossil fuels in many sectors and natural gas being a transitional fuel, nuclear energy promotion and challenges of developing countries.

COP28_Climate Justice Now Protest in Dubai UAE