Demonstrators in the Blue Zone at COP28 in Dubai. Eden Flaherty/GLF

What we learned at COP28

At the largest-ever COP, a mediocre deal to “transition away” from fossil fuels

To learn more, revisit our full coverage from COP28 here.

After tense, overtime negotiations at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, countries finally agreed to “transition away” from fossil fuels – the first time that such an agreement has been reached since the first climate COP meeting in 1995.

While hailed as a landmark deal, the final text of the ‘UAE Consensus’ steers clear of addressing calls to “phase out” or even “phase down” fossil fuels, nor does it require countries to take action to move away from them.

The non-binding agreement and its watered-down language have been met with disappointment from many climate advocates, as well as the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), who stand to lose their territories if sea levels continue to rise and have openly criticized the text’s “litany of loopholes.”

Perhaps most emblematically, the AOSIS delegates were not even in the room when the deal was announced.

“Clearly, ‘transitioning away’ was not the ideal outcome,” says Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-president of the Club of Rome.

“On one hand, I’m disappointed and feel that we’ve let down the small island states who made it very clear that this deal comes nowhere near what they were expecting. But having been there until the bitter end and seeing how difficult it was to get any deal at all, I am relieved. I do believe it’s a start.”

Dixson-Declève’s relief stems from the fierce opposition the deal faced from oil-producing nations, including Russia and Saudi Arabia.

During negotiations, the head of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) urged all member states to reject any final agreement that targeted fossil fuels rather than greenhouse gas emissions.

This is widely understood as an attempt by petrostates to shift the focus away from their increasing fossil fuel production and towards mitigation measures such as carbon credits, renewable energy and carbon capture and storage technologies, which are unproven at scale.

In this context, the ongoing presence of the term ‘fossil fuels’ in the agreement is a win.

Still, fossil fuel interests are likely to steer the agenda again at next year’s COP29, which is slated to take place in another petrostate: Azerbaijan.

COP28: A recap
• Landmark agreement to ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels
• Fossil fuel phaseout still hotly debated, especially by petrostates
• Loss and Damage Fund approved with over USD 700 million in initial pledges
• First ever gender and climate day at a COP
• Next year’s COP29 to take place in Azerbaijan, followed by Brazil in 2025
Let's keep 1.5C within reach
Will COP28 live up to this slogan? Eden Flaherty/GLF

Taking stock: Where do we stand now?

Central at COP28 was the conclusion of the first-ever ‘Global Stocktake’ – a five-year process for countries to check their progress as part of the Paris Agreement.

The stocktake is part of the accord’s “ratchet mechanism,” which requires signatory countries to progressively enhance their nationally determined contributions. In other words, countries must reduce their emissions by a greater amount every five years.

Hundreds of pages of national submissions were collected during the first week of COP28. These were combined into several iterations of draft texts that eventually resulted in the final agreement.

Other notable emissions and energy pledges include:

While these new pledges show promise, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has said they are nowhere near enough to keep global heating under 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The next Global Stocktake is scheduled for 2028.

Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber
Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, COP28 president and head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Arctic Circle, Flickr

The long arm of Big Oil

COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber – also CEO of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) – stoked controversy by claiming that there was “no science” indicating that fossil fuels would need to be phased out to achieve the 1.5-degree goal.

Although he later defended his statement, saying it had been “taken out of context,” critics say his appointment represented a major conflict of interest.

This COP in Dubai was also attended by almost 2,500 representatives from the oil and gas industries – outnumbering almost every country delegation, and nearly seven times the number of official Indigenous representatives.

With such disparities in representation, it’s worth questioning whose voices and interests are leading climate negotiations on the global stage.

During the conference, over 100 scientists signed an open letter reaffirming the need to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 by rapidly phasing down fossil fuels.

We also received other grim climate news during COP28:

  • A new report revealed that the Earth is about to cross five climate tipping points due to greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Fossil fuel emissions hit a record high in 2023.
  • 2023 will be the hottest year on record as November became the sixth consecutive record-breaking month for average global temperatures.

But the final agreement still offers hope for keeping 1.5 degrees within reach.

“The text is actually stronger in recognizing the pathway to 1.5 degrees,” says Dixson-Declève. “There has been a recognition that new, updated science had been lacking in [previous] COP discussions.”

COP28 demonstrators
A demonstration in the Blue Zone at COP28. Eden Flaherty/GLF

The largest COP ever

COP28 was the largest COP to date, with over 100,000 attendees, but this record number didn’t necessarily lead to greater inclusivity.

Most notably, demonstrations were limited to a few pre-approved civil society groups who were allowed into the UN-controlled ‘Blue Zone.’

Outside the Blue Zone, there were stricter regulations on protest and freedom of speech, leading to fewer lively demonstrations than have accompanied previous COPs. Amnesty International criticized these regulations as “inconducive to a participatory and meaningful outcome for all stakeholders.”

Nevertheless, here are a few notable achievements for inclusive discussions this year:

  • COP28 hosted the first-ever gender and climate day at a COP.
  • Two demonstrations on day 10 paid tribute to climate defenders who have been murdered for their work, with 177 killings in 2022 alone.
  • More than 250 community and environmental groups signed an open letter calling on the U.S. government to stop supporting liquified natural gas (LNG)

GLF at COP28: Reporting from the ground

At COP28, fossil fuel lobbyists abound
How will climate finance reach people in need?
Can we transform transport?
How to avoid climate burnout
Can technology teach climate action?
What does nature mean to you?
We asked experts about the future of agriculture
COP28 just transition protesters
So far, pledges to the Loss and Damage Fund are minuscule compared to the amount needed for a just transition. Eden Flaherty/GLF

Finance and the Loss and Damage Fund

Countries approved the Loss and Damage Fund on the first day of COP28, with pledges exceeding USD 700 million.

While the rapid agreement was encouraging, much more funding is still needed to help vulnerable countries adapt to the climate crisis. The pledges so far are minuscule compared to the USD 400 billion in losses that developing countries are experiencing each year.

The Loss and Damage Fund will controversially be hosted by the World Bank for its first four years. It also remains unclear how the funds will be distributed to the people who need it.

In addition to the Loss and Damage Fund:

  • A new report finds that developing countries will need USD 2.4 trillion in annual investment to cover a just transition, adaptation, loss and damage and the conservation and restoration of nature. This means current pledges still fall far short of meeting demand.
  • The U.A.E. banking sector has pledged USD 270 billion in sustainable finance by 2030. Several development banks have also agreed to increase their funding efforts.

Given the limited results from COP28, Dixson-Declève believes there are better ways to push for targeted implementation outside of these annual conferences.

“It is a sobering moment, she says. “We can only ask ourselves whether our institutional systems are fit for purpose and whether we really are delivering on the great challenges before us.”




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