Chuuk Lagoon in the Federated States of Micronesia, an island nation threatened by rising sea levels. Marek Okon, Unsplash

COP28: “We’ve let down the small island states”

A debrief with Sandrine Dixson-Declève

Last week, countries wrapped up the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai by agreeing to “transition away” from fossil fuels and pledging over USD 700 million in initial financing for the new Loss and Damage Fund.

But many experts and climate advocates have come away dismayed at the lack of a commitment to phase out fossil fuels, and with the many loopholes in the final agreement.

So, as 2023 draws to a close, where do we stand with the climate now? We chatted with Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-president of the Club of Rome and a keynote speaker at GLF Nairobi 2023, to go over what we learned from the summit – and what we need to do now to prevent total climate collapse.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

COP28 Islane of Hope
COP28 featured an “island of hope,” but is there hope for islands after the agreement? Eden Flaherty/GLF

We have a deal. Countries have agreed to “transition away” from fossil fuels, rather than a complete “phaseout.” How do you feel about this new wording, and what does it mean for us now?

Clearly, “transitioning away” is not the ideal outcome. We recognize and I recognize that it’s a consensus deal and that actually, Sultan Al Jaber was very close to not getting a deal at all – in particular with Saudi Arabia, China and a few others blocking any deal.

On one hand, I’m disappointed and feeling that we’ve let down the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), who made it very clear that this comes nowhere near what they were expecting – not only in terms of this particular language, but also the Loss and Damage Fund.

In their final statements, some countries, including AOSIS, as well as Bolivia and others, really wanted to have a reference to common but differentiated responsibilities so that the Global North would assume its responsibility – not only for emissions but also for finance.

So, it’s not a perfect deal. But on the other hand, seeing how difficult it was to get any deal at all, we are relieved. I do believe that this is a start. This has brought the fossil fuel phaseout conversation to the forefront, and now we really need to unpack what “abated” and “unabated” mean, and the role of carbon capture and storage.

It’s left a lot to be desired, but considering what we were up against, it’s probably decent, although not perfect.

Sandrine Dixson-Declève
Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-president of the Club of Rome. Courtesy of the Club of Rome

You recently co-wrote an op-ed on why COP28 must be the last ‘mega climate jamboree.’ How can we move these talks more towards implementation?

I think this is a perfect example of how COPs are broken. Out of more than 90,000 people participating, we had more than 2,500 lobbyists from the oil and gas sector and only 0.5 percent of participants were scientists. During the first week, the Sultan questioned the science behind fossil fuel phaseout.

In an open letter earlier this year, we called for smaller meetings during the year – some at the regional level, with a series of different regional COPs – but also really focusing on the most important parts of the deal and reaching our ambitions.

I think that Brazil is already going in that direction: they cannot actually host 90,000 people at COP30 in 2025. They will probably separate the negotiators from the jamboree – from the circus and the trade show – and find other ways of engaging with non-state actors, which I think is incredibly important.

Aside from the fossil fuel agreement, what other decisions at COP28 are you particularly excited or concerned about?

The food day was really important and brought forward several pledges that we were part of, indicating how important it is to shift towards a regenerative food system. This was one of the key outcomes, as well as continued pledges on stopping deforestation and also financing that would also go to Indigenous Peoples.

However, I think there were quite a few issues with regards to finance. The Loss and Damage Fund is wholly inadequate: USD 700 million is a drop in the bucket when you look at the USD 2.8 billion in windfall profits coming to the oil and gas industry. Even though it was hailed as a success to get it on the first day, many of us are disappointed at the amount.

And in the discussion on fossil fuels, the focus on abated versus unabated emissions was also a disappointment. We know that carbon capture and storage is very expensive, the technology is not ready, and we’ve already locked ourselves into a technology that isn’t necessarily going to help us.

There is a series of loopholes in the agreement. The text on nature is actually weaker than the last iteration, and some crucial elements are remaining. For example, there’s a reference to REDD+ and forestry credits, although there are a lot of complaints around offsets.

Capturing natural carbon emissions is also an issue, because scientists have shown that the feedback loop between biodiversity loss and forestry loss is going to make it very difficult to capture as much as we thought from nature.

On the other hand, the text is stronger in recognizing the pathway to 1.5 degrees. There has been a recognition that new, updated science had been lacking in previous COP discussions. That’s a good thing.

In terms of really big successes, they’re not huge, and yet, somehow we’re all feeling like the Sultan really did try his best against a huge amount of pushback from other Middle Eastern countries and those that have the greatest interest in keeping the status quo.

The COP28 venue in Dubai. Eden Flaherty/GLF

OPEC really lobbied hard against any mention of fossil fuel phaseout in the agreement.

Exactly, and that brings us to COP29 next year in Azerbaijan. It’s ironic that we’re continuing to deal with petrostates. Will we actually get the deal that we need in Azerbaijan? It’s interesting that Brazil has proposed the idea of a climate ‘troika’ with the U.A.E. and Azerbaijan where they will work together to make sure that there is an agreement. But I do think everyone is looking to COP30 in Brazil as the next big place where we can land some more ambition.

We can only keep trying.

The great sadness is that we are letting down the small island states and those most vulnerable to climate change. That’s clear, and that is incredibly problematic. People keep on talking about 2050, but some of these small island states could already be underwater in 2040 or even earlier. So, we have let down parts of the world.

It’s a sobering moment. There’s a real vacuum in leadership, and we can only ask ourselves whether our institutional systems are fit for purpose and whether we really are delivering on the great challenges that we have before us.




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