Good & Bad News: Our take on UN COP28 — from breakthroughs and ethics to equity and vague promises

Licypriya Kangujam, a 12-year-old Indigenous climate activist from India, ran up and took the stage in protest showing her sign, "End Fossil Fuel. Save our Planet and Our Future," during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 11, 2023. Credit: Thomas Mukoya, Reuters 

By Alexandra Greer, Alliance Intern from Fordham University ’25

The UN Climate Conference COP28 came to a hasty conclusion before even all the island nations were able to enter the Assembly Hall. COP28 Chair Sultan al-Jaber quickly hit his gavel and concluded, we must begin “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.” This is the first time at a COP that all nations have agreed to the long-sought demand by climate scientists and activists. It’s remarkable that these comments came from the head of UAE’s oil company, though he left vast wiggle room.

It is historic that the final agreement calls for the energy sector to “move away from coal, oil and gas,” the first such specific calling out of these sectors. It hopefully will mark the beginning of the end of fossil fuels. However, it will be a long road as the Summit ended with a non-binding document filled with a slew of caveats and loopholes. COP28 began with another long-sought breakthrough: the agreement to fund the climate loss and damage fund, which will help compensate vulnerable nations for the impact of climate change.

Conflicts of interest hamper COP28

Climate activists expressed concern about what specific actions will be taken, especially given the conflicts of interest by the COP28 chair Sultan al-Jaber, who heads the UAE state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, a global oil producer. Prior to the Summit, documents were leaked disclosing plans by his country to secretly lobby for oil deals during the conference (see Alliance reporting on this). This is a direct violation of UN protocol and begs serious questions about the legitimacy of his leadership.

Many were highly critical of the intentions of the host country as they seem to be playing on two rival teams. In a shocking statement underscoring his bias, al-Jaber proclaimed that there is “no science” behind a phase-out of fossil fuels and that it would send the world “back into caves.” Joseph Moeono-Kolio, lead adviser to the Campaign for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, tersely challenged him, “At this point we might as well meet inside an actual oil refinery,” according to the NYT.

Delegates struggled with the fact that the COP28 head said he doesn’t support a core solution to climate change. The pushback against al-Jaber’s comments was so strong that he became more careful with his wording so as to not further indict himself. All of these controversies make me and many others question why would the UN allow COP28 to be held in a major oil-producing nation and led by the head of UAE’s state-owned oil company? No wonder 2,400 fossil fuel lobbyists were allowed to flood the conference.

Funding for an equitable transition despite no immediate call to end fossil fuels

While activists were also disappointed there was no call for an immediate phase-out of fossil fuels, COP28 did focus on making the transition as equitable as possible. The Global North must take responsibility for their own emissions while providing aid for the Global South. Developing countries desperately need help in procuring green technologies from the Global North to achieve a just renewable energy transition.

To support these developing countries in need of aid, nations have pledged a total of $700 million thus far to the widely-discussed loss and damage fund. The EU’s pledge of $240 million was the largest, making them the biggest contributor to climate finance in the world.

But even more significant and less reported is the fact that $12.8 billion was pledged to the Green Climate Fund. The Fund was established within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as an operating entity to assist developing countries in adaptation and mitigation practices to counter climate change.

Together, these are at least a start to the trillions eventually needed to support the Global South in their energy transition and to address the devastating climate impacts affecting them.

What could have and should have been included in the COP28 agreement

2023 has been the hottest year in recorded history, and temperatures are only rising. And with fossil fuel companies planning to increase production to fulfill many countries’ reliance on fossil fuels, the phaseout is going to be a long, complicated process. There will need to be drastic amendments in the global financial system to scale up renewable energy, energy efficiency technologies and changes in other sectors including agriculture, conservation, and waste.

There was a lot of great work and language developed at COP28 that unfortunately was not incorporated into the final agreement. Representatives have been encouraged to form economy-wide emission reduction targets to keep global warming within a limit increase of 1.5°C by 2025. Plans should cover all greenhouse gasses and sectors with a focus on climate finance, as it is the backbone of climate change efforts. There are even talks of tripling the capacity to produce renewable energy and doubling energy efficiency improvements by 2030, leaving environmentalists and climate change activists hopeful of the next few years.

In negotiations, the Council stressed a number of ways to stay within the limit increase of 1.5°C. First, there needs to be a scale up in mobilizing finance for climate action. More funding will allow for a global phase out of fossil fuels and its subsidies to diminish our reliance on non-renewable energy sources. They also called for “all parties to make greater efforts to integrate climate change adaptation and resilience into existing policies and programs” in order to make sustainability a way of life, not a short term solution.

While these demands were not included in the final document, most world leaders are now recognizing (even if not implementing) the fundamental changes needed in our system if we are going to save the planet. The EU is determined to continue work with all parties outside of COP28. They hope to discuss implementation of climate action specifically in agriculture and food security.

The Conclusion: There is still hope but we need to act

Even though most countries are off track on their progress for their Paris Agreement goals, this year’s agreement is an essential tool. After this consensus, representatives can effectively fight for policy change and amendments to current economic models that will ultimately lead to a more sustainable and equitable way of life for everyone. There is no easy solution for our current climate crisis, but the world’s governments are finally taking steps in the right direction.

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