What was achieved at COP28?

As is customary, COP28, the latest UN climate conference overran in Dubai, but in the end a deal was agreed, which agreed “to transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems”. That was a form of words that fossil fuel producers were prepared to live with, and that other blocs saw as the foundation for moves towards a decarbonised global economy.

While it is still not entirely clear how “energy systems” will be defined, many countries will see it as providing a boost to electric vehicles and the associated infrastructure, with EVs potentially playing a vital role not just in providing demand for renewable generation at off-peak times but also in feeding power into the network at peak times through vehicle-to-grid arrangements.

The UN hailed the agreement as the “beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era and “laying the ground for a swift, just and equitable transition, underpinned by deep emissions cuts and scaled-up finance”.

“Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end,” said UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell. “Now all governments and businesses need to turn these pledges into real-economy outcomes, without delay.”

Delegates during the Closing Plenary at the UN Climate Change Conference COP28 at Expo City Dubai on December 13, 2023. Photo by COP28 / Christophe Viseux.

That is the key to the agreement, said Adair Turner, chair of the Energy Transitions Commission. “The time has come to move from words to numbers.” Countries have to submit revised plans for tackling climate change, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by 2025, and these need to be much more specific than previous plans, he argued.

“NDCs vary enormously at the moment. I would urge future COPs to say that all NDCs should provide evidence of how national strategies will help countries meet their targets. We need much more detail.”

What had been a largely well-choreographed and smoothly run event – although also the largest COP ever with 85,000 people attending – descended into intense negotiations in its final hours as delegates negotiated the final agreement, which is now the UAE Consensus. The first draft of the deal was widely condemned as being too weak, with the delegate from the Marshall Islands proclaiming: “We didn’t come here to sign our death warrant”.

The agreement is framed by the first Global Stocktake, an assessment of how the world is doing in tackling climate change. Its conclusion was that we are not doing well at all, and we need to accelerate our efforts, cutting emissions globally by 43% by the end of the decade. The global stocktake can now be used by countries as the basis to develop stronger climate action plans due by 2025, said the UN.

Dr Sultan Al-Jaber (centre) and other participants onstage during the Closing Plenary. Photo by COP28 / Anthony Fleyhan.

Despite the conflicts, the Consensus is a historic document – somewhat unbelievably, it is the first global climate agreement to say that the world must transition away from all fossil fuels – a reference to phasing down coal was included in the COP26 text in Glasgow.  It is also notable for calling on nations to accelerate action this decade to keep 2050 net zero targets on track.

COP28 launched a fund to tackle Loss and Damage from climate change in developing countries, and it includes commitments to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030 and to double the rate of energy efficiency improvements. Key to meeting this last target will be a rapid increase in the adoption of electric vehicles around the world, while more clean energy will be needed to help power the vehicles.

A number of oil and gas producing countries pledged to decarbonise their direct emissions from their own operations, including reducing methane emissions, although there was criticism that they said nothing about the emissions caused by the use of their products, which is where the vast majority of their impact lies.

H.E. Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, COP28 President, and John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, USA celebrate the Consensus. Photo by COP28 / Christopher Pike.

The agreement also calls on nations to “accelerate efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power”, that is coal-fired power stations without carbon capture and storage, and there was the customary call for countries to get rid of “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”.

The conference also saw several announcements to boost the resilience of food and public health systems, and to reduce emissions related to agriculture, food and land-use changes, which are a growing problem.

Next year’s event, COP29, will be held in Azerbaijan, while COP30 will take place in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

The UN says that “the next two years will be critical. At COP29, governments must establish a new climate finance goal, reflecting the scale and urgency of the climate challenge. And at COP30, they must come prepared with new nationally determined contributions that are economy-wide, cover all greenhouse gases and are fully aligned with the 1.5°C temperature limit.”

The UAE Consensus is a skilfully worded document that fossil fuel producers – on the supply side – see as allowing them to continue producing coal, oil and gas. But nations looking for more ambitious action can take from it encouragement that the agreement will have a significant impact on fossil fuel demand. On its own, the deal is not enough. 

But as Stephen Hammer, CEO of the New York Climate Exchange, said: “For the average citizen, the impact of the decisions made at COP28 will not be felt today, tomorrow, next month, or even next year. But make no mistake, the global commitment made today will reverberate across the world, signalling to investors that renewable energy is the future and fossil fuels are an increasingly bad investment.”

And maybe it really is the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era. For the UAE, COP28 was the springboard for the launch of a host of initiatives, including the $30bn catalytic climate vehicle, ALTÉRRA, to fund climate action in the Global South.

The UAE also pledged $100m to the Climate Impact Response Fund, which was launched during COP28, and created the Green Capabilities Global Alliance for Government, a platform to support government efforts in upskilling employees to drive environmental sustainability and climate change resilience. 

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15 Dec, 2023