3 wins and 3 losses at the biggest climate conference ever

Karlotta Freier for Vox

Was COP28 the beginning of the end of fossil fuels? Kinda.

The largest international climate change conference in history closed Wednesday in the United Arab Emirates in the waning days of the hottest year on record with yet another limp agreement between countries to do more to address global warming as the problem gets worse. The accord did, for the first time, explicitly call for countries to use less fossil fuel, but it did not specify by when or how much.

“It is a balanced plan that tackles emissions, bridges the gap on adaptation, reimagines global finance, and delivers on loss and damage,” said Sultan al-Jaber, the president of COP28, this year’s summit, in his closing remarks. United Nations Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell called the accord the “beginning of the end” for fossil fuels, adding that the agreement was a “climate action lifeline, not a finish line.”

The two-week COP28 meeting followed what’s become a well-worn pattern in international climate negotiations: more promises than ever to address climate change, but still not enough to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement, which aims to limit global warming this century to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to the average temperatures before the Industrial Revolution. On the contrary, humanity is likely to increase emissions of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere in the coming years.

But this year’s summit did stand apart from the past 27 conventions for its scale. It was the largest climate conference ever, with nearly 80,000 people registered to attend, along with almost 4,000 journalists. All this attention has turned what was once a dry bureaucratic meeting into a festival with world leaders, billionaires, and celebrities stopping by.

A view from Expo City Dubai on the sixth day of the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on December 11, 2023.
Waleed Zein/Anadolu via Getty Images
COP28 was a massive festival-like conference, with nearly 80,000 people registered to attend.

With so much power, wealth, and eyes on the venue, COP28 also became a feeding frenzy for industry influencers, with at least 2,400 lobbyists for fossil fuels and 340 from the meat and dairy sector. The host country, whose government generates close to 80 percent of its revenue from oil, selected the head of its state oil company to run the show, is increasing oil production, and had planned to use the meeting to strike oil deals with other countries.

Al-Jaber said prior to the conference that “keeping 1.5 alive is a top priority,” but said during the meeting that it isn’t necessary to halt fossil fuel burning to meet this goal. Scientists and other diplomats criticized his comments, and al-Jaber later walked his comments back.

All this attention did not lead to an equivalent amount of action on climate change, however. The key priority at COP28 was to conduct a global stocktake, the first such inventory of what countries have accomplished and how much more they have to do in order to meet their climate targets. It found that action is falling short on all fronts — reducing emissions, investing in technology, adapting to unavoidable warming, and pooling money to help the countries that contributed the least to climate change but stand to suffer the most. Global emissions need to fall 43 percent by 2030 compared to 2019 levels in order to keep the 1.5 degree C target in play, but the world is still far short, tracking toward just under 3 degrees of warming according to Stiell, and island nations will face some of the most acute consequences.

“Unless we change course and adopt the policies that can in fact help mitigate that increase in temperatures, we are going to see far more lives lost and far more damage done,” said Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, during a speech at the conference.

Many delegates came to the table reeling from disasters this year and spoke passionately about the toll that rising temperatures have taken on lives and economies.

Delegates did secure commitments to curb powerful greenhouse gases, boost renewable energy, report their progress, and allocate more money to cope with the present and future consequences of climate change. But negotiators once again flinched when it came to the details of who pays, who gets paid, and how much.

Like previous meetings, COP28 ran well past its intended closing date as negotiators quibbled over words like “could” and “should,” resulting in an accord that left few satisfied.

Meeting these goals requires every country to act, and that’s difficult when every government is facing some mix of economic woes, political turmoil, conflict, and disaster. COP28 was ultimately a small step forward against a challenge that demands huge, fast strides. Here are the big wins and losses from this year’s summit.

The wins

Pledges to cut methane pollution from fossil fuels

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, about 30 times more so than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat. But it only stays in the atmosphere for about a decade, while carbon dioxide can linger for 300 to 1,000 years. So reducing methane emissions can curb warming in the near term.

The Global Methane Pledge, which promises to cut methane by 30 percent from 2020 levels by 2030, could avert 0.2 degrees Celsius of warming (0.36 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050. More than 150 countries have signed on, and at COP28 large methane emitters like the US and Brazil offered more details about how they will regulate this greenhouse gas. That includes new equipment to monitor methane leaks, equipment to capture wayward gases, ending practices like flaring, and inspections to ensure compliance. Countries also agreed to contribute $1 billion to fund methane reductions.

Private companies stepped up too. Dozens of oil and gas firms signed the Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter, which commits them to ending methane pollution by 2050.

A huge boost for renewable energy

COP28 secured a commitment to triple the world’s renewable energy capacity and double the rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030. Replacing coal, oil, and natural gas with sources like wind and solar power is a critical tactic for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. And stretching that energy to do more is crucial for meeting growing demand and making the business case to install more.

Though renewables are already the largest source of new energy in the world, the installation pace would have to accelerate further. It’s also going to be expensive, requiring close to $10 trillion in investments around the world by 2030. Installers are also running into bottlenecks such as supply chain disruptions, limited grid connections, and outdated regulations.

There’s more money to address the pain caused by the climate crisis

Putting actual cash behind climate change commitments has been one of the biggest hurdles in climate negotiations. This year’s meeting led to new funding commitments for the loss and damage fund, a mechanism meant to compensate for countries that are already experiencing destruction from events worsened by climate change like extreme heat and sea level rise. So far, donors have promised $700 million, but some aid groups say the need is closer to $400 billion per year. Countries also agreed to put more cash toward a goal of pooling $100 billion per year to finance climate change adaptation and mitigation in developing countries. The UAE also announced that it is creating a $30 billion climate investment fund.

People hold signs reading “End The Fossil Era” during a protest.
Hannes P. Albert/Picture Alliance via Getty Images
Protesters outside the COP28 venue call for an end to the use of fossil fuels.

The losses

Methane pollution from agriculture remains a cow-sized blind spot

It’s apparently easier to cut methane pollution from mining and drilling than it is from our diets. While there was lots of momentum to cut methane pollution from coal, oil, and gas production, there was little action to curb emissions from the largest methane source. Food production is humanity’s largest methane emitter, particularly raising cattle for meat and dairy.

The COP28 conference devoted a whole day to agriculture and secured commitments to mitigate emissions. But there was little appetite to confront methane from meat, particularly when it comes to reducing dietary demand from some of the most carnivorous countries such as the US.

On the whole, this is an anemic effort to curb fossil fuels

The COP28 agreement for the first time secured language to end the use of fossil fuels, though it’s weak. The agreement calls for “Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.” It also calls for “Phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that do not address energy poverty or just transitions, as soon as possible.”

The accord doesn’t establish a specific timeline, benchmarks, or investment goals, however. Fossil fuel-exporting countries and some developing countries pushed back against such language. Most countries have set goals of zeroing out their greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century, but many are counting on technology fixes like carbon capture to balance out their fossil fuel consumption.

The goal to limit warming to 1.5 C is pretty much dead. RIP.

On paper, negotiators insist that the 1.5-degree C target still has a pulse. “We have to keep 1.5 within reach,” said US climate envoy John Kerry. “That is the north star.” While it may be a useful benchmark for negotiators, it has passed on, for all practical purposes. The window has almost completely closed, and the pledges laid out at COP28 are not enough to squeeze through.

2023 may become the first year that annual temperatures rise more than 1.5 C, and it may only be a few more years before this extreme becomes the average. Again, global greenhouse gas emissions need to fall by 43 percent by 2030, but they’re still rising for now, and current estimates show that they’ll fall by just 2 percent by the end of the decade. While there are stronger promises to curb emissions, “we see a litany of loopholes,” said Anne Rasmussen, the lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, representing Samoa.

What happens next

The challenge is to put these words into action. Countries have to publish transparency reports on their climate progress every two years, with the first installment due at the end of 2024. They also need to come back to the table with a new round of more aggressive cuts to greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. But that raises the question of why countries are continuing to set more ambitious targets when they’re failing to meet the current ones.

Another looming issue is how exactly to spend the money that has been pooled. Does investing in carbon capture on a coal plant count as clean energy? Can a country like China make a claim for the loss and damage fund for crop losses from a rainstorm worsened by climate change?

Kerry is pictured in a crowd of people at COP28.
Fadel Dawod/Getty Images
US climate envoy John Kerry said the COP28 agreement was “cause for optimism.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge is maintaining faith in this whole convoluted system of negotiations. That it took until 2023 to simply note that curbing climate change demands burning less fossil fuels is a testament to the tediousness of climate negotiations. Stiell said meetings like COP28 are “creaking under the weight of mandated processes” and are structured in a way that no one can move forward until everyone can move forward.

“These climate conferences are a consensus-based process, meaning all parties must agree on every word, every comma, every full stop,” Stiell said. But, without this process, the world would be on course for far more warming, leading to even more destruction and frustration.

“In a multilateral venue, to have as strong a document as has been put together, I find, is cause for optimism, cause for gratitude,” said Kerry. The hope now is that the inertia from COP28 will push countries to ratchet down their emissions as Earth heads into an even hotter year. The best-case scenario may be off the table, but the worst possible outcomes can still be avoided.

By: Umair Irfan
Title: 3 wins and 3 losses at the biggest climate conference ever
Sourced From: www.vox.com/climate/24000157/cop28-climate-conference-uae-dubai-winners-losers-fossil-fuels-methane
Published Date: Wed, 13 Dec 2023 21:00:00 +0000

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I'm a writer for lifestyle publications, and when I'm not crafting stories, you'll find me cherishing moments with my family, including my lovely daughter. My heart also belongs to my pets—Sushi, Snowy, Belle, and Pepper. Besides writing, I enjoy watching movies and exploring new places through travel.