‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players’, wrote William Shakespeare. He might have been foreseeing the show recently concluded in Dubai, where over 100,000 people reportedly came to play their roles at COP 28, the 28th major climate policy summit.
The centrepiece of the gathering was discussion of the ‘stocktake’ prepared by the United Nations, an assessment of countries’ performance in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in accordance with their five-year plans (‘NDCs’). The final stocktake report served as the decision document. The world’s media declared, with almost one voice, that the conference had produced a ‘historic agreement to transition away from fossil fuels’. Professor Johan Rockström of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany declared that the decisions taken at COP 28 marked the true ‘beginning of the end of the fossil fuel-driven world economy’.
In fact, COP 28 was a spectacular failure, as measured against the goals that the UN had set for it from the beginning. It did not achieve a single one of the objectives that climate activists sought. Even more important, in spite of the voluntary commitments that various governments made during the conference (mostly aimed at domestic audiences), it is virtually certain to have little or no effect on the global trends in GHG emissions or on the climate.
The news from the stocktake was bad. The report prepared for the conference estimated that, based on current NDCs, the gap in emissions consistent with limiting warming is about 20.3 billion tonnes (Gt) to 23.9 Gt of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. That is about half the world’s current emissions. The report urged more ‘ambition’ in order to reduce GHG emissions by 43% by 2030 and a further 60% by 2035 compared with 2019 levels and to reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 globally.
A new element at the conference was an increased emphasis on phasing out fossil-fuel production and use. The United Nations Environmental Programme published a report in which officials urged the conference to add a new set of targets for emissions reduction that are fuel-specific. It was anticipated that there would be a prolonged debate about whether the conference would endorse ‘phasing down’ or ‘phasing out’ fossil fuel production and about whether that reference should include the word ‘unabated’.
In fact, only intense lobbying by the European Union and the United States, along with several smaller countries, caused the conference to include in the stocktake decision document a carefully-worded reference. The reference is one of an eight-point list of things that the conference ‘called on the Parties’ voluntarily to make national efforts to do. The specific reference to fossil fuels was to ‘transition 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’.
Five things are notable about this reference. First, the statement of goals is not binding; it is not a legal commitment and there are no penalties if the Parties fail to act on it. Second, the term ‘transition away’ does not require specific cuts in either fossil fuel use or production. Third, the reference includes only fossil fuels in energy systems, not, for example, fossil fuel use as feedstocks in petrochemicals production. Fourth, the reference to a ‘just, orderly and equitable manner’ provides loopholes that will allow the developing countries to argue that the goal does not apply to them and/or that ‘orderly’ excludes hasty action. Fifth, despite its reference to ‘accelerating action’, there are no specific deadlines. In other words, the statement can be safely ignored unless countries intend to limit fossil fuel production and use anyway.
COP 27 in Egypt focused on the alleged need for more climate aid. COP 28 was expected to continue this effort. Developing countries insisted that the wealthier ones: meet the decade-long commitment to provide at least USD 100 billion per year to the Global Climate Fund to finance mitigation efforts up to 2025; agree to increase funding of climate mitigation up to USD 1.3 trillion per year from 2025 to 2030; double funding for climate adaptation, ideally to at least USD 600 billion per year; and provide large commitments for the ‘Loss and Damages’ fund to assist developing countries when they were affected by severe weather events that they attribute to climate change.
COP 28 failed to deliver on these expectations. The decision document noted that the developed countries did not provide USD100 billion in climate aid per year in 2021. It welcomed pledges made by 31 contributors for the ‘replenishment’ of the Green Climate Fund, resulting in a nominal pledge of USD 12.8 billion to date. That is USD 12.8 billion over a number of years, far from the USD 1.3 trillion per year the developing countries demanded.
It gets worse. The decision document stated that the adaptation finance needs of the developing countries are estimated at USD 215–387 billion annually up until 2030, and that about USD 4.3 trillion per year needs to be invested in clean energy up until 2030, increasing thereafter to USD 5 trillion per year up until 2050, to be able to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The significance of this statement is that without this funding the developing countries may claim that they cannot afford the enormous costs of the emissions reduction measures. As the developing countries now constitute almost 70 per cent (and rising) of global emissions, this means that the net-zero emissions goal by 2050 cannot possibly be met.
The conference did little to ‘operationalize’ the Loss and Damages Fund that was approved in principle at COP 27. The key decisions about the design of this fund will be dealt with in a committee that will report back to COP 29. The UN did elicit voluntary pledges, and the decision document welcomed the pledges made to provide USD 188 million for the Adaptation Fund (i.e. far below the USD 600 billion per year sought) and pledges for USD 792 million for Loss and Damages. These were voluntary commitments, so there was no agreement to make them obligatory.
The failure of the conference to meet the financial demands of the developing countries should have been the main story coming out of it. Instead, the media ignored it. We can expect the show to continue next year at COP 29 in Azerbaijan.
Robert Lyman is a Canadian economist and the author of Net Zero Watch’sreview of Canadian climate policy.