COP28 – struggling for the smallest common denominator or starting a transformation?

21 Dec 2023
Authors: NewClimate Institute
Authoring Organisation: NewClimate Institute
Posted At: 12-2023

On 14 December, the annual climate conference of the United Nations, COP28, concluded. Already at the start of the conference, governments agreed on operationalising the Loss and Damage Fund, a fund that supports vulnerable countries which are already massively suffering from climate change impacts. UAE and Germany committed to first payments into the fund, 100 million USD each. The Philippines will represent the Asia-Pacific Group on the board of the fund for the next years and has also offered to host the board. The Philippines is a country which is already heavily impacted by climate change, as are many countries in the region.

Having reached this important win, the conference however proceeded at a slower pace. The main focus of the conference this year was on the Global Stocktake. Every five years, this process assesses global progress towards the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement from 2015. If the assessment shows that progress is too little, the COP has the mandate to correct course. The process also foresees national governments updating their climate targets in the following years after the stocktake, because if 2030 targets are not overachieved significantly, the 1.5°C limit cannot be achieved, at least not without significantly overshoot 1.5°C warming for decades.

On climate change mitigation, the COP28 decision on the Global Stocktake therefore reiterates the need for national governments to revisit and strengthen their 2030 targets by the end of 2024 and to ensure alignment between the short- and long-term targets. It also provides a list of required global efforts that it “calls on Parties to contribute to”. These global efforts focus mostly on the energy sector. Examples are tripling renewable energy capacity and doubling the average rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030, or “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”.

The last sentences above were added to the final version of the decision document after many countries had criticised an earlier draft as unacceptable because a clear commitment to phasing out fossil fuels was missing. The COP28 text for the first time in international climate negotiations recognises the need to transition away from fossil fuels. Still, many researchers and delegates of small island states criticise that even in the final version, there are too many loopholes and too much reliance on “false solutions”, such as CCS, nuclear or low-carbon hydrogen.

It will be up to countries to interpret and implement the paragraphs and contribute to those global efforts in a meaningful way, while avoiding a lock-in in carbon-intensive infrastructure.   

Many countries have already signed up to the global goal of tripling renewable energy and doubling energy efficiency as part of a voluntary initiative. The list of signatories includes Malaysia and Thailand from the ASEAN region. Signing up does not require the countries to implement these global targets at the same scale on the national level, but they commit to contributing to the global goal and collaborating with other countries on the topics.

The Global Stocktake decision also provides a framework and global targets for adaptation, for example reducing water scarcity, improving the resilience of food systems, and reducing climate impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity. A big discussion was the question of who would pay for adaptation in developing countries, of which many wanted to see a clear finance target and commitment from developed countries to cover it. The final text does not provide such explicit results, but refers to “provisions and principles” of the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement.  

COP28 also decided on the Work programme on just transition pathways. This programme recognises some issues, such as the importance of the inclusion of labour rights and social protection in climate action, and will facilitate regular dialogues across countries to discuss challenges and solutions related to just transition, and an annual summary report.