This year’s United Nations climate summit arrives at the end of what will be the warmest year in recorded history, possibly the warmest year in the history of human civilization. The atmosphere around COP28 might be as heated as the actual atmosphere. The summit is being held in a major oil producing nation, and is being chaired by the head of the state oil company, who reportedly had been planning to use COP28 to discuss oil and gas deals.
What will happen inside the negotiations themselves? Here are the eight issues I’m watching closely:
1. Calls for transformational vs. incremental change in the final text
Under the Paris Agreement, a global assessment of existing mitigation, adaptation and other efforts must be done every five years. The gathering of information and technical analysis stages for the first “global stocktake” are now over. The final stage, to be completed at COP28, is the “consideration of outputs”, essentially the collective reaction of the world’s governments to the data showing we are not on track to avoid 1.5 or 2 °C of warming. Will the final text focus on the big picture transformational actions being proposed, like phasing down/out fossil fuels (issue #3), tripling renewable energy (issue #4), doubling energy efficiency, and addressing loss and damage? Or will it become a laundry list of weaker statements, based the individual concerns of squabbling nations? To use a skiing analogy, will the stocktake stick to the bunny slopes, or tackle a black diamond?
2. Word of the conference: Unabated
Much of the conversation at and about COP28 will focus on whether the global stocktake text calls for a phaseout or a phasedown of fossil fuels. As or more important is whether the word “unabated” appears before fossil fuels. Abatement implies that a fossil fuel facility, like a coal- or gas-fired power plant, uses carbon capture technology to capture and bury some of the emissions. If the agreement settles on “unabated fossil fuels”, as most fossil fuel producing nations have argued (hello Canada! privet Russia!), it will undermine the deal. It would mean that coal and gas plants can continue to operate and expand provided there is some carbon capture and storage involved.
The danger is that this could be a slippery slope. First, as the carbon capture technology is expensive and in its infancy, some countries will likely argue, as they did at COP27, that plans to later install such technology are sufficient. Second, what level of capture would constitute “abatement” is unclear. Carbon capture and storage technology does not capture 100% of emitted carbon dioxide, often far below.
Tack on the enormous costs and energy demand involved, and even the International Energy Agency, which for years was bullish about future oil and gas demand, gives this warning to the oil and gas industry:
Carbon capture, utilisation and storage is an essential technology for achieving net zero emissions in certain sectors and circumstances, but it is not a way to retain the status quo. If oil and natural gas consumption were to evolve as projected under today’s policy settings, this would require an inconceivable 32 billion tonnes of carbon captured for utilisation or storage by 2050, including 23 billion tonnes via direct air capture to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 °C. The necessary carbon capture technologies would require 26 000 terawatt hours of electricity generation to operate in 2050, which is more than global electricity demand in 2022. And it would require over USD 3.5 trillion in annual investments all the way from today through to mid-century, which is an amount equal to the entire industry’s annual average revenue in recent years.
3. Tripling renewable energy capacity
Building on recommendations from the International Energy Agency’s latest World Energy Outlook, the G20, including the US and China, have supported a call to triple renewable energy capacity by the year 2030 in order to “‘accelerate the substitution for coal, oil and gas generation” and reduce electricity emissions. As mentioned, this call could be in the final text of the global stocktake. It seems like a potentially easy win for COP28. One key question is whether the term “renewable energy capacity” gets watered down, for example, to include gas plants equipped with carbon capture and storage technology.
4. Filling the implementation gap
The global stocktake text is also an opportunity to signal what countries need to include in their next round of national pledges under the Paris Agreement, which are due in 2025. I’m looking to see the degree to which countries are “urged” or “encouraged” — approved UN legal speak — to include not only more ambitious emissions reductions targets, but also detailed, costed plans for transitioning each sector of the economy onto a net-zero emissions path.
5. Advance on other cooperative agreements
There are all sorts of other promising agreements between countries that have developed and are continuing to develop outside the UN process, like the Global Methane Pledge. For now, most of these lack detail. Will any emerge with concrete implementation and enforcement plans?
6. Small loopholes or gaping Grand Canyon scale chasms in the carbon market
The implementation of the voluntary carbon trading mechanism in the Paris Agreement (Article 6) has been mired in debate for years. The key issue is precisely what “emissions avoidances” or carbon offsets countries will be allowed to sell via the market. A lack of restrictions around offsets threaten to undermine the market, and encourage projects that do not achieve permanent emissions removals (e.g., poorly managed forest projects) and/or hurt local communities. On this, I am not optimistic.
7. Progress on a new climate finance goal
The world agrees on one thing around climate finance. Countries of all sizes and levels of wealth are disappointed by the Paris Agreement pledge that developed countries would mobilize >$100 billion/year of financing by the year 2020 to help the developing world response to climate change. The number was arbitrary, the details were fuzzy, and by all accounting, the goal has yet to be met.
Amid reports that the costs of adaptation alone in the developing world are 10-18 times that of available public climate finance, countries are charged with established on a new collective long-term finance goal by 2025. The COP28 negotiations will be less about the numerical goal, and more about what counts. Key considerations include whether it will be based on needs and priorities of developing countries, whether there be specific goals for adaptation vs. mitigation finance, and how to better consider and incorporate private finance. The precise definitions matter too. Will this be evaluated annually of cumulatively? By dollars, or some % of GDP? Will it be properly indexed to inflation? (an issue we ran into in while trying to evaluate the original $100 billion proposal more than a decade ago!)
8. Will the Loss and Damage fund be more than a symbolic gesture?
COP28 began with a splash: the launch of a voluntary loss and damage fund, and initial pledges of US$280 million from UAE, Germany and other nations. After thirty years of lobbying by vulnerable nations and civil society, the existence of this fund alone is a success. If only Saleemul Huq, the great Bangladeshi researcher and champion of international climate action, could have been here it happen.
The question now is if countries will learn from the failures of the $100 billion climate finance goal and create something truly transformative which helps Small Island Developing States and other less developed countries most heavily impacted by climate change. The dollar amounts pledged so far are tiny — equivalent to the costs of Cyclone Winston to Fiji, a single event among many that have struck the Global South over the past few years.
Keep an eye on which countries do and don’t pledge funds, the specifics of those pledges (annual or cumulative amounts; new and additional to other climate finance), the level of agreement on which countries can receive funding, and the precise language used in the text. For example, the launch text states that contributions can come from “a wide variety of sources of funding, including grants and concessional loans from public, private and innovative sources, as appropriate.”