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COP 28: neither a triumph nor a disaster, so let’s just crack on

COP 28: neither a triumph nor a disaster, so let’s just crack on




COP 28 was either a triumph or a great disappointment, verging on disaster. Take your pick – and follow Carbon Brief for definitive analysis of the stocktake outcome and other topics. Personally, I like David McNair’s characterisation of the five stages of all UN conferences:

  1. Everyone manages expectations. Rich countries boast, NGOs fret, poor people suffer.
  2. Drama about agenda yields to virtue signalling speeches.
  3. Journalists focus on the areas of tension. The drama builds.
  4. Negotiations around ‘bracketed text’ (where there isn’t agreement) run into the night. Hotel bookings get extended.
  5. An agreement is announced: the host says it’s ‘historic’. Oxfam calls it a missed opportunity, poor countries reluctantly accept and wait for next year.

On the positive side of the balance sheet, commentators have cited the establishment of the Loss and Damage Fund, the commitment to treble renewables, double improvements in energy efficiency, and act on methane, all by 2030, and the mention of transitioning away from all fossil fuels, not just coal. The commitment to hold warming to 1.5 degrees still stands. There was a prominent initiative on food and agriculture, among other sectoral contributions.

On the debit side, the language is mostly weak, including on fossil fuels, the commitments to emission reductions are far below what is needed to meet the Paris temperature target, and the promised finance remains woefully inadequate – for mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage, and as compensation to poor countries for leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

The next step in the global process is for all countries to submit national plans, ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’, for the period to 2035. These must be delivered in time for the COP in 2025 and must cover all greenhouse gases.

All steps forward are positive, of course, but the attachment to 1.5 is beginning to look quixotic. As the IEA pointed out, the renewable energy, efficiency and methane commitments only cover 30% of the gap to the 1.5 compatible pathway in 2030 (Figure 1). The Climate Action Tracker has similar analysis of a wider set of initiatives (Figure 2), pointing out that

‘Few of the sectoral initiatives announced during COP28 will meaningfully contribute to closing the emissions gap. Many of them lack either the ambition, clarity, coverage or accountability needed to really make a difference. We estimate that of the total emissions savings that could be achieved by the pledges, around a quarter is already included in government NDCs, around a quarter is additional and achievable, and around half is unlikely to be achieved without further action to improve the initiatives.’

Figure 1


Figure 2


Even those estimates may be too generous if implementation is backloaded. Consider that the Remaining Carbon Budget is currently being eaten up at a rate of about 40 Gt per year. Backloading may mean that the budget has disappeared before we even get to 2030.

How big is the carbon budget? That depends on how the temperature target is defined. If the aim is to have a 67% chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees during this century, then the  budget from 1 January 2023 is only 150 Gt. Take off this year’s emissions, assume backloading, and the budget has gone by 2026. If the aim is to limit warming with a lower probability, then the budget is higher – 250 Gt for a 50% probability. Even then, however, the budget is exhausted before 2030.

It is worth saying here that the carbon budgets for given temperature targets assume methane reductions are taking place, so the methane reduction pledges at COP of reducing methane emissions by 30% from 2020 levels by 2030 are already priced in. Least cost pathways to 1.5 and 2 degrees assume large methane cuts (30% from 2010 by 2030), whereas in fact methane emissions have risen not fallen (e.g. by 1.8% in 2022). So 30% from 2020 looks to be behind the curve.

A lot then depends on whether reduction targets can be achieved at the pace and scale required – not just those promised in COP, but also the missing two thirds not yet promised. My own instinct says ‘No’: cost, planning delays, material shortages, basic construction timetables, all stand in the way. That means we cannot count on 1.5. But, as climate scientists keep emphasizing, every tiny increment counts, so the challenge is to build on the COP and deliver larger cuts in the 2030s.

The next round of NDCs is crucial to this process. Here, developing countries confront the big problem of how to finance the many different aspects of climate action: mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage. There is a particular dilemma facing countries which have coal, oil and gas reserves, either exploited already or newly discovered. It was not just Saudi Arabia concerned about the phase-out of fossil fuels on its economy. Many developing countries shared the concern. Uganda was a case in point, with oil and gas reserves valued at $US 47 bn, Colombia another, India and probably China also with respect to coal.

An option available to these countries is to be as explicit as possible about the costs, and to build these into conditional NDCs, with action depending on financial support. The numbers are going to be large, but they are needed to focus minds in rich countries, in the international financial institutions and in the private sector: up to $US 6 trillion to 2030 for mitigation, according to the Stocktake Outcome Document, up to $US 3 trillion for adaptation, and a large amount for Loss and Damage. There are many issues to sort out, especially with respect to the new Loss and Damage Fund, as Avinash Persaud explained to Will Worley for the New Humanitarian: on the role of Governments, the link (or not) to humanitarian aid, the timing and form of disbursement, and so on. For now, the Loss and Damage Fund has racked up pledges of about $US 700m, estimated at 0.2% of need, and with big questions about how much funding will be additional and how much will simply substitute for existing aid..

Discussions about new sources of funding are already underway, whether increased aid budgets, reallocation of SDRs, or sweating the balance sheets of the IFIs. With COP now done, the baton passes across to different actors. The ONE campaign is a useful source. ODIOverseas Development Institute (London) is also very good on multilateral finance reform.

Meanwhile, a priority for those working on climate compatible development, or just transition, or any of the variants, is to focus on preparing the next national level NDCs. Just, orderly, and equitable are words that appear repeatedly in the Stocktake, including an emphasis on decent work and high levels of participation.

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