COP28: A landmark agreement or a collection of loopholes?

The final COP28 deal is called historic as it’s the first one to include language on fossil fuels. But the language is soft, and the agreement contains various loopholes.

Dec 14, 2023

Climate change,

Sustainability

Isabella S. Rasmussen

COP28 ended in the morning of the 13th of December. A day later than it should’ve.

The final deal, the UAE Consensus, is called historic and a landmark agreement as it’s the first one to include language on a global transition away from fossil fuels, and it received a one-minute-long standing ovation from the delegates as COP28 President Al Jaber brought down the gavel to confirm it.

Nevertheless, the formulations around fossil fuels are soft, there is no specific timeline for the transition, and the agreement includes various loopholes in terms of "transition fuel" and carbon capture. It doesn't prohibit anyone from expanding their fossil fuel business.

In our article Countdown to COP28, I gave you an overview of what was expected to be some of the most important points on the COP28 agenda, namely:

  • Fossil fuels.

  • The first Global Stocktake.

  • Loss and damage.

  • Methane.

  • The carbon markets.

It’s time to take score – let's see what happened in each area.

Fossil fuel language: A balancing act

Tension rose around this subject already prior to the conference when Al Jaber, during an event on the 21st of November, wrongly claimed that “there is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5”. A comment he later said was misunderstood while emphasizing that the UAE COP presidency would be the first ever “[…] to actively call on parties to actively come forward with language on phaseout on fossil fuels in the agreed text”.

As expected, this would not be an easy task.

When Saudi Arabia’s energy minister on the 4th of December stated that they would “absolutely not” agree on a deal that would commit Parties to phase down fossil fuels, the stage was set for a challenging negotiation phase, to say the least.

In one corner of the ring, pushing for strong language on a fossil fuel phaseout, were more than 130 countries including the US, Australia, and the EU. Referring to small islands, Australia stated: “We will not sign their death certificates,” and Sweden’s climate ambassador, Mattias Frumerie, said: "The EU are going to be pushing for a phase out until the very end. For us, the result is more important than when the COP actually ends".

In the other corner was a line of OPEC and OPEC+ countries led by Saudi Arabia. OPEC stands for Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. During the negotiations, OPEC took a swing at their opponents by sending a letter to OPEC members, urging them to actively work against any language against fossil fuels as this could “put our people’s prosperity and future at risk”.

This had Marshall Island climate envoy, Tina Stege, react by saying that "nothing puts the prosperity and future of all people on earth, including all of the citizens of OPEC countries, at greater risk than fossil fuels”.

When COP negotiations reach their final stages, it usually comes down to single words as there is a world of difference between “could” and “should”. This year it was no different. Phase down, phase out, could, calls for, encouraged… The formulations discussed were numerous, and with opponents that were very insisting in each their end of the scale, finding the formulation that would bring everyone onboard was a balancing act.

In the end, as the conference went into overtime, Saudi Arabia and their coalition found themselves backed up in a corner and had to forfeit and watch their opponent being declared the winner as language on fossil fuels was included in the deal text.

However, the text had to be somewhat watered down in order to get all Parties to agree to it. As such, the final deal calls on Parties to contribute to the global effort of "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”.

Former Vice President of the US Al Gore has been criticizing the current rules of COP that say that agreements must be made unanimously. “The situation that leaves our world community in is that we have to beg for permission from the petrostates” to “protect the future of humanity,” he says. He now plans to work for a changing of the rules so that a deal can be made if a super majority of 75% of Parties agree.

Image source: https://www.cop28.com/en/image-gallery

Loss and damage: An early breakthrough

Last year, Parties agreed to establish a fund to help poor countries cope with the loss and damage they experience because of extreme weather caused by climate change.

One of the main tasks at this year’s COP was to operationalize the fund and start figuring out where the money for the fund should come from.

On the very first day of the conference, Parties agreed on details for how to operationalize the fund, and they even began pledging money for the fund right away. COP President Al Jaber announced that the UAE would contribute with $100 million, the US pledged $17.5 million, Japan $10 million, and EU countries $145 million. In total, more than $700 million have been pledged to the fund.

While the agreement on the operationalization of the fund was a major breakthrough, the amount of money contributed to the fund so far only covers 0.2% of the damage caused by climate change that developing countries face every year. So, for now it’s a little like giving someone a toolbox with no tools in it. Many people find it essential that the private sector contributes as well if the fund is to have a real impact.

The first Global Stocktake: We are far off track

This year, the global effort to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement was evaluated in detail for the first time by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the UNFCCC.

In March, IPCC published a report with the results on their analysis in which they emphasized that “limiting warming to 1.5°C and 2°C involves rapid, deep and in most cases immediate greenhouse gas emission reductions” and that “the choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years”. They concluded that we have already caused global warming of about 1.1°C, and that “there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”.

There’s a clear gap between the climate action that is necessary and what the Parties’ have pledged to do in their NDCs. BUT: there’s also a gap between what they have pledged to do and what they’re actually doing.

That is, it’s not even enough to start walking the talk; we have to start running while we’re yelling.

In October, based on the findings of IPCC, the UN wrote a report that laid out a long list of suggestions for what to include in the final COP28 deal. Many of the negotiations during the conference have been guided by that report.

Some of the most noteworthy outcomes of the first Global Stocktake, included in the final deal, are:

  • The operationalization of a loss and damage fund.

And a call on Parties for:

  • Tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the rate of energy efficiency by 2030;

  • Accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power;

  • Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems;

  • Accelerating and substantially reducing non-carbon-dioxide emissions globally, including in particular methane emissions by 2030.

  • Having in place their national adaptation plans, policies and planning processes by 2025 and to have progressed in implementing them by 2030.

On a negative note, the statement about coal was watered down from “rapidly phasing down unabated coal” and including “limitations on permitting new coal activities” to only be directed at “efforts” of phasing down. As mentioned, the statement on fossil fuels was also weakened, and it only concerns fossil fuels in energy systems. There’s also concern about the fact that the deal “recognizes that transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security” as this can be used as a loophole for continuing to use fossil fuels.

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Methane: A new deal

Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 and is responsible for more than 25% of global warming.

By initiative from the COP President, Al Jaber, 50 oil and gas producers (who account for 40% of global oil production) made a deal to drastically reduce their methane emissions by 2030. According to John Kerry, US presidential envoy for climate, “it’s not complicated technology. It’s mostly plumbing, simple — you know — tightening the screws, shutting off leaks, stopping the flaring, stopping the venting […]”. The targets won’t be binding, but satellite technology will be used to monitor the project.

Climate organizations from all over the world were not impressed and saw the initiative as yet another example of greenwashing and a dangerous distraction from reality.

Five more countries joined the Global Methane Pledge meaning that 155 countries now have pledged to reduce their methane emissions with 30% by 2030. Among the five countries are Turkmenistan who is a big emitter of methane.

Carbon markets: The Wild West

The Paris Agreement included the opportunity for countries and companies to offset some of their emissions, by paying other countries to cut them instead. However, there are still no rules for the carbon market, and this has significant consequences for its effectiveness.

The goal is to have a centralized trading system monitored by the UN while also giving companies the option of trading directly with each other. As for now, there is only an unregulated voluntary carbon market that is characterized by many offsets of poor value.

Parties couldn’t agree on a set of rules, as the EU and African and Latin American states rejected the final proposed deal due to concerns that they were not stringent enough to ensure a well-functioning market with quality offsets and to prevent greenwashing.

Negotiations will have to resume in Azerbaijan during COP29.

On a final note

Just as COP28 was about to begin, the World Meteorological Organization declared 2023 the warmest year on record and reported that the global average temperature increase had been around 1.4°C during the first 10 months of the year.

On November 30th, COP28 was kicked off in Dubai by COP President Al Jaber, who was unwanted as president by many due to his role as CEO in a major, state-owned oil company. Few would've thought that the COP that finally got language on fossil fuels incorporated in the cover text would be hosted by an oil state. The same COP that received a record number of fossil fuel representatives.

“We should be proud of our historic achievement,” Al Jaber says. “The world needed to find a new way. By following our north star, we have found that new path”.

Climate experts, though, do not share Al Jaber's enthusiasm; “The lukewarm agreement reached at COP28 will cost every country, no matter how rich, no matter how poor. Everyone loses,” says Friederike Otto, co-founder of the World Weather Attribution group. “With every vague verb, every empty promise in the final text, millions more people will enter the frontline of climate change and many will die.”

I think it's safe to say that COP28 has shown progress. Just not enough.

Now, the Parties have homework to do. Based on this first global Stocktake, they are to go home and raise their ambitions in their NDCs and make sure they are aligned with the Paris Agreement before they submit their revised versions in 2025.

Other reactions to the final deal

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission: “I welcome the successful conclusion of the COP28 UN Climate Conference and the first Global Stocktake of the Paris Agreement. It is good news for the whole world that we now have a multilateral agreement to accelerate emission reductions towards net zero by 2050, with urgent action in this critical decade. This includes an agreement by all parties to transition away from fossil fuels. We have agreed on reducing global emissions by 43% by 2030, in line with the best available science, to keep 1.5 Celsius within reach.”

Jennifer Morgan, Germany’s climate envoy: “The COP28 language pushing a decline in fossil fuel use will send a signal to investors about the future of energy markets. […] Every investor should understand now that the future investments that are profitable and long-term are renewable energy — and investing in fossil fuels is a stranded asset.”

Mohamed Adow, of the NGO and thinktank Power Shift Africa: “These letters show that fossil fuel interests are starting to realise that the writing is on the wall for dirty energy. Climate change is killing poor people around the globe and these petrostates don’t want Cop28 to phase out fossil fuels because it will hurt their short-term profits. It’s shameful. “

António Guterres, UN Secretary-General: “To those who opposed a clear reference to a phaseout of fossil fuels in the COP28 text, I want to say that a fossil fuel phase out is inevitable whether they like it or not.  Let’s hope it doesn’t come too late.”

John Kerry, US climate envoy: "I am in awe of the spirit of cooperation that has brought everybody together."

Dan Jørgensen, Denmark’s Climate and Energy Minister: "We're standing here in an oil country, surrounded by oil countries, and we made the decision saying let's move away from oil and gas."

Anne Rasmussen, Samoa representative of the Alliance of Small Islands: "We have come to the conclusion that the course correction that is needed has not been secured. We have made an incremental advancement over business as usual, when what we really need is an exponential step change in our actions."

Saber Hossain Chowdhury, Bangladesh climate envoy: "Adaptation is really a life and death issue ... We cannot compromise on adaptation; we cannot compromise on lives and livelihoods."

Steven Guilbeault, Canadian Environment Minister: "COP28 reached a historic agreement ... It provides opportunities for near term action and pushes for a secure, affordable, 1.5C compatible and clean transition. The text has breakthrough commitments on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and the transition away from fossil fuels."

Madeleine Diouf, Senegal's climate minister, on behalf of the bloc of Least Developed Countries: "It reflects the very lowest possible ambition that we could accept rather than what we know, according to the best available science, is necessary to urgently address the climate crisis."

Al Gore, former US Vice President: "The decision at COP28 to finally recognize that the climate crisis is, at its heart, a fossil fuel crisis is an important milestone. But it is also the bare minimum we need and is long overdue. The influence of petrostates is still evident in the half measures and loopholes included in the final agreement."

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