Carbon Critical

Jan 10, 2024

Savior or Spectacle: COP28’s Footprint in the Marathon to Net Zero

For some, the latest climate summit has brought a breakthrough given the commitment to move away from fossil fuels. In fact, the record is more mixed.

A graph showing moneys pledged to climate mitigation funds by Germany, France, UEA, United States
Attribution CC BY

COP28 was unquestionably unique, if for no other reason than the massive increase in attendance from the previous conference in Egypt. Amidst the hustle and bustle in Dubai, it was easy to get swept up in the show spanning Expo City’s 4.38 square mile grounds. Coverage from the United Arab Emirates showed big oil the benefits of making an appearance and feigning climate-consciousness, a lesson which will linger in the minds of fossil fuel executives preparing for next year’s COP in Azerbaijan (yet another petrostate).

It was also a COP of pledges—everyone from the UAE to the United States to ExxonMobil put on a good show and pledged to do something to avert climate disaster. But a good show is not a measure of success. To accurately assess COP28, look past the length of standing ovations or flashy pull quotes to judge the two types of commitments made by delegates: financial and political pledges.

Putting Money Where Your Mouth Is

Although countries have long agreed to the principle of common but differentiated responsibility (the notion that states share an obligation to respond to climate change but that such responsibility is dependent on a state’s position in the international system), wealthy states have failed to provide sufficient financial support for the adaptation and mitigation needs of low-income states. In response to calls for increased access to equitable funding, replenishments or initial contributions to several climate funds were on the table at the COP: Green Climate Fund, Adaptation Fund, Least Developed Countries Fund, and the Special Climate Change Fund.

Among the most notable finance pools to emerge from the forum was the loss and damage fund—agreed to in Sharm el-Sheikh at COP27 and formally enacted at COP28. The fund—intended to address the financial burden facing states subject to the worst impacts of climate change and compensate governments that did not contribute to the climate crisis—has the trappings of a landmark agreement while managing to underwhelm those it was designed to support. The fund is set to be housed in the World Bank—a decision that caused controversy amongst low- and middle-income states that contested the United States’ outsized influence on World Bank politics. Despite the controversy, it has been approved with a flurry of pledges to boot.

Both the United Arab Emirates and Germany pledged $100 million to the loss and damage fund. Other leading funders like the United Kingdom and the European Union pledged $76 million and $245 million respectively. The US pledged $17.5 million—a contribution critics say is embarrassingly low for the world’s largest per capita emitter. When compared to the $100 billion of quantifiable economic cost from extreme weather events caused by climate change shouldered by developing nations in 2022, $700 million pales in comparison. But these pledges are set against the backdrop of massive historical underfunding.

Wide Gaps

While loss and damage pledges are welcome and urgently needed, the small sums are yet another reminder of the wide gap that remains between existing financial will and necessary action. Where multilateral funds could not bridge the divide, COP’s host nation sought to provide another option: a $30 billion climate finance fund run like a private equity shop. Managed by Abu Dhabi-based firm Lunate Capital—alongside BlackRock, TPG, and Brookfield—the fund aims to catalyze further private investment in clean energy projects, with 20 percent of the funds earmarked for those in developing countries. While the $30 billion commitment is 300 times that of the UAE’s commitment to the loss and damage fund, it remains a small share of the finance needed to facilitate a just energy transition.

In many ways, private capital announcements, replenishments for existing multilateral mitigation funds, and approval of the loss and damage fund—marked by resounding applause in the opening session—set a tone for COP28 and for what evolved over the following two weeks: extensive promises with much coverage and little precedent for action—previous pledges, such as the $100 billion for developing nations seem to only have belatedly been met.

Political Promises

Following a flurry of early financial commitments, countries shifted their focus to the broader policy agenda. Widespread consensus was reached over the reduction of methane—an outgrowth of the Global Methane Pledge from COP26. The COP28 pledge stipulates a 30 percent reduction in methane emissions by 2030 and it has been signed by155 countries. To monitor this progress, states formally agreed to the Methane Alert and Response System (MARS) administered by the UN Environment Program. This monitoring framework, which uses satellites to pinpoint point-source methane leaks, should increase accountability for industry players, including those that signaled their willingness to cooperate in Dubai.

Governments found an unlikely set of allies in the effort to curb methane emissions: the oil and gas industry. In a coalition between industry and government, the Global Flaring and Methane Reduction Partnership, now has the support of $255 million in donations from the UAE, the US,  Germany, BP, Shell, and others. Moreover, 50 companies, including BP, Saudi Aramco, and ExxonMobil, agreed to zero-out methane emissions by 2030.

At face value, the buy-in from the fossil fuel industry seems like a positive step toward climate coalition building, which may be true and will be tested in years to come. However, these commitments may be nothing more than greenwashing as the industry signals the concessions they will accept; companies will curb emissions throughout the production process but pass responsibility for emissions from their final product down the value chain. Notably absent from any methane reduction pledge was the agricultural industry—the sector most responsible for methane production.

Beyond methane pledges, states vowed to invest in alternative sources of energy. This was most salient in the nuclear energy pledge through which France, the US, the UK, and 19 other countries pledged to triple nuclear capacity by 2050. Given the high variability and intermittent supply implicit in other forms of renewable energy, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry notes that “you can’t get to net-zero 2050 without some nuclear.” The nuclear pledge—emblematic of a burgeoning coalition of pro-nuclear states—showcases the growing popularity of the technology amongst countries with legacy nuclear programs as well as newcomers across Europe and Africa. 

The decision to go nuclear, however, stands in contrast to recent policy-making in Germany, which shut down its three remaining nuclear facilities in 2023 and acts as a standard bearer for the anti-nuclear crowd. Fortunately, the less-discriminatory Global Renewables and Energy Efficiency Pledge received widespread support from 123 participants seeking to “triple the world’s installed renewable energy generation capacity to at least 11,000 GW by 2030.” While the  pledge notably lacks an enforcement mechanism—as do all climate agreements, including Paris—the international consensus signals a new direction for energy systems and may provide needed peer pressure to facilitate the transition.

Increasing to 11,000 GW in renewable energy could propel solar and wind energy to a combined 40 percent share of global electricity generation by 2030. Considering geothermal and nuclear energy are also on track for expansion, fully achieved pledges from COP28 could ensure that fossil fuel demand not only peaks this decade but begins its descent. Which brings us to the landmark agreement released after COP’s closing bell.

After two draft releases, widespread criticism, and late-night convenings in Al Jaber’s Expo City office, an agreement among delegates was reached.  Achieving consensus among 198 nations with drastically varied interests, the final agreement proposes “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems,” “phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies,” and “accelerating efforts toward the phase-down of unabated coal power.”

It took 28 COPs for governments to explicitly name fossil fuels. The agreement is the strongest anti-fossil fuel language to appear from a COP, finally addressing what 27 previous conferences cautiously avoided, yet it still fell short of the “phase-out” benchmark many advocates hoped to see. But as UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell reminded observers, “whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end.”

A Step, Not a Leap

State perspective on the efficacy of COP is shaped by a country’s experience with climate change. For some, the decision to transition away from fossil fuels is a reason to celebrate. Proponents of the final text, like Canadian Environmental Minister Steven Guilbeault, suggest that “COP28 reached a historic agreement.” For others, the funding commitments still fall short. Critics, like head of the delegation for the Marshall Islands John Silk, say “we didn’t come here to sign ourdeath warrant.” For small island developing states, sea-level rise poses an existential threat—the Marshall Islands’ capital may literally be submerged.

COP28, therefore, exists both as a savior and a spectacle. On the one hand, COP pushed the needle back toward a 1.5-degree scenario while pointing the finger at fossil fuels. On the other, it platformed polluters and may have undervalued the urgency of climate action. Given climate change’s existential threat and the history of unmet promises, it is no surprise that not all delegates took to their feet in applause. Yet, the COP process is all we have. Even if the direct impact of the text is minimal, the document is emblematic of a shift in state priorities and evidence of commitments to enacting change. In the end, Dubai’s COP was a step, not a leap. But in a marathon this long, every step counts.

Emily Hardy is a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow in the Sustainability, Climate, and Geopolitics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) in Washington, DC.

Dan Helmeci is a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow Fellow in the Sustainability, Climate, and Geopolitics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) in Washington, DC.

Read more by the author