COP28 Draws to a Close, 23 Hours Overtime: Historic but Also Disappointing, Say Experts

For the first time, transitioning from fossil fuels found place in the consensus of parties but developed countries have once again wriggled out of several aspects – including delivering on time-bound climate finance.

Bengaluru: As COP28 drew to a close on December 13, almost a day after schedule, some called the conference “historic”. For the first time in the history of COPs, the outcome document of the first Global Stocktake at COP28 called for parties to transition from fossil fuels in a just and equitable way. The COP also witnessed parties adopting the framework for the Global Goal on Adaptation and other outcomes.

However, the first Global Stocktake also absolves developed countries from several responsibilities including transitioning from fossil fuels including oil and gas, which are also polluting resources, as well as providing time-bound climate finance, several excerpts commented. Similarly, recommending the use of carbon capture utilisation and storage technologies to balance emissions hangs like a dark cloud over COP28, for these are technologies that science still does not prove will work, scientists have held.

‘Historic’ for call to transition from fossil fuels…

The first day of COP28, November 30, witnessed the operationalisation of the loss and damage fund for developing countries and all nations vulnerable to climate change. The last day of COP28, however, dragged on with no consensus regarding a draft text of the outcome of the first Global Stocktake, as well as several other documents such as the Global Goal on Adaptation and others. 

Negotiations carried on into the night of December 12, the last official day of COP28, and well into the early morning of December 13. Finally, the COP28 presidency uploaded the latest – and final – text on the outcome of the first Global Stocktake on the morning of December 13. On the evening of December 13 at 5:11 pm UAE time, and 23 hours into overtime, COP28 president Sultan Al-Jaber brought the gavel down on the conference and the consensus leading up to the outcome document of the Global Stocktake, a framework for the Global Goal on Adaptation and several other outcomes — to a standing ovation.

COP28 was historic in that transitioning away from fossil fuels found mention in the outcome document. It said that the conference “further recognises the need for deep, rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in line with 1.5 °C pathways and calls on Parties to contribute to the following global efforts, in a nationally determined manner, taking into account the Paris Agreement and their different national circumstances, pathways and approaches..”

The approaches include tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030; moving towards phasing down unabated coal (however, there is no mention of oil or gas, which are also polluting fossil fuels); “substantially reducing” non-carbon-dioxide emissions globally, especially methane, by 2030; quickly phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that do not address energy poverty or just transitions; taking action towards achieving net zero emission energy systems worldwide and utilising zero- and low-carbon fuels well before or by around 2050, and more.

One of the approaches that the outcome document also calls for is “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”.

“COP28 occurred at a decisive moment in the fight against climate change. It’s important that the outcome of the Global Stocktake clearly reaffirms the need for limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C & that this requires drastic reductions in emissions in this decade. For the first time, there is a recognition of the need to transition away from fossil fuels – after many years in which the discussion of this issue was blocked,” said António Guterres, secretary general of the UN.

UNEP executive director Inger Andersen also commented that “COP28 has delivered, for the first time at climate talks, a clear call on countries to transition away from fossil fuels”.

“The deal is not perfect, but one thing is clear: the world is no longer denying our harmful addiction to fossil fuels,” she said in a statement. “Now we move beyond bargaining to action. As the Secretary-General has said, the phase-out of fossil fuels is inevitable.”

Some called it the “beginning of the end for fossil fuels”:

COP28 will be seen as one of the “most historic COPs”, commented Avinash Persaud, emeritus professor, Gresham College and Special Envoy to the Prime Minister of Barbados on Investment and Financial Services.

“We have operationalised a loss and damage fund, recapitalised the Green Climate Fund and orchestrated an international climate finance system that prepares for new levies alongside emboldened development banks and new private sector flows. Today, we have committed to triple renewable investments and have a just transition from fossil fuels,” he said in a press release.

Though some activists were disappointed that an immediate fossil fuel phase-out didn’t work out, such a move would have either “hit developing countries hardest or been meaningless” without the “trade, investment and finance to achieve it”, he added.

Indeed, India’s stand has been clear across several COPS – that a sudden phase-out of fossil fuels will cripple the economy and its people, and that a phase-down of fossil fuels, and taking into account the “common but differentiated responsibilities” based on national circumstances must be adopted by developing countries like India. The country has also put the onus on developed countries to fund climate finance to tackle adaptation and mitigation actions in least-developed and developing countries, as well as countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change. India has also called for developing nations to be given a fair share of the carbon budget since developed countries have already eaten into a huge share of it, leaving very little for developing countries to consume to lift their people out of poverty.

…and still, “disappointing”, say many

Harjeet Singh, head (global political strategy) at Climate Action Network International, said that a “long-overdue direction to move away from coal, oil, and gas has been set” at COP28.

“Yet, the resolution is marred by loopholes that offer the fossil fuel industry numerous escape routes, relying on unproven, unsafe technologies,” he said.

The unproven and unsafe technologies he referred to include carbon capture and utilisation and storage (CCUS), which aims to store emissions from large polluting sources by means such as injecting them into deep geological formations. However, it is a highly controversial technique for carbon removal, for scientists say there is no evidence yet that CCUS can help lower emissions. In fact, a recent report released by international think tank Climate Analytics on December 5 found that relying on carbon capture and storage could release an extra 86 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere between 2020 and 2050. These technologies, however, are among the approaches that the outcome document of the Global Stocktake at COP28 recommends that countries invest in:

“Accelerating zero- and low-emission technologies, including, inter alia, renewables, nuclear, abatement and removal technologies such as carbon capture and utilisation and storage, particularly in hard-to-abate sectors, and low-carbon hydrogen production”

“The hypocrisy of wealthy nations, particularly the US, as they continue to expand fossil fuel operations massively while merely paying lip service to the green transition, stands exposed,” commented Singh. “Developing countries, still dependent on fossil fuels for energy, income, and jobs, are left without robust guarantees for adequate financial support in their urgent and equitable transition to renewable energy.”

A majority of India’s power, for instance, comes from coal-based power plants. While India has been transitioning to solar and wind power. It has added around 100 GW of installed electric capacity, of which around 80% is attributed to non-fossil fuel-based resources, between 2017 and 2023, Indian Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav said while delivering India’s national statement at COP28. Such transitions from fossil fuels – that COP28 has called for in its outcome document – however, hugely impinges on the Nationally Determined Contributions that each nation submits to the UN voluntarily. More finances for the transition as well as for technology transfer will help developing countries achieve the transition faster.

Absolving developed countries from several responsibilities

“Although COP28 recognised the immense financial shortfall in tackling climate impacts, the final outcomes fall disappointingly short of compelling wealthy nations to fulfill their financial responsibilities – obligations amounting to hundreds of billions, which remain unfulfilled,” Singh added.

Developed countries have pledged more than US$ 650 million for the loss and damage fund to deal with the impacts caused by climate change in developing countries and nations particularly vulnerable to climate change. However, the outcome document of the Global Stocktake does not mention anything about developed countries phasing out their fossil fuels, such as oil and gas – which are also polluting. Per the document, it “recognises that transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security”.

“From an Indian perspective, this text displays greater parity between coal and other fossil fuels but it appears to absolve developed countries of the responsibility of phasing out their fossil fuel use “in this critical decade”,” said Ulka Kelkar, executive director, Climate, World Resources Institute India. “In fact, the reference to ‘transitional fuels’ explicitly gives gas producing countries the license to sell more gas rather than invest in renewable energy. It also exonerates the developed countries from making up the finance gap so far, though it recognises that the gap in adaptation finance is ‘widening’ and that doubling the current low levels of adaptation finance will be insufficient.”

“The real winners of the new draft text are the fossil producers that continue to term ‘gas’ as the transitional fuel,” commented Vibhuti Garg, director, South Asia, IEEFA. “The only positive in the new draft text is the removal of ‘optionality’ in regards to tripling renewable energy targets and doubling of energy efficiency.” 

Climate finance from developed countries still lagging

It is “disappointing” that the outcome document has not recognised the need for developed countries to provide the financial support needed for developing countries in transitioning away from fossil fuels and to meet their adaptation needs, including for the Loss and Damage Fund, commented Meena Raman, head of programmes, Third World Network, an independent non-profit international research and advocacy organisation. 

“Instead, we see escape routes being set in place across a wide range of decisions to dilute their commitments and divert attention to the private sector and the multilateral development banks for the provision of climate finance,” Raman added. “This is highly regrettable. Scaled-up ambition on finance is much needed to secure the high ambition in developing countries. Otherwise, any lofty global targets will only remain a pipe dream.”

While COP28 shows that the world’s “appetite” for climate action has “moved significantly forward, its willingness to pay lags behind”, said activist Teresa Anderson, global lead on climate justice, ActionAid International.

“The mission to move to a fossil-free future does not yet have the finance components needed to make this goal workable for lower-income countries,” she said in a statement. “If rich countries had been willing to put real finance and fair timelines on the table, the outcome could have been much stronger.”

Activists press for just transition at Bonn, Germany. Photo: Twitter/@fossiltreaty

Moving towards a north-south divide?

COP28 has “largely disappointed on all fronts,” said Arunabha Ghosh, CEO of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). 

“It hasn’t sufficiently raised climate ambition, held historical polluters accountable, or established effective mechanisms to finance climate resilience and a just low-carbon transition for the Global South,” he said in a statement.

The operationalisation of the Loss and Damage fund on the first day was “a noteworthy success”, but “subsequent developments revealed a discordant trajectory”, he added. 

“The Global Stocktake’s final text lacked the candid acknowledgement of problems and the teeth required to fight them. The exclusive focus on rapidly phasing down unabated coal, as opposed to all fossil fuels, heightens the risk of exacerbating the North-South global divide.”

COP28’s failure to instate effective financial mechanisms, obliging historical emitters to contribute, jeopardises support for developing nations in meeting their Nationally Determined Contributions, he added.

“The urgency of the climate crisis demands immediate reforms be made to the COP process to ensure that accountability, implementation, and climate justice become central to all efforts. Otherwise, future COPs risk becoming obsolete.”