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COP28 Review – Progress finally, or more empty words?

COP28 Review
Photo by Darcey Beau on Unsplash

The COP28 conference has just concluded in Dubai, after nearly two weeks (30th November – 12th December).

Hopes were low going into the summit given that 2023 marks 35 years since Dr James Hansen’s Senate Testimony, with next to no meaningful climate action in that time. If anything, we’ve been heading in the wrong direction at pace, as it emerged that in 2023 “global carbon emissions from fossil fuels reached record levels again”. This year also saw the “biggest increases in global greenhouse gas emissions since 2015.”

For clarity, in 2023:

  • carbon emissions reached record levels
  • combined greenhouse gas emissions (which include carbon as well as other types of GHGs such as methane) were the highest in eight years

Before diving into the rest of the review, I produced a handy explainer here about what the COP summits are and what they’ve achieved over the years.

Before COP28

Given that this is COP28 (the ‘28’ signalling that things haven’t been going great), expectations were near rock-bottom. Things weren’t helped by the fact that COP28 was being hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a fossil-fuel producing nation. And that the president of this summit was Sultan Al Jaber, who also happens to be the chief executive of the UAE’s national oil company Adnoc. The revelations prior to the summit that the UAE had the largest oil and gas expansion plans of any country didn’t help matters. Nor did a leak of documents which revealed that the UAE planned to use COP28 to push new oil deals. Things perhaps took the darkest turn when Sultan Al Jaber claimed there was no science behind calling for a phase out of fossil fuels, and warned that doing so would “take the world back into caves.”

The strongest words heading into the summit came from the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, who warned that, “Present trends are racing our planet down a dead-end 3C temperature rise. This is a failure of leadership, a betrayal of the vulnerable, and a massive missed opportunity.

COP28 begins

At COP28, Guterres tried to galvanise leaders to action when he said, “We are living through climate collapse in real time.” He continued, “Record global heating should send shivers down the spines of world leaders. And it should trigger them to act.” The Guardian Editorial didn’t pull any punches either, warning that, “Fossil fuels are today’s weapons of mass destruction, representing an existential threat.

Around 1,000 climate scientists were so concerned about the lack of climate action, and the closing window for structural changes to be implemented, that they urged the public to become climate activists. Unfortunately, activists and those pushing for climate action were up against a record number of lobbyists in attendance at COP28. It was reported that there were 2,456 oil and gas lobbyists at COP28 – this is almost four times as high as the previous record, which was set at COP27 (last year). Not to be outdone, agribusiness lobbyists sent 340 delegates to COP28, more than double the number sent last year.

Outcomes of COP28

So it’s no surprise that at the halfway point of COP28, there was very little to report aside from the fact that a ‘loss and damage’ fund had been set-up to help vulnerable countries with the damage already been wreaked by climate breakdown. However, the amount pledged ($700m or £557m), is estimated to represent just 0.2% of the funding actually required each year. The Guardian writes that, “Estimates for the annual cost of the damage have varied from $100bn-$580bn.”

But, as COP28 concluded, it emerged that a deal had been agreed which calls for countries to “transition away” from fossil fuels. This is a landmark moment because a final deal has explicitly talked about fossil fuels, and their reduction. As Fiona Harvey writes in the Guardian, “It has taken 30 years of nearly annual climate summits to come up with an agreement that includes clear directions on the future of fossil fuels.” Believe it or not, COP26 in Glasgow was the first time that fossil fuels were even included in an agreement text, with a mention to phasing-down coal.

But coming back to the COP28 outcome, does this mean that the world has finally decided to tackle the climate crisis once and for all? Are all our problems over? Is the deal as meaningful as it sounds? Sadly, the answer to all three questions is: no. The text in the agreement “calls for” countries to transition away from fossil fuels. The key phrase here is “calls for”. As Leo Hickman explained on Twitter, the phrase “calls for” is “known to mean an “invitation” or “request” And, even more crucially, it is the *weakest* of all the various terms used for such exhortations.

Thus, to put it simply, the language adopted in the agreement means that countries are invited to transition away from fossil fuels. In effect, they’ve come up with a statement which sounds very promising and enables COP28 to be labelled a ‘success’, but whose words carry no weight in terms of forcing countries to do the right thing. That’s not to say that the words won’t have any effect – Fiona Harvey explains that some investors, banks, governments, financial institutions and private companies will see this as a signal and make decisions based on it.

I find it hard to believe that governments who’ve been kicking the climate can down the road for 35 years will take notice of something which places little to no responsibility or burden upon them. Maybe then the real winners here are the wordsmiths, who made something sound impressive whilst simultaneously ensuring there was no weight behind the words at all.

What this COP needed to do was enforce a “phase-out” of fossil fuels as soon as possible. Or at the very minimum include a “phase-down” of fossil fuels. It failed to do either.

COP28 agreement

The 21 page agreement covers the following other noteworthy points:

  • Expresses serious concern that 2023 is set to be the warmest year on record and that impacts from climate change are rapidly accelerating, and emphasizes the need for urgent action and support to keep the 1.5 °C goal within reach and to address the climate crisis in this critical decade.” But a number of climate scientists say that the 1.5C goal is dead in the water, and that 2C may even be beyond reach. This text mentions 1.5C several times. It’s as if mentioning it is enough to keep it within reach. But this is not the case – because of physics.
  • Also recognizes that limiting global warming to 1.5 °C with no or limited overshoot requires deep, rapid and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions of 43 per cent by 2030 and 60 per cent by 2035 relative to the 2019 level and reaching net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.” For reference, the world’s leading climate scientist, Dr James Hansen, writes that, “Thus, under the present geopolitical approach to GHG emissions, global warming will exceed 1.5°C in the 2020s and 2°C before 2050.” The 1.5C boundary could even be breached as early as next year. So this text would appear to be flogging a dead horse.
  • Tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030.” This is important, but as Damian Carrington explains in the Guardian, they haven’t agreed a baseline so each country could use different baselines to make it look like they’ve met the target.
  • Recognizes that transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security.” This is a concerning point, because as Damian Carrington explains “transitional fuels” typically refer to gas – another fossil fuel.
  • Parties shall submit to the secretariat their next nationally determined contributions at least 9 to 12 months in advance of the seventh session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (November 2025) with a view to facilitating the clarity, transparency and understanding of these contributions.” It’s two years until countries update their NDCs. Maybe it will take two years to see whether this year’s agreement to transition away from fossil fuels is reflected in government behaviour?
  • A loss and damage fund was established as mentioned above.


That a decision has been made to (finally) transition away from fossil fuels is a big step. And it’s a step that should’ve been taken at COP2 or COP3, or even COP5. But that it’s taken 28 of these almost annual climate summits to reach this decision is extremely depressing. That the decision isn’t enforceable makes one wonder whether there is any substance to these words, or whether they’ll be effectual in whatever window is left for meaningful climate action.

The loss and damage funding agreement was another step in the right direction, despite the fact it only provides 0.2% of the funding necessary. Thus, it feels difficult to call COP28 a success in anything other than window-dressing. For behind those windows lies an almost empty shop. Hopes for COP29 have already been tempered by the announcement that it will be held in another fossil-fuel producing country – Azerbaijan.

For anyone that feels like the COP process might be broken (this is COP28 after all), George Monbiot has put together some fantastic ideas in his article that we as a society of eight billion people could chose to adopt instead.

I end by referring to Dr James Hansen’s tweet above as the most important voice in the room. For all the potential successes, the reality is that 1.5C will be breached in the near future, which means that we’re also on track to surpass 2C, especially given that emissions are still reaching record levels in 2023… So the COP28 agreement feels like far too little, far too late. How much longer will we tolerate world leaders letting us down, before we implement new solutions like those Monbiot discussed? More importantly, will we have the courage to take collective action before it’s too late?

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Published inThe Climate Crisis