Here we are, another UN climate change conference. So, what should you be expecting?
For those who don’t know, COP is the main decision-making body of the UNFCCC, convened on an annual basis to “review national communications and emissions inventories” submitted by those states that signed up to the convention back in 1995. In non-legalese, that means it’s a chance for nations to get together and agree on how to tackle the climate crisis.
Among its greatest achievements is the establishment of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which saw 192 countries agree to reduce greenhouse emissions for the first time. More recently, and most notably, countries signed the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Paris was the first time that the world (196 Parties) agreed to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels” and pursue efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels”.
Today, COP can often feel like an all the more sluggish process. Negotiators spend two weeks haggling over the minutiae of statements, while the world continues to hurtle towards dangerous levels of warming.
But could this year be different? In the midst of geopolitical crises and at the end of what will likely be the hottest year on record, what battle lines can we expect to be drawn at COP28? And what progress can be made?
The global stocktake
If you want to know what sets this COP apart from all the others, this is it. The first-ever global stocktake — the process by which the UNFCCC takes an inventory of everything relating to where the world stands on climate — is set to conclude at COP28.
Under the Paris Agreement, global stocktakes are set to take place every five years, with the aim of helping governments track the world’s progress. Rather than assessing individual countries, however, the point is to take an aggregate look at where we’re at, with the hope that it will act as a motivator.
Once complete, countries have two years to submit updated targets — “Nationally Determined Contributions” — to the UN. These set out how they intend to take stronger action than they already are.
The findings from the data collection stage of the stocktake were published in a technical report in September. It made for grim reading. Despite significant progress, the report found that the nations of the world are not doing nearly enough to meet the goals set out in Paris eight years ago.
At COP28, negotiators and global leaders will discuss the findings of the technical report. They’ll then summarise the key messages, opportunities and shortcomings in the statement at the end of the conference, known as the “cover decision”.
Loss and damage
The hot topic of last year’s COP in Egypt was finance. Specifically, the debate centred around how wealthy countries should help those who are on the front lines of the climate crisis, battling the forces of nature head on.
It was back in 2009 that such an idea was first floated at a COP. Developed nations agreed then to establish an annual fund of $100 bn by 2020 to help developing nations adapt to climate change and mitigate further rises in temperature.
According to the OECD, the $100 bn target has now been hit, albeit two years late. However, the figure is now widely regarded as a drop in the ocean compared to what is required. Some researchers, for example, estimate that as much as $2 tn dollars will be needed annually by 2030.
At COP27, after some last minute twists and turns, negotiators finally reached an agreement; they would establish a new “loss and damage fund”.
The job this year is to decide how much money should go where and from whom. Expect these negotiations to be tense.
Phase down or phase out?
According to climate scientists, the message around the use of fossil fuels should be simple: stop using them as fast as possible. Unfortunately, the messaging on the global scene is much less uniform.
COP after COP has been dogged by the question of one tiny, yet apparently significant, difference in wording. Should fossil fuels be phased out or phased down? (Hint: “out” is the correct answer.)
COP president and fossil fuel executive Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber has called for a “phase down”. Meanwhile, the European Union is expected to push for a “phase out”.
It may sound trivial, but this matters.
COP28 president Dr. Sultan Al Jaber (COP28 UAE/Flickr)
Others argue that another word, “unabated”, should be thrown into the mix.
Unabated fuels are burned without the use of carbon capture technologies. A “phase out of unabated fossil fuels” may, therefore, be the compromise between the two sides of the argument.
If there’s one ray of sunshine in the world of intergovernmental climate diplomacy, it must surely be renewable energy.
The recent World Energy Outlook report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) marked a significant turning point for energy. For the first time, the IEA predicted that fossil fuel demand is set to peak by 2030, mostly as a consequence of investment in renewable energy.
At COP28, the Emirati presidency is calling for a tripling of renewable energy capacity by 2030. In numbers, that’s 11,000 gigawatts (GW) of renewable capacity, which is similar to what the IEA is calling for under its 1.5C warming scenario.
According to Carbon Brief, deals to triple renewable energy capacity and double energy efficiency — the amount of energy needed to generate each unit of economic output — at COP28 are crucial to keeping us on a path to 1.5C.
Perhaps more than any COP before, this one has been mired in controversy.
The UAE is one of the world’s top 10 oil producing nations, and its decision to appoint the chief executive of its state-owned oil company, ADNOC, as president ruffled the feathers of many climate campaigners.
In recent days, leaked documents revealed that the UAE is planning to use its position to strike more oil and gas deals, casting ever greater doubt on its ability to legitimately chair the conference.
For some, Mr Jaber’s prominent posts in both the oil and gas industry and the renewables sector — he is also chairman of the renewables firm Masdar — positions him perfectly to straddle both sides of the debate.
For others, including renowned climate activist Greta Thunberg, the decision by the petrostate to appoint Jaber as president is “completely ridiculous”.
Keep your eyes peeled
Regardless of whether you view COP as a useful forum for progress or a symptom of a broken system, it’s here to stay. Keep your eyes peeled for revelations from side events and agreements that don’t hit the global headlines. Not every year will produce a Kyoto Protocol or a Paris Agreement.
In the periods between these historic moments, COP is about hard negotiations, bringing focus to the climate and allowing the voices of smaller nations to be heard, even if their warnings are infrequently heeded.