Will COP28 catch the next green wave … or will it wipe out?
Service on the 15th of May.
The hosts of COP28 are betting big on business and a private sector “mindset” to deliver a successful event. Are they right? Professor Felix Dodds and Chris Spence review the current state-of-play.
Perhaps one of the least well known among Dubai’s many attractions is surfing. Locals and visitors enjoy the sport at Sunset Beach and elsewhere, especially in winter. There is even an artificial wave pool where surfers can hone their skills. To some, the pool is just another example of the host country’s entrepreneurial outlook.
With COP28 on the horizon, the host government of the United Arab Emirates is once again promoting the virtues of business. In a recent interview with the Guardian media outlet, COP28 president-designate Sultan Al Jaber said the world needs a “business mindset” to tackle the climate crisis. What’s more, he laid out plans to use the COP to promote private sector goals as well as those for governments.
Will this focus on business signal a genuine new green wave, or will it wipe out? This article assesses the state of play and the host’s approach as we head into the official preparatory meetings taking place in Bonn, Germany, in June.
What was achieved at COP27?
To understand the situation, we need first to look at what happened at COP27. This is important not just in terms of the current landscape, but because the COP27 hosts, Egypt, technically continue to hold the presidency until COP28 officially starts on November 30th. While all incoming presidencies are incredibly active in the months leading up to the event they will host, the outgoing presidency has a role to play, too, and the quality of the relationship between the two governments is important.
For many UN insiders, COP27 exceeded expectations. Admittedly, expectations were not high, particularly since COP27 was viewed by many as an “in-between” COP rather than one with critical milestones of the sort that occur every few years. While all COPs matter, most insiders will tell you not all are equal in importance. The COP in Sharm El-Sheikh had a menu of issues it was dealing with, but it was not one where, say, a new global agreement was expected (such as COP21 in Paris), or a global stock take was due (as will happen at COP28 later this year). There had been calls for governments to strengthen their Nationally Determined Contributions (pledges and commitments) at COP27, but few did.
The major achievement at COP27—and the reason the meeting exceeded expectations—was an agreement to establish a loss and damage fund to support vulnerable countries. Few anticipated such a positive outcome even a few weeks prior to the meeting. Although the agreement on loss and damage did not include acceptance of historical responsibility, it was viewed as a big win for the Egyptian Presidency, small islands and other vulnerable states, as well as the Group of 77 developing countries, which in 2022 was under the presidency of Pakistan. Under the terms of the agreement at COP27, the loss and damage fund will need to be operationalized at COP28 and a transitional committee is already working on this. In the world of multilateral diplomacy, this is an ambitious timeframe.
There was another positive development on a modest scale at COP27 on the Global Goal on Adaptation. Delegates agreed to “initiate the development of a framework” to be available for adoption in 2024. Meanwhile, on agriculture a new four-year process was agreed to carry on the work started under the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture. There is a sense now that agriculture and food security are gaining the attention they deserve in climate negotiations.
Outside the formal negotiations, many projects and alliances were advanced, including plans to accelerate the decarbonization of five major sectors: power, road transport, steel, hydrogen, and agriculture. Noteworthy initiatives included the launch of the Global Renewables Alliance, which brings together leaders from the wind, solar, hydropower, green hydrogen, long duration energy storage, and geothermal sectors.
What was not achieved at COP27?
The main source of disappointment at COP27 was the absence of ambition on mitigation. There was a noteworthy lack of new and ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) from governments. What this means is that the critical needle has not shifted when it comes to keeping global warming to less than 1.5 Celsius, or even under 2C. According to the Climate Action Tracker, our long-term scenarios are still well above 2C under most scenarios, and as high as 3.4C under their most pessimistic estimate. This means things have not really improved since COP26.
What’s more, research released just before COP27 showed that the Global North is still not delivering on its commitment to provide $100 billion a year to the Global South. One silver lining to this dark cloud is that this goal may finally be reached in time for COP28. Still, that is three years too late.
Meanwhile, COP27 did less to clarify new rules for the global carbon market than many were hoping to see. While COP26 in Glasgow had provided more details about Paris Agreement Article 6 (which sets out a framework for international cooperation and carbon markets), more granular guidance is still needed. Some fear that without more details on accountability and measurement, for instance in terms of carbon offsets, we could end up with a “wild west” when it comes to the markets.
There was also little progress in negotiations aimed at encouraging the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. On the private sector side, while many companies have made net-zero targets, research suggests many do not have robust plans to deliver this, and there is uncertainty over how the private sector will use carbon offsets. Without greater clarity, this hyped-up “wave” of pledges from businesses around COP26 and before may end up a damp squib.
Looking to the Bonn climate conference
The political backdrop to the UN Bonn climate conference in June is complex. On the downside, governments are still emerging from the COVID pandemic and many are still focused on, and feeling the impact of, the war in Ukraine. On the positive side, the cost of solar and wind continues to fall and European countries are moving more quickly because they want to be independent of Russian fossil fuels. Although others are taking advantage of Europe’s reduced demand to increase purchases of Russia’s fossil fuels at reduced prices, the growing focus on renewable energy in many countries should be seen as a positive overall in terms of climate mitigation.
With some major milestones coming up at COP28 later this year, the Bonn conference in June will give us some signals of how close we will be to delivering success in December.
Global Stocktake: UN climate negotiators are expected to take stock of progress on the Paris Agreement every five years. COP28 marks the culmination of the first “stocktake” and will be expected to shape and catalyze future action. The stocktake has three phases. In the first phase, which started at COP26, information is collected and prepared from various sources to help assess progress. Phase 2, which started last year, includes in-person “technical dialogues” focused on mitigation, adaptation, and implementation. These will conclude in Bonn this June. Finally, the stocktake will end at COP28 with a presentation of findings and discussions on how to respond. The Bonn meeting will therefore present an opportunity to take the pulse of these discussions. How robust have the technical dialogues been? Is there a surge of support from governments to make COP28 a major milestone for climate action? Bonn should provide clues about this.
Loss and Damage Fund: The transitional committee has been established and had its first meeting in Luxor, Egypt, in April. It will meet again in Bonn. Its role is to make recommendations on how to operationalize both the new funding arrangements and the fund at COP28. How are these discussions proceeding? Bonn should give some indications on progress, as well as potential areas of discord and disagreement.
Global Goal on Adaptation: With significant change already “baked in” to our climate system, effective adaptation will be critical. The Global Goal on Adaptation was agreed under the Paris Agreement and recognizes the need to build adaptive capacity, strengthen resilience and limit vulnerability. Adaptation will be addressed in Bonn under both the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) and the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA). It also links to the work of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, a related UN initiative which is having its “mid-term review” at UN Headquarters in New York from 18-19 May.
New Collective Quantified Goal on Climate Finance: The goal of providing $100 billion in support annually for the Global South by 2020 was originally set in 2009. Now it is up for review. Since that earlier goal was viewed as a “floor” rather than a ceiling, many are expecting more ambitious targets in future. A new goal is supposed to be set before 2025, meaning COP29 in 2024 should mark the moment when a new number (or set of numbers) is agreed. Again, Bonn will mark a moment to assess how those conversations are going, especially given the wide differences in the type of dollar figures being bandied about by the Global North and Global South (many of whom are calling for trillions). Those following this topic can look to the 6th Technical Expert Dialogue, which is taking place in Bonn, to get a sense of progress.
Carbon Markets: As mentioned above, in spite of progress many are still hoping for more granular details on the carbon markets. This will be vital to curtail greenwashing with offsets.
Coalitions of the Willing: Sultan Al Jaber, the COP28 president-designate, recently highlighted the private sector’s role in combating climate change. In fact, all stakeholders will need to be fully engaged if we are to have any chance of staying withing 1.5C of warming. Voluntary coalitions of governments, the private sector and many others will be vital, especially when it comes to advancing issues where all 190+ governments that are party to the UN climate treaty and Paris Agreement are not yet ready or willing to agree.
Such voluntary initiatives offer considerable scope for those who want to move ahead. In turn, this has the potential to set precedents and entrench ideas that might be taken up by all governments in future formal UN negotiations. An example of this is the methane pledge, which involved some 50 countries reporting on progress at COP27. More should be looked for at COP28. Likewise, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, which has reportedly had some teething problems since its launch in 2021, will hopefully use COP28 as a moment to showcase progress and put its early difficulties behind it.
Will COP28 Launch a New Green Wave?
Eyebrows were raised when the United Arab Emirates was first named as host of COP28. Why, people asked, would a climate COP be held in an OPEC state? Furthermore, many wondered publicly whether Sultan Al Jaber, who is likely to preside over the meeting, should do so given his role as chief executive of UAE’s national oil company? Does this represent a conflict of interest?
These are fair questions that will only be fully answered by the COP and what it achieves. However, it is worth noting that the prospects of a fossil fuel-producing country hosting COP28 were always quite high. As UN insiders know, the climate COPs are typically hosted on a rotating basis in each of the UN’s five “regional groups.” This time around, it was Asia-Pacific’s turn. Many countries in this region, including more than a dozen small island nations, probably do not have the internal capacity to host an event of this magnitude. Of those that do, many—from Saudi Arabia to India, Indonesia to China, Iran to Australia—are fossil-fuel producers. Furthermore, while Sultan Al Jaber has a history in the fossil-fuel industry, he has also been prominent in the UAE’s work on renewable energy and is the founding CEO and current Chair of Masdar, a UAE-owned renewable energy company. Depicting him simply as a fossil fuel “dinosaur” does not do justice to a more nuanced and complicated situation.
Ultimately, UAE’s role as COP28 host will be judged on results. Will COP deliver an operational and meaningful loss and damage fund? Will it produce a global stocktake that invigorates international action? How will discussions on a new global finance goal shape up? And will Sultan Al Jaber’s overtures towards the private sector turn the steady trickle of pledges into a giant wave of action? Finally, will other stakeholders, like non-governmental organizations, be embraced and welcomed? We should also note the significance of appointing Razan Al Mubarak as UN Climate Change High-Level Champion for the COP28 Presidency, given she is also IUCN President and a former head of Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency.
One early indicator in Bonn will be an expected update on COP28 logistics. This is likely to include more details on the “Blue Zone” (where negotiations are held and many stakeholders usually have pavilions and stalls). Will the Blue Zone offer easy access to all stakeholders? And how will the “Green Zone,” which at past COPs has been open to the public, operate?
Only time will tell if COP28 marks the start of a new green wave or ends in an unfortunate wipe out.
Professor Felix Dodds is Director, Multilateral Affairs, Rob and Melani Walton Sustainable Solutions Service (RMWSSS) at Arizona State University. He is also Adjunct Professor and Senior Fellow at the Global Research Institute, University of North Carolina, and Associate Fellow at the Tellus Institute, Boston.
Chris Spence is a consultant and advisor to a range of international organizations on climate change and sustainable development, as well as an award-winning writer. Spence and Dodds recently co-edited Heroes of Environmental Diplomacy: Profiles in Courage (Routledge, 2022).