COP28: Of pledges and compromises | Mint

COP28: Of pledges and compromises

COP28 President Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber attends the plenary, after a draft of a negotiation deal was released at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on 13 December.  (Reuters)
COP28 President Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber attends the plenary, after a draft of a negotiation deal was released at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on 13 December. (Reuters)

Summary

  • As expected, the Conference of Parties in Dubai kicked the real hard decisions down the road

New Delhi: After skirting the issue in the Paris Agreement, as well as the subsequent Glasgow and Sharm-el-Sheikh summits, the Conference of Parties in Dubai (COP28) finally belled the cat. In a first, the conference’s final document acknowledges that the chief source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is fossil fuels, and “calls upon" Parties to “transition" away from them in their energy systems. Fossil fuels—coal, oil and gas—supply over 80% of the world’s energy, and account for over 75% of global GHGs today.

For a group used to tiptoeing towards any objective, the declaration seemed like a leap. In reality, however, it was a compromise—under pressure from oil and gas producing countries, the document did not call for a phaseout of fossil fuels, despite half of the Parties supporting such a move.

The COP, which is hosted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is the only multilateral exercise on this scale aimed at addressing climate change. The first COP was held in Berlin in 1995. The conference is held every year, unless agreed otherwise, and sees close to 200 Parties with wide-ranging ambitions attempt to navigate climate crises through a consensus. Typically, COPs tend to be about small, slow steps. COP28, hosted in fossil fuel nerve-centre Dubai and led by the CEO of the UAE’s state-owned oil company, was no different in the final analysis. But it could still spark some policy shifts.

The Dubai conference closed with resolutions on global warming, adaptive measures, and addressing the consequences of climate change. The big positives were the consensus on moving away from fossil fuels, establishing a global framework to help communities and countries adapt to climate change impacts, and building a corpus to deal with losses and damages suffered by the vulnerable in the wake of climate-change induced extreme weather events. But the hard decisions needed to decisively tackle climate change were kicked down the road.

We take a look at the key highlights of the Dubai COP, and their implications.

What does the ‘Global Stocktake’ entail in terms of commitments to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels?

COP28 opened amid a multitude of reports being released, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Synthesis Report. Global warming, the report noted, was already 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and the pace and scale of efforts to deal with climate change were falling woefully short. On 86 days this year, temperatures had breached the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit, the United Nations Environment Programme Emissions Gap Report 2023 highlighted, and called for “unprecedented action".

Ahead of the conference, a host of developed countries and the European Union had called for the phaseout of unabated fossil fuels (their emissions are released directly into the atmosphere without reducing carbon dioxide or other GHGs), a demand echoed by Small Island Developing States (SIDS), a group of countries particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts. SIDS wanted developed countries, which contribute 80% of the world’s carbon emissions, to raise their ambition.

However, after making good progress on the opening day, when it put into operation a Loss and Damage (L&D) Fund agreed on at the previous conference, COP28 slipped into a sea of discontent and anger. The clamour for a fossil fuel phaseout gathered momentum in the first week of negotiations and the preliminary draft of the Global Stocktake text offered multiple fossil fuel phaseout options. The Global Stocktake, as the name suggests, is mandated by the Paris Agreement to track the progress made by that pact’s 195 signatory countries in tackling climate change.

Meanwhile, news outlets reported on a leaked letter from the Opec (The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) secretary general to member countries, including host UAE, urging them to reject any text targeting fossil fuels rather than emissions.

Heightened action and decisions at COPs are traditionally reserved for the last leg. The Parties eventually regrouped to whip out a consensus text on the Global Stocktake after a fortnight of hard negotiations.

A draft Global Stocktake text was released on what was meant to be the penultimate day of COP28. It came in for sharp criticism from multiple quarters as it dropped the phrase “phaseout" and replaced it with “reducing both consumption and production of fossil fuels." Negotiations are on the “verge of complete failure" tweeted former US Vice President Al Gore, while John Silks, minister of natural resources, Republic of Marshall Islands, said his country was not in Dubai to sign a death warrant.

Negotiators huddled together for another day and night, well past the scheduled closure, to emerge with a text that did not reinstate “phaseout" but instead settled for a more open-ended and consensual verb. The final Global Stocktake text—now called the UAE Consensus—calls for “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". It picks out coal when it calls for “accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power". However, it did away with limiting permission for new, unabated coal power generation mentioned in the earlier text. Fossil fuels oil and gas find no specific mention.

What targets do the Global Stocktake set to reduce GHG emissions and accelerate energy transition?

The G20 New Delhi Declaration calling for tripling renewable energy capacity globally by 2030 was endorsed in the Global Stocktake text. It also aimed to double “the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements." Reducing emission of GHGs other than non-carbon dioxide, including methane, by 2030 finds a mention but without citing targets.

What is the structure and scope of the new L&D Fund?

An exclusive L&D Fund was formed in the dying hours at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh as SIDS, Africa and other developing countries insisted upon a dedicated corpus to aid developing countries reeling under climate change-induced extreme weather and slow onset events. Though the fund was formed, decisions on its structure, scope and character were left for Dubai. A transitional committee constituted to shape the fund made recommendations after multiple meetings over the past year.

The L&D Fund, which is to be operated under the finance mechanism of the UNFCCC, will be put into operation by the World Bank and hosted by it for an interim period of four years. As a new channel of multilateral finance, it will assist developing countries in responding to both “economic and non-economic loss and damage associated with adverse effects of climate change". It will financially help combat challenges posed by rising sea levels, displacement, relocation, migration, insufficient climate information and data, and the need for climate-resilient reconstruction and recovery. Financing will be in the form of “grants and highly concessional loans" with a minimum percentage allocation for least developed countries and SIDS.

Financial contribution to the fund is voluntary, with developed countries taking the lead. However, the scale of L&D Fund is unspecified in the text though the estimated financial requirement to deal with loss and damage is pegged at about $400 billion a year. A handful of countries have made contributions to it in Dubai, raising $792 million so far, with both the UAE and Germany committing $100 million each, and the US pledging a paltry $17.5 million.

In terms of targets and implementation what does the Global Goal on Adaptation framework offer, especially for developing countries?

Cascading climate change impacts make it imperative for countries to put practices and processes in place to minimize damage and make communities resilient. Adaptation is a significant aspect of climate negotiations, covering a wide spectrum from local to national measures. Its criticality as a long-term response to climate change led to the establishment of the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA) under the Paris Agreement. At the Glasgow COP26, a two-year work programme on the GGA was undertaken, which concluded in Dubai with the adoption of a framework. Keys to effective adaptation measures range from finance and technology to building capacities. For climate vulnerable and developing countries, including India, finance for adaptation is a concern.

The final text of the Global Goal on Adaptation was delivered on the last day of COP28, indicating the nature of negotiations. After much back and forth, the eventual framework text merely notes with concern the widening gap in adaptation finance, while reiterating that developed countries need to at least double by 2025—from 2019 levels—their adaptation finance provision towards developing countries.

The text sets unquantified targets for 2030 to reduce climate-induced water scarcity, make food and agricultural production climate resilient, build resilience against climate change induced health impacts, reduce climate impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity, and increase resilience of infrastructure and human settlements, among other measures. The GGA also sets 2030 targets for all Parties to conduct up-to-date impact, risk and vulnerability assessments and implement national adaptation plans.

The Global Stocktake outcomes and the GGA framework must be factored in by countries in their new collective quantified goal (NCQG—a new set of climate finance goals). However, it specifies little in terms of the means of implementation of these targets, including the finance and building capacities critical to many developing countries.

“In some cases, they have specified responsibilities and timelines without specifying the means of implementation. For instance, countries have to set-up multi-hazard early-warning systems by 2027 or systems for monitoring, evaluation and learning for national adaptation efforts," observed Ulka Kelkar, executive director, Climate, World Resources Institute India. That is particularly tough in vast, data-scarce countries without finance and technical knowhow, she added.

Why does climate finance continue to be a bone of contention for developing countries?

The established negotiating axis at COPs largely divides countries into two camps: developed and developing. The parleys are guided by the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR- RC), which recognizes unequal economic development between countries and places the onus on historical emitters to step up and act faster.

Developing countries are particularly vulnerable to climate change despite having little role in creating it. The flow of finance from developed countries to developing ones to help them curb GHG emissions and build systems to adapt to climate change impacts has been a thorn in negotiations for long.

The UAE Consensus notes that current levels of climate finance are insufficient to respond to worsening climate change impacts and pegs the adaptation finance needs of developing countries at $215-357 billion annually until 2030 and $4.3 trillion a year for investments in clean energy till that year. The Global Stocktake underscores the significance of public funds for adaptation needs.

Developing countries are still rankled by the unkept promise of $100 billion a year for climate action that was to be paid to them from 2020 to 2025 by developed nations. Consequently, a certain lack of trust underlines the approach of developing countries at negotiations.

An OECD report released before COP28 noted that contributions from the developed world fell short by $10 billion in 2021. Even while concerned with the widening adaptation finance gap, the UAE Consensus merely expresses “deep regret" at the inability of developed countries to mobilize the amount in 2021.

“Finance is a recurring disappointment," said Kelkar but hoped that with the new collective quantified goal deliberations gathering momentum, the Baku COP in 2024 (Azerbaijan) may hold more promise. “There should not only be efforts to make up for past gaps but a much higher goal should be negotiated for the next round. Year after year we continue to operate in good faith, but eventually lack of finance limits timely climate action. It is not merely a symbolic gap but has consequences on the ground," she added.

What will India be taking away from COP28?

Compared to the previous COPs—in Glasgow, it played a key role in pushing for a coal phasedown rather than a phaseout, in Sharm el-Sheikh it called for the phasedown of all fossil fuels—India appears to have kept a low profile in Dubai.

The UAE Consensus, however, narrows down on fossil fuels and picks on “unabated coal power". Despite its mammoth push for renewable energy (RE) coupled with the Global Stocktake requirement of tripling capacities by 2030, coal—at 55%—continues to be the mainstay of India’s energy mix.

“While the future is definitely RE and India is headed in the right direction, the question is what to fall back on in the short term, when RE is intermittent," said Kelkar. The Global Stocktake recognizes the transitional role fuels such as oil and gas can play. Energy security, Kelkar pointed out, will stem from investments in RE and not oil and gas. “India needs to keep calling attention to energy security," she said. For methane emission reduction, she noted, waste management and curbing food loss are critical.

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