/ 11 December 2023

From pledges to action: COP28’s crucial role in shaping climate realities

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A Climate activist lies on the ground as he takes part in a protest against fossil fuels during the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference COP27. Photo: Getty Images

As the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change continues in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, against the backdrop of 2023 poised to become the hottest year on record, the world is at a critical juncture. 

The urgency of the situation is underscored by the World Meteorological Organization’s projection that global warming will hover perilously close to the 1.5°C limit set by the Paris Pact. Floods, droughts and wildfires have become an annual ordeal, prompting a poignant question: Will the trajectory of the coming years deviate from the familiar pattern of environmental distress? 

A positive note emerged from the initial days of the conference, where delegates agreed to put the Loss and Damage Fund into operation. This financial and technological package responds to the inescapable effects of climate change, a demand that took over 30 years to materialise. 

The commitment by developed and developing countries to infuse about $550 million into the fund is hailed as a victory for COP28. However, the triumph is tempered by lingering questions about the adequacy of these pledged amounts compared to the staggering $400 billion annual estimate for climate-related damages in developing states.

As discussions unfold in Dubai, concerns loom over the voluntary contributions to the Loss and Damage Fund and the World Bank’s overseeing role, fuelled by the historical inconsistency of developed countries in honouring financial commitments. The need to replenish the fund and expedite compensation to communities on the front lines of climate change adds a layer of complexity to the deliberations. 

In the evolving landscape of climate negotiations, a palpable shift in perception is becoming evident. The acknowledgment embedded in the Loss and Damage Fund signifies that the climate crisis is no longer relegated to the realm of a future development but is an immediate challenge. There is a growing consensus that the most vulnerable, the poorest countries, bear the brunt of the dire consequences, emphasising the urgency of protecting those virtually powerless against nature’s fury. 

In addition, COPs are increasingly recognised as critical events facilitating connections between fossil fuel use, affluent-world consumption and the lethal risks faced by those in the climate danger zones.

A flare of promise has emanated from Dubai with the pledge by 116 countries to triple their renewable energy capacity by 2030. If honoured, this commitment could potentially avert the emission of about 7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. 

Beyond the realm of COP-level negotiations, the significance of this pledge was underscored in the New Delhi Summit declaration by the G20 countries. The ambitious target, however, is accompanied by the stark reality that achieving it would require adding close to 1 000 gigawatts of clean energy annually until 2030. This monumental task necessitates not only infrastructure development but also fostering a conducive economic environment, particularly in countries lacking in these domains. 

The International Renewable Energy Agency’s estimation that global clean energy investment needs to quadruple to $5 trillion annually between 2023 and 2030 accentuates the financial challenge, with Africa currently receiving only 3% of global clean energy investment.

This recognition of equity as fundamental to climate action underscores a paradigm shift. Yet, as articulated, much more than mere acknowledgment is required to translate this principle into tangible action. The intertwined nature of scaling up renewables and phasing out fossil fuels becomes a focal point. 

The potential of COP28 hinges on whether it can catalyse a corresponding agreement on fossil fuel phase-out, with an emphasis on historical responsibility. Amid the evolving narrative, a reflection on the three decades of multilateral negotiations leading to three legally binding treaties, including the 2015 Paris Agreement, comes to the forefront. 

The recent 2023 UNEP Gap Report paints a stark picture, indicating that even if all unconditional national contributions under the Paris Agreement are implemented, we are on track for a 2.9°C rise – far from the 1.5°C goal. The financing gap looms large, with flows three to six times below the requirements for a Paris-aligned pathway.

Here, the focus should be on the inherent limitations of UN climate negotiations, constrained by consensus-based decision-making and the procedural obligations of the Paris Agreement. The need to play to their strengths emerges — primarily a norm-setting role. COP28 must provide a clear direction, catalysing action and acknowledging the gaps in ambition, implementation and support. 

The impending “Global Stocktake” becomes a vital tool for assessing progress and COP28 must signal a departure from the agreed temperature goal. There is a need for it to pivot away from the exclusive focus on greenhouse gas reduction target-setting, a trend observed in recent COPs. 

The knee-jerk reaction to public pressure, leading to increasingly ambitious targets, is deemed precarious without substantive financial support. The call to shift focus towards increased renewable energy and energy efficiency, coupled with a phasedown of unabated fossil fuel use, resonates as a more pragmatic approach. The emphasis on implementation and support, rather than the repetitive cycle of target-setting, aims to bridge the gap between aspirations and reality.

In steering away from the impending inferno of 3°C global warming, COP28 faces a crucial crossroads. The urgency to fast-track the energy transition advocates for renewable sources, alternative materials and enhanced resource conservation. Efforts must intensify in slashing emissions before the ominous 2030 deadline, making energy efficiency non-negotiable. 

The emphasis shifts towards embracing nature and humanity, with a call to protect ecosystems and biodiversity and fortify communities against climate impacts. COP28 must recognise people as active participants, empowering diverse stakeholders, especially youth, women, indigenous communities and civil society. It is a collective endeavour to achieve the Paris Agreement goals, mitigating the worst repercussions of climate change. 

Understanding the causes of climate warming and potential atmospheric heat exchange is crucial. 

Equity and fairness, framed not as constraints but as enablers of ambition, emerge as important components of COP28’s agenda. Large-scale system transitions, with an understanding of their potentially disruptive impact on marginalised communities, necessitate just and inclusive transitions. 

The operationalisation of the Loss and Damage Fund, if appropriately financed, stands as a potential trust-building measure. The imperative of robust follow-up and accountability takes centre stage in the final analysis. 

The surge in climate litigation globally indicates a growing demand for accountability, urging states and the UN process to deliver on promises. The challenges are manifold, with diverse needs and obstacles confronting various regions and, indeed, each individual nation. No panacea exists that can be uniformly applied across the globe. The solutions must be as nuanced as the unique contexts they seek to address.