The COP28 – not historic but not sans hopes

By Ranjan Panda –

I reached the CO28 venue at the start of the second week of negotiations. The week one had supposedly passed with many positive notes.  The Loss and Damage Fund had been operationalized in a spur of a moment, even before people could realize about the move.  It was welcomed from all across and developed countries started to pledge funds for the same.  Another milestone, a first for COP, was the adoption of the COP28 UAE Declaration on Climate and Health that “signifies a global commitment to address climate-related health impacts, emphasizing the imperative for governments to fortify healthcare systems”.  Then, at the COP28 Global Methane Pledge Ministerial, Ministers welcomed transformational national actions and catalytic grant funding to deliver on the goal to cut methane by at least 30 percent by 2030. The first week also saw the signing of a renewable energy pledge that aimed to triple the world’s green energy capacity to 11,000 GW by 2030, thereby, reducing the reliance on fossil fuels in generating energy.

Against this backdrop, as I entered into the mega event, on which the entire world stays hooked in hope each year, I stumbled upon the first leaked document of COP28 and that was no good news.  The electrifying optimism that emitted out of the first week got a jolt as this leaked letter from the OPEC made rounds.  While the world is facing ‘irreversible consequences’ of climate change caused by fossil fuels, an ‘irreversible consequence’ warning of another sort was issued by the oil giants association to its members including the host of COP. It warned of consequences to their people and prosperity if they don’t push back the unprecedented high pressure for ‘phase-out’ of fossils. This COP was already mired with contradictions of sorts from the very beginning. While the host country is among the highest oil producers of the world, this COP has seen the strongest opposition to fossil fuels. This letter warned the oil states to “proactively reject any text or formula that targets energy, i.e. fossil fuels, rather than emissions”.  Fossil-fuel phase out was at the centre of lobby by activists and scientists this COP even as the event saw the maximum participation of fossil fuel lobbyists in the history of COPs.

Global Stock Take – first and not so encouraging

The first Global Stock Take (GST) texts were made public on 11th December and became controversial from the word go as there was no clear mention of fossil fuel phase out and many other strong texts that the developing countries, activists and scientists would have wanted there.  The GST texts were supposed to strike a balance between mitigation, adaptation and climate finance support systems.  However, nothing seemed like moving the way the world needed.  The Paris Climate Goal of 1.5 Degree C seemed no where in sight.  It surely had mention of a regret that the $100 billion target of financing developing countries was not achieved and recalled Article 4.5 of the Paris Agreement, which says that ‘support shall be provided to developing country Parties,’ but the overall texts could not impress the negotiators. 

The drama around negotiations, as is signature of COPs, continued till the last day.  The COP Presidency tried its best to avoid strong words against fossil fuels but many affected countries wanted the same to say.  However, finally, the COP Presidency managed to drive through all the pressures and controversies to arrive at a softer tone for the negotiation texts.  The UAE Consensus, that was adapted on the 13th of December, after an extended one day of negotiations, was termed by the COP Presidency as ‘historic.’ 

The release read: “Together, we met our historic challenge on 13 December 2023 by delivering the UAE Consensus which has, at its heart, the first Global Stocktake (GST), setting out the ambitious actions needed to keep 1.5°C within reach.  The UAE Consensus includes an unprecedented reference to transitioning away from all fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner in this critical decade to enable the world to reach net zero emissions by 2050, in keeping with the science”.

Controlled narrative, mixed bag of responses 

In my opinion, there is nothing historic about this decision as the COP Presidency successfully controlled the narrative.  Decisions, many said, were more political than technical.  Of course, COP, over the years, has seen more political discourse than technical.  Science has not failed us, but our politicians have.  Some reporters pointed out that the GST decision text was in fact prepared almost entirely through exclusive consultations held by COP28 President Dr. Sultan Al Jaber and his team with nearly no visibility to the public.  The decisions during this COP have sprung surprises by the way they have been taken. Even the final consensus was something that came up as a surprise to delegates as there was not much in the public domain before the decision was taken. 

References/further reading:

Highlights from 2023 Global Methane Pledge Ministerial