Climate

COP28: What to look out for at the Dubai climate summit

From a stocktake of recent progress to proposals to reform climate financing, we take a look at the big issues likely to draw focus at COP28, opening this week in Dubai
<p>A plenary at the Pre-COP meeting in Abu Dhabi, 31 October 2023 (Image: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/cop28uae/">COP28 UAE</a>, <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/">CC BY-NC 2.0</a>)</p>

A plenary at the Pre-COP meeting in Abu Dhabi, 31 October 2023 (Image: COP28 UAE, CC BY-NC 2.0)

A former head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) used to describe the annual climate summit as “the only circus in town”. It may not be good enough to control climate change, he said, but the situation would be worse without it.

A few weeks ago, UNFCCC published a new analysis of national climate pledges to date, the NDC synthesis report, that underlines the huge gap between current action and what is required to keep global warming within 2C of pre-industrial levels. According to the UN’s climate science body, the IPCC, emissions must be cut by 43% by 2030, based on 2019 levels, to keep warming within 1.5C.

Against this backdrop, the agenda at the fortnight-long COP28 summit, set to start in Dubai on Thursday 30 November, will be led by the “global stocktake”, a process mandated under the 2015 Paris Agreement to evaluate action to combat climate change every eight years.

This will probably lead to a repeat of the “developed versus developing nations” blame game that has dogged climate negotiations for decades. Rich countries are trying to shift more responsibility for mitigating emissions onto developing countries, especially emerging economies, whilst doing too little themselves. Poor countries point out that rich ones created the problem in the first place, are not controlling their own emissions strictly enough, and are not providing the developing world with the money they have promised to control climate change and its effects.

COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber will need all of his diplomatic and negotiating skills to bridge this divide. He is also the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. This role at a fossil fuel company presents a conflict of interest that weakens trust in his motivation to get a strong climate deal done. COP watchers suggest his strategy will be to announce how the oil and gas sector will be decarbonised.

It’s all about money

The global stocktake is supposed to reinforce efforts to control climate change. The developing world needs trillions of dollars for this task every year. Yet there is near-zero possibility of such sums coming from developed country governments, which have failed to meet a pledge made in 2009, to provide US$100 billion a year for climate action in developing countries by 2020. At COP28, bitter speeches from developing country government delegates on this lack of finance are perhaps inevitable.

What may be more constructive is the reported plan of Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley to use COP28 to push the Bridgetown Initiative, a plan to reform global climate finance. Mottley’s adviser Avinash Persaud told a pre-COP meeting held in New Delhi on 20 November that developing countries need US$2.4 trillion a year for emission mitigation, and of this, $1.9 trillion can come from private investors if developed country governments pledge the rest to de-risk lending. At the COP, the technical committee on climate finance will go through each aspect of the Bridgetown Initiative. Whatever they agree will be sent to the conference plenary for adoption as a COP resolution. If there are important points on which they disagree, such as taxing bunker fuels, they will report that to their own ministers, who will then try to reach a compromise.

Persaud was confident that the ‘loss and damage’ fund agreed upon at last year’s COP27 could get the money it needed by taxing aviation, shipping and other highly polluting activities, though other experts were sure that some rich countries, notably the United States, would not accept such taxation. The fund is meant to help communities hit by disasters such as floods or storms that have been worsened by climate change.

A new point of friction in climate finance negotiations is around what organisation will administer the loss and damage fund. Rich countries want the World Bank to do it; poor countries want it controlled by the Green Climate Fund set up under the UN. Rich countries have more control over the World Bank, with more votes in its governing body, and they say it is more efficient than the Green Climate Fund. Developing countries say they find the World Bank less likely to fund them, and that when it does, it takes a large percentage in consultancy fees. Developed and developing countries have equal votes in the Green Climate Fund. Throughout 2023, talks on this topic have collapsed repeatedly. The latest decision, made on 5 November, is for the World Bank to administrate the fund “temporarily”, though this compromise may well be attacked by some developing country delegates.

Governments of poor countries have another big worry about climate finance – most of it is coming in the form of loans rather than grants. This can be seen in the Just Energy Transition Partnerships (JETPs) between a group of developed countries and South Africa, and later also Indonesia, Vietnam and Senegal. The COP will not officially engage with the issue of JETPs, but they will be discussed at side events, and it is possible that the US will announce some new deals.

Tripling renewable energy

Government delegates preparing for COP28 and long-time watchers of climate negotiations expect the conference to reiterate a pledge adopted by the G20 in September to triple current renewable energy capacity by 2030. That would be a big positive to come out of the COP.

But any such pledge may be accompanied by demands from some rich countries that emerging economies – especially China and India – agree to a more rapid phasedown of coal use. This possibility is worrying Indian negotiators, especially because the government has recently announced plans to increase coal production for power generation. Their probable negotiating tactic will be to widen the conversation to all fossil fuels, not just coal, making adoption of pledges less likely.

Methane, the new flashpoint

Methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, has been a flashpoint in climate negotiations, especially since the Global Methane Pledge was launched at COP26 in 2021. Through it, some developed countries, led by the United States, have pledged to rapidly reduce methane emissions and are pressuring developing countries to do the same. China has not signed it but has recently released a methane plan. India has opposed the pledge, on two counts. One, it says little about flaring of oil and gas, which accounts for at least half of all methane emissions. Two, the other big sources of methane are livestock and paddy farming, and India has argued that action in these areas will hit smallholder farmers.

But after the recent US–China climate agreement, which was big on reducing methane, India may be under renewed pressure to make some sort of a pledge. The pressure is likely to come from the “methane and non CO2 greenhouse gases summit” that the US and China are planning to hold at COP28. In conversation with China Dialogue, Indian negotiators have so far said they will not agree to make a pledge.

Problem inherent in climate negotiations

Climate negotiations suffer from an inherent problem – UNFCCC decisions must be by consensus between all countries. For decades, bureaucrats have been going to climate negotiations with a fundamental brief from their governments – grab the most, give the least. When countries at so many different stages of development, and with so many differing political systems, get into negotiations, at best they arrive at a compromise too weak to deal with the climate emergency. People around the world already impacted by climate change are hoping COP28 will be different, at least a bit.