The lesson of COP28? Action is all that matters

The UN climate conference could have been derailed by fossil fuel interests. But deals struck around the fringes offer hope of tangible progress

December 15, 2023
World leaders walk in a crowd beneath flags at the beginning of COP28 in Dubai
Seeking consensus: world leaders arrive at COP28 in Dubai on 1st December 2023

One of the few uncontested observations made by COP28’s president Sultan Al Jaber came in the brief remarks with which he accompanied the acceptance of the COP text, henceforth to be known as the UAE Consensus, on Wednesday morning. After proclaiming the proceedings a victory, he stressed that “an agreement is only as good as its implementation. We are what we do, not what we say. We must take the steps necessary to turn this agreement into tangible action.” 

The point resonated. Twenty-eight conferences deep in the global attempt to avoid dangerous climate change, global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. This year’s event began towards the end of record-breaking climate year—2023 has been the warmest yet —and against the background of a global stocktake that presented an appropriately alarming report about the gap between aims and action, and amid a sense of urgency that could not be ignored.

It had been a gruelling close to the conference, culminating in two nights of hard bargaining over more than 200 points of disagreement between negotiators from 198 countries. This is a multidimensional haggling process in which nothing is agreed until everything is agreed; a kind of horse-trading on an epic scale. Although the banner that hung behind the delegates in the final family photograph proudly claimed that “We united, we acted, we delivered”, in reality, the resulting agreement is as full of weaknesses, loopholes and omissions as it is of elements of hope. The texts that result from such a process always are.

But flawed and infuriating as any United Nations consensus process must be, the annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to give it is full title, remains the essential global town square for the discussion of a unique global threat in all its dimensions, a discussion that includes everyone from representatives of the tiniest nations and smallest emitters to the global giants. The main event is inevitably imperfect because, as Simon Sharpe wrote in Prospect last month, the process tends to default to the lowest common denominator, generating more disappointment than hope. It can be held hostage by bad actors and complicated by the multiple conflicts of interest within it. The scorecard is equally complicated.

The event began with a breakthrough agreement about loss and damage, the long-deadlocked issue of how to compensate poorer countries for the impacts of climate change that they have not caused, and was boosted by some prompt donations in the conference’s early days. In the closing moments, small island states which are under imminent threat from rising seas complained that they were not in the room when the gavel came down on the final text; they remained deeply disappointed with the outcome. Many players were disappointed by the failure to commit to “phasing out” fossil fuels while others celebrated the new formulation of “transitioning away” as an important breakthrough. 

COP28 will be remembered for the fact that powerful fossil fuel interests were conspicuous—in the presence, for example, for the first time of Darren Woods, CEO of Exxon, the company that has for years played the pantomime villain of disinformation and misinformation on climate change; and in the leaked Opec letter that urged all members to resist any mention of restrictions on fossil fuel, an effort that can safely be filed under the category of Nice Try. 

But despite this intensive lobbying, fossil fuel interests did not score an unequivocal victory: the conference managed to produce an outcome that many hailed as significant. Victories for fossil fuel interests included that the idea of gas as a transitional fuel will continue to be indulged; that the transition away from fossil fuels will be limited to the energy sector, in which oil plays a relatively small part, while mentions of other significant sectors such as industry and transport were omitted; and the fact that transitioning away—rather than phasing out—puts the burden of effort on to the consumer and removes it from the producer. 

These are relatively minor victories, and in the end the fate of the planet will depend on how clearly investors, governments and markets understand the signal that the end of the fossil fuel era is coming. Last year, clean investment overtook fossil investment and is now growing at 30 per cent a year. The cost of the energy transition continues to fall and, according to the International Energy Agency, global fossil fuel use is likely to peak in 2025. Even China, despite its coal addiction, seems ready to peak by then. The oil producing states and companies will continue to resist, but the question now is how quickly they will lose. 

COP is often criticised for its scale: some 97,000 people attended this year, a crowd that included politicians, philanthropists, activists and lobbyists as well as negotiators. That number is a testament to role of COP as a theatre for initiatives, discussions and agreements that happen outside the negotiation rooms, a bottom-up process in which self-organising groups make deals and generate collaborative efforts to move the transition faster. In Dubai, amongst dozens of side deals, progress was made on limiting methane and, in one important example, 123 countries (not including India, China or Indonesia) pledged to triple the deployment of renewables and to double the global average rate of energy efficiency by 2030. It is signals such as these that point to a possible future.