Dubai, climate capital of the world: The results of the first week of COP28

The first week of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 28), in Dubai has been a rollercoaster of emotions, with moments of triumph, controversies, and ongoing negotiations that will shape the future of global climate action. As leaders and representatives from nearly 200 countries convened in Dubai’s Expo City, the world anticipated breakthroughs and meaningful commitments to address the escalating climate crisis.

The first week of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 28), in Dubai has been a rollercoaster of emotions, with moments of triumph, controversies, and ongoing negotiations that will shape the future of global climate action. As leaders and representatives from nearly 200 countries convened in Dubai’s Expo City, the world anticipated breakthroughs and meaningful commitments to address the escalating climate crisis.

Historic Loss and Damage Fund Agreement: A Hard-Won Victory

The conference began on an optimistic note as a historical loss and damage fund were agreed upon during the opening plenary. This marked a significant achievement for developing countries that have long advocated for financial support from developed nations to address the destruction caused by the climate crisis. Loss and damage, encompassing the devastation of lives, livelihoods, and infrastructure, have disproportionately affected vulnerable and poor nations that bear minimal responsibility for the crisis.

However, the victory was bittersweet. The $700 million pledged by wealthy nations, while a step forward, covers less than 0.2% of the estimated annual cost of damages, ranging from $100 billion to $580 billion. The funds, as emphasized by climate justice experts, should be new and additional, coming as grants rather than loans. Yet, details regarding the nature and timing of the pledged money remain elusive, raising concerns about the commitment of developed nations to provide adequate financial support.

Controversy Surrounding COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber’s Comments

Midway through the conference, a global uproar ensued following revelations about comments made by COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber in a video call. The Guardian’s Damian Carrington and the Centre for Climate Reporting disclosed that Al Jaber, also the head of the UAE’s state-owned oil company, Adnoc, had stated there was “no science” supporting the need to phase out fossil fuels to restrict global heating to 1.5°C.

The ensuing outcry from climate scientists compelled Al Jaber to hold an emergency press conference, where he defended his views, claiming they were misrepresented. He asserted his belief in the inevitability and essentiality of a phase-down and phase-out of fossil fuels. The incident heightened concerns about the influence of the fossil fuel industry on the conference, especially given the record number of fossil fuel lobbyists—more than 2,400—having access, four times more than the previous year.

Draft Global Stocktake Text: The Fossil Fuel Dilemma

Central to COP28’s agenda is the negotiation of a global stocktake text addressing fossil fuel reduction commitments. The focus is on whether countries will commit to a phase-out or phase-down of unabated fossil fuels, with nuances in language proving to be contentious. A draft text published on Tuesday retained language committing to a phase-out, but uncertainties lingered as the option of deletion remained on the table.

Negotiators reported constructive attitudes, yet challenges emerged. Saudi Arabia sought to introduce references to carbon capture and storage at every opportunity, extending even to instances where such references were unwarranted. Additionally, the kingdom aimed to insert the word ’emissions’ after fossil fuels in any references to their phase-out or phase-down. The position of China, a crucial player, added further complexity to the negotiations.

Leadership Dynamics at COP 28: A Spectrum of Approaches

Leadership dynamics at COP28 showcased a spectrum of approaches from various nations. King Charles of the UK delivered a speech warning of a “vast, frightening experiment” on the natural world. However, criticisms arose against UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for perceived backtracking on climate policy, undermining the UK’s leadership role.

In an unconventional move, President Joe Biden delegated Vice President Kamala Harris to represent the United States. Her appearance received a mixed response, partly due to the booming oil and gas extraction industry in the U.S. However, US climate envoy John Kerry announced a significant crackdown on methane emissions, aligning with global efforts to address this potent climate pollutant.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro joined an alliance calling for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty, emphasizing the urgency of preventing the “omnicide of planet Earth.” Petro’s stance raised eyebrows, considering Colombia’s reliance on fossil fuels, but he argued it was essential to avoid the global catastrophe.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva linked climate action with tackling inequality, highlighting the interconnected nature of these challenges. However, concerns were raised as Brazil, on the conference’s first day, announced its alignment with OPEC, the world’s largest oil cartel, raising questions about its commitment to climate goals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arrival in the UAE to discuss the Israel-Gaza conflict added a geopolitical dimension to COP28, causing alarm among the Ukrainian delegation. The intertwining of climate discussions with broader geopolitical issues underscored the complexity of the challenges faced at the conference.

A Day of Rest and Reflection: Assessing the Landscape

The conference briefly hit the pause button, declaring Thursday an official rest day. It provided participants with an opportunity to reflect on the events of the first week and contemplate the road ahead. The optimism stemming from the historic loss and damage fund agreement was balanced against the backdrop of unresolved controversies and the magnitude of the challenges that lie ahead.

Major Announcements and Financial Commitments: A Glimmer of Hope

Amidst the controversies and negotiations, the first week of COP28 witnessed major announcements and financial commitments exceeding $80 billion. Declarations spanning vital areas such as food, peace and recovery, renewable energy and efficiency, methane reduction, and decarbonizing heavy-emitting industries dominated the agenda. Over 100 countries signed the food declaration, seeking to prioritize climate considerations in agriculture.

Scaling up climate finance emerged as a critical component of tackling climate change, with the COP presidency stating that over $80 billion had been mobilized so far, including funds pledged for loss and damage. While these commitments signal progress, the overarching question remains whether they are sufficient to address the scale of the climate crisis and fulfil the financial obligations owed by developed nations to the most affected countries.

Climate Talks Take Center Stage: Global Stocktake and Fossil Fuel Future

As the conference moved into its second week, negotiators delved into the intricacies of the global stocktake, a central element assessing progress toward the goal agreed upon in Paris in 2015—limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The global stocktake text, published earlier, presented negotiators with challenges related to the future of fossil fuels, a primary driver of global emissions.

The COP28 presidency urged parties to contribute language on fossil fuels, acknowledging that the “phase down” and “phase out” of fossil fuels were inevitable. More than 100 countries, including the US and the EU, expressed their support for a phase-out, underscoring the urgency of addressing the root cause of the climate crisis. However, hard talks lie ahead, with historically resistant countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia posing significant hurdles.

The term “unabated” continued to be a focal point, representing fossil fuels used without carbon capture technologies. The debate over the viability and scalability of carbon capture technologies added complexity to discussions. While some advocate for its inclusion as a viable solution, many experts argue that it has yet to be proven at scale, raising questions about its role in the global transition away from unabated fossil fuels.

The Second Week: Navigating Challenges and Seeking Solutions

As COP28 enters its second week, the presidency is set to take a more active role in guiding the process. The identification of areas requiring attention, facilitation of common ground among parties, and guidance toward a successful outcome on Tuesday will be crucial. With critical decisions looming, the negotiators and leaders must navigate contentious issues and work towards a consensus aligning with the overarching goal of addressing the climate crisis.

Anticipating the Final Decision: A Cover Decision or More?

COPs traditionally conclude with a cover decision—a comprehensive announcement outlining the achievements of the conference. Last year’s cover decision included an agreement to establish a loss and damage fund. This year, the focus centres on the stocktake text, and it is increasingly likely that this will be the primary outcome of COP28. While a separate cover decision is not ruled out, the global stocktake decision is considered the centrepiece carrying the most politically important messages to the world.

Tom Evans, a climate change expert at the think tank E3G, emphasized the significance of the global stocktake decision, stating, “The global stocktake is the centrepiece of the Cop outcome and will carry the most politically important messages to the world.” As the negotiations intensify and the conference moves towards its conclusion, the global stocktake decision will be closely watched for its potential to send a strong and unified message on global climate action.

The Specter of Extended Negotiations: COP28 Beyond December 12

COP28 is scheduled to conclude on December 12, but the history of COPs overshooting deadlines looms large. COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, for instance, was expected to finish on a Friday but extended until early Sunday. While it is challenging to predict definitively, the potential for COP28 to exceed its scheduled conclusion date remains. The second week, as described by Prof. Benton, is anticipated to be “long, hard, and fractious,” with much still at stake.

Conclusion: A Pivotal Moment with Much at Stake

The first week of COP28 has unfolded as a pivotal moment in the ongoing global efforts to combat the climate crisis. The achievements, setbacks, and ongoing negotiations highlight the complexity and urgency of the challenges faced by the international community. As leaders, negotiators, and activists navigate the second week, the world watches with bated breath, recognizing that the decisions made in Dubai will shape the trajectory of global climate action in the crucial years ahead. The delicate balance between hope and concern underscores the high stakes and the collective responsibility to secure a sustainable and resilient future for the planet.

Written by Olivier Noudjalbaye Dedingar, USA and UN Correspondent.

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Olivier Noudjalbaye Dedingar

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