Was the COP28 climate summit a milestone or a mirage? | Explained

The 28th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) – an annual convening of countries signatory to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – happened in Dubai this year, with high expectations that countries would take concrete steps to address the climate crisis.

The negotiations encompassed mitigation efforts, adaptation strategies, financing mechanisms, and the role of developed versus developing nations in climate action. The summit ended with progress on certain fronts but lingering challenges on others.

An early win for loss and damage?

Following the agreement reached at COP27 to create the ‘Loss and Damage’ (L&D) fund, the last year was dedicated to negotiations on fund-management and financing. In a historic decision, the fund was operationalised at COP28.

However, a meagre $790 million has been pledged so far, by a few nations, despite the corpus requiring $100 billion to more than $400 billion a year. Notably, the U.S., the largest historical emitter, committed only $17.5 million.

The World Bank was designated to oversee and administer the fund. But concerns originating from the experiences of developing countries, related to limited access to the fund, questions about the legal autonomy, flexibility, and decision-making authority, and general scepticism about the fund’s agility in responding promptly to emergencies, have emerged.

There is also a prevailing sentiment among countries that the communities affected by climate-related disasters should be able to directly access funding, preferably in the form of grants and not loans.

Ambitious emissions reduction targets

During the summit, the first global stocktake (GST) concluded. According to the UNFCCC, the GST “enables countries and other stakeholders to see where they are collectively making progress towards meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement – and where they are not”.

Countries’ decision at COP28 to transition away from fossil fuels was coupled with an ambition to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030. More than 20 countries also pledged to triple their nuclear energy capacity. But the transition from fossil fuels is restricted to energy systems alone; they can continue to be used in the plastics, transport, and agriculture sectors.

The declaration also refers to ‘transitional fuels’, such as natural gas, for ensuring energy security. But this falls short of true climate justice as it allows industry to continue operating in business-as-usual mode.

Further, while the declaration called for accelerated climate mitigation, it alluded to unproven and risky technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and carbon removal. The former enables users of fossil fuels to prevent their emissions from entering the atmosphere by capturing the emissions at the source and storing them permanently underground.

Global green-finance mechanisms

The financial segment of the GST implementation framework explicitly recognises the responsibility of developed nations to take the lead in climate finance. There is also a reference to the private sector’s role in addressing financial shortfalls and an imperative to supplement grant-oriented, concessional finance to enable equitable transition in developing countries. Nevertheless, specific information regarding the entities obligated to furnish this grant-based finance is lacking.

The COP28 witnessed the establishment of innovative global green-finance mechanisms to support developing nations in their transition to sustainable practices. The Green Climate Fund received fresh support of $3.5 billion, allowing it to finance adaptation and mitigation projects in vulnerable regions. An additional $188 million was pledged to the Adaptation Fund.

New partnerships between the public and private sectors were forged to mobilise investments in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and infrastructure. The COP28 Presidency also introduced ALTÉRRA, an investment initiative with an ambitious goal to globally mobilise an unprecedented sum of $250 billion by 2030.

Despite these efforts, the available funds fall well short of the $194-366 billion annual funding requirement for adaptation, as estimated by the United Nations.

India not party to climate and health declaration

The U.A.E. declaration on climate and health came into being at COP28 through a partnership of the COP28 Presidency with the World Health Organisation. It recognises the growing health impacts of climate change and acknowledges the benefits of climate action, including a reduction in air pollution and lowering the cost of healthcare.

The declaration, signed by 123 countries, has collectively committed $1 billion to address the growing climate-health crisis. But India didn’t sign this declaration because reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the health sector would mean reduction in emissions from gases used for cooling. As India’s healthcare infrastructure is still growing to meet demand, such a commitment could compromise the healthcare requirements of a growing population.

The Global Methane Pledge launched at COP26 received renewed attention at COP28, with the Climate and Clean Air Coalition becoming the new secretariat and partners of the pledge announcing more than $1 billion in new grants for funding projects to reduce methane emissions from the agriculture, waste, and gas sectors.

More than 150 countries signed the pledge to reduce methane pollution. India isn’t a signatory to this pledge because it shifts focus from carbon dioxide to methane, a GHG with a lower lifetime. Methane emissions in India are also primarily from rice cultivation and enteric fermentation (livestock rearing), which support the livelihoods of small and marginal farmers.

A maze of hits and misses

The COP28 outcomes had a lot of firsts, such as the declaration on climate and health, acknowledgement of the role of nature-based solutions for biodiversity conservation and climate, and the need to transition away from fossil fuels. Some 134 countries also agreed to a landmark declaration to transition to sustainable and resilient food systems.

However, some challenges and differences between developed and developing countries remain to be addressed.

One key issue of contention was fossil-fuel subsidies. While developed countries advocated for phasing them out, developing countries, including India, refused over a phase-out’s implications on economic growth and development. Such a phase-out also has social implications: several communities rely on fossil fuels (coal, in India’s case) for gainful employment.

Moreover, emphasising the principle of common and differentiated responsibilities and the historical responsibility of developed countries for GHG emissions, developing countries argued to increase the flow of climate finance and technologies to facilitate just job transitions and inclusive development.

Some other contentious issues spanned the market mechanisms, financial resource allocation, the role of the World Bank as the agency for managing the L&D fund, and private sector engagement in climate action.

In sum, COP28 provided a mixed bag of outcomes. The commitment to ramp up renewable energy targets is a significant step forward – whereas issues on L&D metrics, fund management and disbursal, market mechanisms, risky technologies, the room left for continued use of fossil fuels in many sectors, and natural gas as a transitional fuel leave much to be desired.

Indu K. Murthy heads the Climate, Environment, and Sustainability team at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP), a research-based think tank.

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