Taking Stock Ahead of UN Climate Conference: Five Things to Watch for at COP28 in Dubai

November 20, 2023 | 11:24 am
Official White House Photo/ Adam Schultz
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

The annual UN climate conference, COP28, is slated to take place from November 30-December 12 in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As the climate crisis continues to deepen, the stakes at these annual negotiations are acutely high.

This year, they take place against the backdrop of relentlessly rising heat-trapping emissions, record-breaking temperatures, extreme climate impacts in the United States and around the world—and yet, unbelievably, there has been a continued expansion in fossil fuel production and use and a yawning emissions gap in countries’ climate efforts to date.

Lest one thinks this disconnect is a failure of the global climate architecture, the failure lies much closer to home—in the domestic politics in the US and many other countries that continue to favor the interests of the rich and powerful, and fossil fuel companies, at the expense of the health and safety of everyone else and the planet.

A parade of scientific reports lay bare the problem—and the solutions

Ahead of the annual climate talks, a series of reports have been released that, once again, underscore the unforgiving contours of the challenge we face. Together, the story they tell is of a world that seems hell-bent on heedlessly careening toward climate disaster, even as the necessary and beneficial solutions are within our reach. Recent, noteworthy reports include:

  1. The IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report, the final installment of the sixth cycle of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, which states that “Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.” 
  2. The IEA World Energy Outlook 2023, International Energy Agency’s annual report, which makes clear that without concerted action, current global energy choices are causing us to hurtle toward a 2.4˚C world.
  3. The UN NDC Synthesis Report, which finds that if countries implement their current emission reduction pledges, or nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, global emissions will increase approximately 8.8% above 2010 levels, instead of the sharp downward trajectory we need.
  4. The UN Production Gap Report, whose shocking headline is that ‘Governments, in aggregate, still plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than what would be consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C.’ 
  5. The 2023 Lancet Countdown on health and climate change, which points out that, ‘The multiple and simultaneously rising risks of climate change are amplifying global health inequities and threatening the very foundations of human health.’
  6. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) GHG Bulletin, which notes that the world crossed a grim milestone in 2022 with global averaged concentrations of CO2 a full 50% above the pre-industrial era for the first time.  
  7. The UN Emissions Gap report, which shows that, absent rapid and transformative action to cut global heat-trapping emissions within this decade, the world is careening toward an increase in global average temperatures of 2.5 to 2.9 degrees Celsius, or higher, above pre-industrial levels.

Five things world leaders must accomplish at COP28

Though the underlying problems and solutions are perennial, every COP has specific burning issues that, if successfully addressed, can lay the groundwork for progress in the future. Here are five things I’ll be watching for world leaders to accomplish in gauging the success—or failure—of this COP:

  1. Operationalizing the Loss and Damage Fund—After a hard-won victory last year to establish a Loss and Damage Fund to help low- and middle-income countries cope with extreme climate impacts, a Transitional Committee has spent this year trying to flesh out recommendations to operationalize the Fund at COP28. This process has been very contentious—in no small part because of unhelpful stances taken by the US and other rich nations. But countries will arrive at COP with a consensus agreement on a set of recommendations. While far from perfect, these recommendations should be quickly adopted at COP28 so that the fund can be up and running, and quickly resourced. The needs are immense and crushing for low-income nations already reeling from billions of dollars of damages from extreme floods, drought, sea level rise and other climate impacts, as well as a human toll that is incalculable. The role of science in addressing loss and damage is vital, as my colleague Delta Merner notes. Moving this agreement forward quickly will also create the space for addressing other pressing issues.
  2. Securing agreement on a fast, fair fossil fuel phaseout—This one seems so elementary that it’s hard to believe we have arrived at COP28 without the underlying cause of climate change being squarely addressed in climate agreements! Yes, not just coal, but also fossil gas and oil must be rapidly turned down, even as we ramp up renewable energy and energy efficiency. The IEA and IPCC reports are starkly clear that the world’s remaining carbon budget to stay below 1.5˚C or even 2˚C is rapidly dwindling. Continuing to expand fossil fuels is literally burning down the only home we have. The details matter here, and fossil fuel companies and their allies are working hard to muddy the waters. They claim to embrace the Paris Agreement goals, yet their plans point to faraway 2050 goals and invoke technologies to capture and store carbon (CCS or CCUS) or to remove carbon from the atmosphere (CDR) as escape hatches that would allow them to continue to expand fossil fuel production and long-lived infrastructure. The facts are clear: We have to cut global heat-trapping emissions roughly in half within this decade and that will only happen through rapid, deep, direct cuts in fossil fuel production and use. CCS/CCUS and CDR cannot be scaled up in time to contribute meaningfully to the near-term 2030 emission reductions, even if they ultimately may be required to address emissions from hard-to-abate sectors.
  3. Committing to tripling renewable energy and doubling energy efficiency globally by 2030. These crucial goals can help accelerate the world’s transition to clean energy and turn down fossil fuels that are driving climate change. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), that will take an annual average investment of $1.3 trillion for renewable power generation by 2030, compared to $486 billion in 2022. Relatedly, UCS recently released a new analysis showing how the US can meet its climate goals through accelerating clean energy ambition while delivering tremendous public health and economic benefits.
  4. Scaling up Climate Finance. A report just out from the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) shows richer nations fell short of their promise to marshal $100 billion per year by 2020, reaching just $89.6 billion in 2021. While there’s a chance that wealthy countries might finally have hit that goal, the exact details are still unclear. And a breakdown of the overall climate finance figures shows a worrying 14% drop in adaptation finance. Meanwhile, the latest UN Adaptation Gap Report highlights a gap of $194-366 billion per year between  what developing countries need to adapt to mounting climate harms  and what is currently being provided by richer nations.
  5. Agreeing to a robust Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA). At COP28, nations must agree to a concrete action plan to increase adaptation measures to better protect people and communities, including committing to actionable quantifiable and qualitative goals for all countries, and the technical support and finance to implement them in developing nations.

The first-ever Global Stocktake

COP28 also marks the culmination of the first-ever Global Stocktake under the Paris Agreement. Per the 2015 landmark agreement, nations committed to a regular cycle of assessing their climate actions and agreed that they would then respond appropriately to its findings. This includes examining national actions to cut global heat-trapping emissions in line with the Paris Agreement temperature goals; investing in climate resilience; and aligning the scale of international climate finance from richer nations in line with what’s needed for low- and middle-income countries to make a low-carbon, climate-resilient transition at a pace commensurate with what the science demands.

The Global Stocktake synthesis report released in September shows that countries’ current NDCs are well short of what’s needed to cut emissions 43% below 2019 levels by 2030 and 60% by 2035, the science-aligned targets established to meet the Paris Agreement temperature goals. Additionally, adaptation measures are falling woefully short and climate finance needs to be scaled up significantly. Dramatic, transformational action is needed on all fronts. At COP28, countries must soberly reckon with these findings and commit to greatly enhanced ambition. That includes significantly ratcheting up their NDCs for 2035, which are due by 2025.

Reading the tea leaves ahead of COP28

There’s no doubt that this year’s COP is taking place against a sobering backdrop of conflict and geopolitical tension. At a time when nations need to come together to do bold and necessary things to confront the climate crisis, the global community seems terribly fractured. The COP Presidency’s close ties with the fossil fuel industry also raise serious concerns about how much influence the industry will be allowed to exert in watering down outcomes.

Yet tendrils of hope are also emerging, including an encouraging set of pre-COP engagements between the US and China, extraordinary growth in renewable energy around the world, a strong push for meaningful reforms to the multilateral development finance system including much-needed reforms to the World Bank and IMF, and some early promises of climate finance for developing countries (for example, an announcement from the EU of a “substantial” forthcoming contribution to the Loss and Damage Fund). All of these efforts are nascent and need much more action and clarity, but they are finally on the global agenda.

Can all this be gathered up to create momentum for an ambitious outcome at COP28? It’s too early to tell. But after last year’s incredible win for climate justice—through establishing the Loss and Damage fund, which came despite some very long odds—I’m a believer in the power of civil society and their dedication to push policymakers to do what is right and what we know is needed.

That’s why, last week, more than 650 scientists sent a letter, led by UCS, to President Biden, urging him to take robust steps to help ensure meaningful, comprehensive, and scientifically necessary progress at COP28.

You, too, can join these scientists in calling on President Biden to help ensure the US lives up to its fair share of responsibility to address the climate crisis alongside other nations at COP28.