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Big wins overshadowed by controversy, discord at COP28

Despite major progress, such as on the ‘loss and damage’ fund and a pledge to accelerate renewable energy, the first week of COP28 in Dubai has been marred by disagreements
<p>Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on 30 November 2023 (Image: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/unfccc/53368393491/in/album-72177720313065328/">Mahmoud Khaled</a> / <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/unfccc/">COP28</a>, <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">CC BY-NC-SA</a>)</p>

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on 30 November 2023 (Image: Mahmoud Khaled / COP28, CC BY-NC-SA)

Feel-good, voluntary pledges have dominated the first week of the COP28 UN climate negotiations happening now in Dubai, with host country the UAE taking the lead in making key announcements. But beyond the early wins, negotiations going into the second week remain fraught with disagreements.

The announcement that the loss and damage fund had been operationalised was met on day one with a standing ovation by COP28 delegates. The fund is intended to finance relief and rehabilitation after climate-induced disasters.

Countries committed up to USD 726 million into the fund during the first week. This is still a small proportion of what will be needed, and it’s unclear how much of the money will come as grants, rather than loans. It’s also unclear who will get the money. The resolution says the fund is meant for “particularly vulnerable countries” but is silent on how a country is to be considered such. That has been left to the 26-country governing board, yet to be formed.

Harjeet Singh, a member of the loss and damage transitional committee, and head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International, said the fund mirrored the recommendations of the committee. “However, this decision falls short of fully addressing developing nations’ concerns, including the proposal to designate the World Bank as an interim host. The World Bank has, in principle, agreed to the conditions proposed by developing countries, which include enhanced access and independent decision-making for the fund. It must hold to that promise or lose its role as the host of the new fund.”

Further finance pledges totalling USD 83 billion on renewables, health, cooling, agriculture, and industry have been made, but these are all voluntary, and COP history is strewn with dishonoured voluntary pledges.

For the first time at a COP, there was a resolution on the health impacts of climate change, although India didn’t sign it.

Nor was India among the 123 countries that endorsed a pledge to triple global renewable energy capacity and double global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030, though it had piloted the same idea as the G20 president in September. This initiative was packaged by the Presidency alongside a voluntary initiative to reduce carbon dioxide and methane emissions signed by 50 oil and gas companies.

Climate science denial controversy

Much of the feel-good factor evaporated when remarks made by COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber at a pre-COP event were reported. He had claimed there was “no science” saying that a phase out of fossil fuels is what is required to keep global temperature rise within 1.5C of the pre-industrial average. Following significant backlash, he later said that “the phase down and the phase out of fossil fuel is inevitable”, whilst accusing the media of taking his comment out of context and giving it maximum media coverage.

activities protesting again coal, oil and gas at COP28
(Image: Hanae Takahashi / Friends of the Earth Japan)

However, countries are divided over what language the final agreement should adopt. The current draft of the global stocktake has various options, from a full fossil fuel phase out, to one that would phase out “unabated fossil fuels and their ‘use’”. Some parties, including China, India and Arab States, want the phase out language removed completely.

Frozen negotiations at COP28

Negotiations on other crucial topics remained frozen, although this is not uncommon at the mid-way point of a COP. There is no agreement on how rich countries should finance poorer countries to deal with climate change, not even on how to use the money left from carbon-emission trading in the last decade. And no agreement on the so-called Global Goal on Adaptation to climate change impacts, nor on how all this is to be reported by governments to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or how those reports are to be monitored and verified.

The global stocktake on climate action since the 2015 Paris Agreement, and on what countries should do now, also remained challenged by divergent viewpoints in its latest draft resolution. So did resolutions on the relationship between climate change and agriculture, or how countries should respond to the many scientific studies demonstrating the urgent need for action. A synthesis of the year’s scientific studies said overshooting the 1.5C ceiling is “fast becoming inevitable”. For the first time, this annual synthesis included accelerating glacier loss in mountains (such as the Hindu Kush Himalayas) as one of the top ten threats to the world.

The World Meteorological Organization reports that 2011-2020 was the warmest decade on record, with “unprecedented” glacier and ice sheet loss, accelerating sea level rise and extreme weather undermining sustainable development. Its provisional report for 2023 is scarier.

Climate finance

It has been clear for almost a decade that governments cannot provide the trillions of dollars needed to deal with the climate crisis. There was widespread disappointment among developing country delegates when rich nations refused to commit to a doubling of adaptation finance. The issue remains unresolved.

Potential new sources of finance have been encapsulated in the Bridgetown Initiative that was promoted again at COP28 by Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley and climate finance expert Nicholas Stern. It shows promise in securing finance for clean energy projects, and recognises that money for adaptation and to deal with loss and damage will have to come from public sources.

Mottley said at a press conference during COP28: “If we had a global financial services tax at 0.01%, I’m told that would raise $420 billion, not $720 million where we are today.” Similarly, she noted a 5% levy on oil and gas profits last year would have raised $200 billion. She also proposed taxes on shipping and aviation, noting that “the funds that we’re looking at raising can’t only go for loss and damage. Half of it needs to go for adaptation.”