December 17, 2023

COP28: Small Gains, Big Losses


ALL COPs are important and deal with issues vital for the world. Yet some COPs stand out for their special significance, milestones, major decisions to be taken and of course for their outcomes. For instance COP3 in 1997 launched the Kyoto Protocol (KP) which shaped the architecture for the emissions control regime for almost two decades. COP15 in Copenhagen in 2008 was expected to launch the successor to KP, but collapsed without any agreement but with important framings, and COP21 in Paris in 2015 launched the Paris Agreement (PA) which is the current emissions control regime.

COP28 in Dubai is a landmark event slated to take up the first five-yearly Global Stocktake (GST) or assessment of where the world stands with regard to goals set under PA to combat the climate crisis. The GST covers mitigation or emissions reduction, adaptation or coping with and building resilience against climate impacts, and financing and other support to developing countries. The GST process began in 2023 as specified under PA through a series of three phases of technical dialogues involving not only the country parties but also other stakeholders such as civil society, the private sector etc. A report compiling the various views expressed was released a few months ago, and a synthesis report prepared by the UN climate secretariat was released in September, both to act as inputs to COP28. Based on the GST review at COP28, countries would be required to submit raised emissions reduction targets by mid-2025 for finalisation at COP30 at the end of that year.

COP28 and the GST gain even more importance because, in a very real way, the future of the planet and all its inhabitants depends on it. The GST input reports convey what is already known from all major scientific studies, notably from the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), namely that the window for the goal of restricting global heating to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels is rapidly closing. (Note: the earlier goal of 2C has virtually been abandoned.) It is also well understood now that current efforts at emissions reduction are highly inadequate, and must be stepped up  now that that global average temperature rise is already dangerously close to that limit, having already touched it on around 80 days this year, with 2023 likely to be the hottest year ever in the hottest decade. Already, severe heat waves, droughts, forest fires, floods and extreme rainfall events are being witnessed more frequently across the world, along with possibly irreversible melting of polar and glacial ice and sea-level rise. The urgency to rein in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, especially carbon dioxide (CO2), causing climate change was therefore clearly on top of the agenda in Dubai.


From the beginning of the COP, fossil fuels, that is coal, oil and natural gas, responsible for around 75 per cent of all GHGs and about 90 per cent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, took centre stage at COP28. Even though the role of fossil fuels is well understood, and most efforts at controlling emissions aim to reduce use of fossil fuels for instance in power generation and transport,COP28 was the first time ever that fossil fuels were formally on the agenda in a climate COP!

However, anxieties about the influence of the oil industry and supporting governments had already been swirling around, given the venue of the COP being in the Gulf. The COP 28 pPresident, Dr Sultan Al-Jaber, is a UAE minister and CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), one of the world’s largest oil and gas producers, raising serious questions about a conflict of interest. He himself further set the cat among the pigeons by claiming in an interview that “there was no science” that called for cutting back on fossil fuels to tackle climate change! Journalists and activists had also noted that fossil fuel companies had been steadily increasing their presence at the COPs, often even as members of official country delegations, giving them access to the main negotiation rooms. Their numbers had shot up to 2000 at Dubai, larger than any single country delegation, with Brazil at 400 having the most.

On the positive side, all three successive GST draft texts echoed the GST input findings that the 1.5C target would require “deep, rapid and sustained” reduction in global emissions of 43 per cent by 2030 and 60 per cent by 2035 relative to 2019 levels, reaching net-zero CO2 by 2050, with global emissions expected to peak around 2020 or latest by 2025.


The initial exploratory draft, with some interesting text including references to a phase-out or phase-down of fossil fuels, drew mixed responses, but was received as a reasonable starting point. The second draft, prepared by the presidency after much negotiations, was circulated much later and only on the penultimate day, whether by design or otherwise, and evoked furious negative reactions from all quarters. It gave only a bullet-list of options that countries “could” take towards emissions cuts, including “reduction” of fossil-fuel production and use, and underplaying financial support from developed countries. Small island states called the text a death sentence, African countries said they would not leave Dubai without assurances on funding, and the EU threatened to walk out saying the 1.5C target could not be attained with such a text.

Inevitably, the COP was extended by a day and a fresh text was tabled in the morning of December 13, a full day after the original closing day. This draft sought to square the circle on fossil fuels by calling for “transitioning away” from fossil fuels, which several countries and observers suggested be read as signaling the end of the fossil fuel era. In the relief over this compromise, other serious lacunae were unfortunately overlooked.

The final draft had many loopholes that could prolong production and use of fossil fuels, and favoured the industry as well as rich developed countries with advanced technologies. While calling for phase-down of “unbated” coal power, meaning power without the released carbon being captured and somehow used or stored, the door was left open for “low-carbon fuels,” “low-emission” technologies, “low-carbon hydrogen,” and “transitional fuels,” (a term widely used in Europe and the US to describe natural gas, also a fossil fuel), all being terms with very loose definitions and standards. It also made special mention of carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) which is hugely expensive, has not achieved commercial viability and whose eventual emissions savings are unknown. On emission reductions and shift to clean energy, the draft also did not adequately refer to equity or common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR), possibly under pressure from the US looking to treat all countries at par.

This draft also did not take further the issue of financial support by developed countries, causing much anguish to climate vulnerable countries. The draft did express concern that the earlier commitment of USD 100 billion per year by 2020, however inadequate, had not been met. It repeated the GST reports’ estimation that developing countries needed about USD 5.8-5.9 trillion for the pre-2030 period, with adaptation alone requiring USD 215-387 billion per year and clean energy transition requiring USD 4.3 trillion per year. Yet no fresh targets were mentioned in the draft, not even for the new loss and damage fund formally set up on the first day and gathering pledges for a meager USD 470 million.


The closing plenary was called just a few hours after the final draft was published, giving country delegations little time for discussions. While delegates were milling about, the COP president quickly tabled the draft, noted there were no objections, and gaveled it through!  On the live webcast, the delegates appeared stunned, then a ripple of applause grew slowly into the usual standing ovation. As often happens at fraught climate COPs, the relief at any closure, good or not, seems better than opposing an apparent consensus.

Yet voices of disquiet were expressed post-facto.  The delegate from Samoa, representing the small island states, said that she and other island delegations were outside discussing the text when it was gaveled through in their absence, and went on to spell out a long list of their objections. Many more such voices followed for example from Africa, chiefly criticising the lax attitude towards fossil fuels and the lack of financial support announced.

The COP28 Declaration has almost all the problems as before. Other than recording a decision to “transition away” from fossil fuels, which countries were already doing in practice, and noting the broad global target for higher emissions reduction to achieve the 1.5C goal, nothing much of substance has been gained at COP28. A roadmap towards new targets in 2025 was not drawn up to guide thinking by countries. Financial assistance was not scaled up. The Global Goal on Adaptation was left half-baked. A number of other documents were not finalised or approved. On the other hand, the fossil fuel industry went back happy, as did the developed countries which successfully dealt yet another blow against inter-nation equity and have again escaped putting serious funds on the table.


Except for PM Modi’s speech on the opening day for heads of government, India was almost invisible and inaudible at COP28. The PM’s speech, though meant to be dramatic, was largely ignored in the media. He claimed that India had achieved its stated target almost a decade before time. The expected applause may have turned into embarrassment if the statement had been read another way, i.e., that India had knowingly set itself a low target and so had achieved it early, which could then have prompted demands that India revise its target higher! India’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) had itself said India had achieved a 2.5 per cent per annum improvement in emissions intensity during 2005-10, whereas its target for 2030 only amounted to about 1.5 per cent per annum! The situation is similar with regard to percentage of installed renewable energy capacity.

India also did not sign or participate in any of the many sectoral discussions and agreements signed on the sidelines of the COP. This trend has picked up in recent COPs, especially since the COP process is seen to be moving too slowly. Important agreements were signed on agriculture and food security, health, urbanisation, renewable energy (ironically already initiated during the G20 in Delhi), nuclear energy, and hydrogen. Going forward, India will have to work hard on its new, raised NDC targets and also on a National Adaptation Plan, much emphasized at COP28. By its very nature, this will involve highly participatory formulation, planning and implementation in partnership with state governments and other stakeholders, a model of governance the present dispensation is not famous for.