COP28: A Mixed Bag of Progress and Pitfalls

Niklas Kaskeala
December 14, 2023
Everyone’s got a hot take from COP28. Here’s ours.

This recap was written by our standards and policy advisor, Niklas Kaskeala, who was on the ground in Dubai.

As the curtains fell on COP28 in Dubai, the event left a complex legacy, marked by both significant strides and notable shortcomings in the global fight against climate change. This year's United Nations Climate Summit was a convergence of masses of people from nearly 200 countries, culminating in an agreement that, for the first time, explicitly urges nations to move away from fossil fuels. This development, celebrated as historic by COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber, signifies a crucial step towards addressing climate change. However, the summit was not without its challenges, reflecting the intricate dynamics of international climate negotiations.

A Historic, Yet Flawed, Agreement

The deal reached at COP28 is, at a high level, a comprehensive response to the latest gloomy UN climate update, the “stocktake,” which highlighted the shortfall of countries in meeting the Paris Climate Agreement goal to limit global heating to 1.5C above preindustrial levels. While the deal was a win, it also faced criticism for its "litany of loopholes." Notably, there was no explicit commitment to phase out fossil fuels, and the language that seemed to appease fossil fuel interests underscored the compromises made. The real success of the agreement hinges on how individual countries interpret and commit to its ambitious goals, with the risk that loopholes and fossil fuel interests could undermine efforts to mitigate rising climate impacts.

COP as Climate Trade Shows: A Double-Edged Sword

The evolution of COP conferences into massive events, attracting over 100,000 attendees in the Blue Zone and 400,000 in the Green Zone, has brought a new dynamic. The increasing presence of business leaders is a testament to the growing corporate interest in climate issues. However, this shift also raises concerns about greenwashing, where companies may use the event more for image-building than for genuine climate action. Real corporate action requires collaboration with NGOs and advocacy for stronger government actions. The self-praise from companies at COP28, while potentially optimistic, underscores the need for a more concerted effort to inspire real environmental change.

The Voluntary Carbon Market: Progress and Skepticism

Amid the main negotiations at COP28, the voluntary carbon market (VCM) was a topic of significant discussion. The VCM offers a platform for companies and organizations to take accountability for emissions they cannot avoid. Recent criticisms have targeted the VCM for its low integrity and lack of strict rules, leading to a loss of trust. In response, major players in the VCM and corporate climate groups are striving to rebuild this trust. Notable announcements included the collaboration of six major independent carbon crediting standards to harmonize measurement and accounting methods and the creation of a framework for using carbon markets with integrity by leading corporate climate standards and groups. These developments offer a glimmer of optimism, but the real test lies in whether these efforts will translate into tangible improvements and restore trust in the VCM.

Stalemate on Regulated Carbon Markets

A major point of contention at COP28 was the negotiations on Article 6, which governs carbon markets under the Paris Agreement and allows nations to engage in carbon trading. The discussions ended in a stalemate, with countries divided over unrestricted carbon markets versus those advocating for transparency, human rights, and climate goals. The failure to reach an agreement while preventing progress was arguably better than adopting a flawed deal that could undermine the Paris Agreement. This impasse leaves the future of UN-regulated carbon markets uncertain and raises concerns about the effectiveness of voluntary markets in meeting climate goals without stringent quality and transparency standards.

Looking Ahead

COP28, with its mix of progress and pitfalls, reflects the complexities of global climate negotiations. The summit's outcomes highlight the need for continued vigilance and commitment from all stakeholders to ensure that the strides made are not undermined by loopholes or half-hearted commitments. The evolving role of the corporate sector and the challenges surrounding carbon markets underscore the multifaceted nature of climate action. As the world looks beyond COP28, the focus must remain on translating agreements into concrete actions and ensuring that all efforts genuinely contribute to mitigating the impacts of climate change.

In addition to Niklas’ reflections above, our team compiled the following summary of major developments that took place during this years’ COP:

Major Decisions, Agreements, and Events
COP 28 commenced with a Climate Disaster Fund Victory as delegates agreed to adopt a new “Loss & Damage” fund to help poor nations cope with costly climate disasters. UAE, UK, United States, and Japan among the first to announce new contributions. Find the Draft Agreement here. $100 million to come from the COP28 host United Arab Emirates, at least $51 million from Britain, $17.5 million from the United States, and $10 million from Japan. Additionally, the European Union also pledged $245.39 million ($100 million pledged by Germany).
Fifty oil and gas companies representing more than 40% of global oil production joined the Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter, which commits signatories to align around net zero by or before 2050, zero out methane emissions, eliminate routine flaring by 2030, and continue working towards emission reduction.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a Final Rule targeted to sharply reduce methane and other harmful pollutants from the oil and natural gas industry. This includes standards to reduce methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from new, modified, and reconstructed sources as well as new Emission Guidelines for states to follow in developing their plans to limit methane from existing sources. Final Rule and Regulatory Text | Final Rule for Oil and Natural Gas Operations: Overview
117 countries signed and encouraged other countries to commit to the Global Renewables and Energy Efficiency Pledge, agreeing to triple the world’s installed renewable energy generation capacity to at least 11,000 GW by 2030 and collectively double the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements from around 2% to over 4% every year until 2030.
The UAE announced the establishment of ALTÉRRA, a newly launched catalytic climate vehicle supported by a $30 billion climate fund in collaboration with BlackRock, Brookfield, and TPG. The fund will allocate $25 billion towards climate strategies and $5 billion specifically to incentivize investment flows into the Global South. ALTÉRRA aims to mobilize $250 billion globally by 2030.
The Green Climate Fund (GCF) received a boost as Vice President Kamala Harris announced that the United States would pledge $3 billion in addition to the pledges from Estonia ($1 million), Portugal ($4.4 million), Australia ($33.8 million), and Switzerland ($155 million).
The U.S. Department of State, the Bezos Earth Fund, and The Rockefeller Foundation presented the core framework of the Energy Transition Accelerator (ETA), a carbon finance platform aimed at catalyzing private capital to support energy transition strategies in developing and emerging economies.  The ETA aims to connect willing sellers and buyers employing high-integrity carbon crediting to support a faster energy transition. Core Framework
On the fourth day of COP 28, the UAE together with the World Health Organization, hosted the first-ever Health Day at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference. Health Day included programming that showcased the links between the impacts of climate change on human health and methods for identifying and scaling adaptation measures to address these impacts.
A consortium led by the Rockefeller Foundation launched a pilot initiative to use carbon credits to retire a coal power plant in the Philippines before the end of its natural life. Considered a “first of its kind”, the Coal to Clean Credit Initiative (CCCI) plans to make use of carbon credits to finance the early closure.
The climate agreement for COP 28 provides three different options for the future of fossil fuel use. [1] Requiring the parties of COP28 to commit to “an orderly and just phase out of fossil fuels,” while the next would instead [2] commit to “accelerating efforts towards phasing out unabated fossil fuels and to rapidly reducing their use to achieve net-zero CO2 in energy systems by or around mid-century.” The third option would contain no text on this point. Review the Draft Agreement here.
In a commitment to EPA’s Methane Rule, six of the world’s largest dairy companies—Danone, Bel Group, General Mills, Lactalis USA, Kraft Heinz, and Nestle joined the Dairy Methane Action Alliance. Initiative members will annually account for and publicly disclose methane emissions within their dairy supply chains and publish and implement a methane action plan by the end of 2024.  
On the eighth day of COP 28 (also COP 28 Children’s Day), Save the Children released a series of powerful images taken by children from the Indigenous Wayuu tribe in northern Colombia.
COP 29: Next year’s COP will be held in Azerbaijan.
An international coalition was launched by the Netherlands to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. Having three major pillars, it intends to (1) publish a list of their fossil fuel subsidies before COP29; (2) work together to identify and address international barriers to phase out fossil fuel subsidies; (3) and to shape and seek joint action for an international dialogue to minimize carbon emissions. The coalition was joined by Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Spain, Finland, Antigua and Barbuda, Canada, France, Denmark, Costa Rica, and Luxemburg.
The Paris Agreement: The first assessment of progress each country has made towards reducing emissions and limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels was discussed. A call for more robust and multilateral climate change mitigation projects became more pressing in light of growing gaps in the binding international agreement.
As fossil fuel phase-out divides countries, COP28 climate talks was forced into overtime. The COP president, Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, released a new draft of the final agreement after hours of delay. More than 100 countries including the United States, the EU, and tiny island nations had pushed for the agreement, but the draft does not refer directly to a phase out of the fossil fuels. The new deal highlights a plan to build up renewable energy and move away from planet-warming fuels.II. Critics, Issues, and ControversiesUAE, the country hosting the COP 28 is one of the world's top 10 oil-producing nations. Oil is a fossil fuel that is one of the major sources impacting the global climate, thus sparking debate and controversy over the summit hosting.
COP 28 President Dr. Sultan Al Jaber defended his role in hosting this year's United Nations Climate Summit and insisted he understood and respected the science of climate change. The Guardian had quoted Al Jaber saying during a November 21 online event that "there is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what's going to achieve 1.5C".
Loss and damage fund agreed – but the money doesn’t add up. With the establishment of this climate fund, the United States has emphasized all contributions are voluntary and not a mandatory admission of legal culpability for causing climate-related damages.
Agreement to Phase Out Fossil Fuels: “Not low emissions, but emissions-free”. More than 80 countries are striving for a broader pact to phase out all CO2-emitting fossil fuels.
Saudi Arabia’s energy minister has already strongly rejected any language that would phase out fossil fuels. Quoting “For us to have growth, we have to carbonize first then to decarbonize.”
NGO reports have sharply criticized the outsized role of fossil fuel lobbyists at COP 28, especially at a time when the stakes are high for the energy transition.
The UK Prime Minister's backtracking on climate policy makes the critics believe this meant that the UK was retreating on climate leadership. The UK monarch, on the other hand, addressed world leaders and warned of a “vast, frightening experiment” on the natural world.
US President Joe Biden sent the vice-president, Kamala Harris, instead of appearing himself, and Harris’ appearance got a mixed response, not least because of the US’s booming oil and gas extraction industry.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president, said it was not possible to tackle the climate crisis without also tackling inequality. Critics expressed alarm that Brazil chose the first day of the conference to announce it was aligning itself with the world’s biggest oil cartel, Opec.
General Haitham Al Ghais, head of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), has sent a letter to its members and to “OPEC plus” nations to reject any text negotiations and proposals that target fossil fuels rather than emissions.
Although the UAE prohibits demonstrations, hundreds of activists marched outside within the Blue Zone in the largest protest seen so far at COP28. Protesters called for a phase-out of all fossil fuels, a ceasefire in Gaza, climate justice and finance for developing nations as well as sustainable agriculture.
Delegates from vulnerable countries expressed concern over the new Global Goal on Adaptation draft text, arguing it is not ambitious enough to ensure an adequate adaptation response to 1.5-2C of warming. Missing from the latest version of the draft are concrete global targets, including a crucial target to protect 30% of land by 2030. Review the Draft Agreement here.


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About the Author

Niklas Kaskeala
Advisor, Policy and Standards

Niklas is an advisor and guest contributor to our blog.

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