COP28: “What was politically palatable may be ecologically disastrous”

“Yet what is ecologically necessary was politically impossible.” We analyze the conclusions of the climate summit with Àngel Castiñeira, director of the Esade Chair in Leadership and Sustainability.

Àngel Castiñeira Fernández

COP28 was expected to be a historic summit. And indeed, it was historic given that, for the first time, it was declared that fossil fuels must be abandoned. This corrects a three-decade anomaly in climate change summits, where it has been repeatedly agreed to reduce atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide without mentioning coal, oil, or gas as the main offenders.  

However, the final text of this COP28 does not set a date for the total abandonment of fossil fuels, and instead urges a transition away from their use. To examine the conclusions of this summit, we have turned to the director of the Esade Chair in Leadership and Sustainability, Àngel Castiñeira. 

This article offers and edited version of the interview, which you can listen to in full in Spanish here

Was COP28 a success or failure? 

It depends on who answers the question. For diplomats and summit leaders, it was clearly a success. For scientists, probably it wasn’t. I will answer with three assessments. The first is that the elephant in the room has finally been identified: after 30 years of world climate conferences, there is now a clear declaration that the world must move away from fossil fuels. This is the beginning of the end, although no end date has been specified.  

My second assessment is that the agreement reached is better than expected but is still insufficient. There is an ambiguity between expectations and what was achieved. We made incremental progress compared to business as usual, but we needed exponential change. Agreement at COP 28 was won, but the battle for 1.5 °C may be lost. It was a diplomatic success for multilateralism because nearly 200 countries reached agreement, but it could be a failure when measured against scientific goals and recommendations. This paradox (and the accompanying tragedy) can be summarized as follows: what was politically palatable may be ecologically disastrous and what is ecologically necessary was politically impossible. The economic suicide of countries that remain highly dependent on fossil fuels was avoided, but we remain on the road to ecocide. COP28 wavered between economic suicide for some and a possible ecocide for everyone. 

Finally, we can assess the outcome of the summit in a nuanced way by asking four key questions. First, have we reached a global agreement on commitments regarding the climate emergency? Yes, and we should celebrate this fact. Second, have we clearly recognized the need to move away from fossil fuels? Absolutely yes, and this is a historic milestone, even if it comes 30 years too late. Third, are we being ambitious enough in stopping greenhouse gas emissions? The answer is no – we still emit more than we mitigate. Fourth, are we going fast enough to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees? The answer is again no.  

The terms of the Dubai Declaration (transitioning away from fossil fuels rather than phasing them out) are important. But beyond the words, what specific progress in decarbonization was achieved? 

The main commitment to accelerate decarbonization is that 118 countries pledged to triple their renewable energy capacity, while doubling their average annual rates of energy efficiency improvements between now and 2030. The inclusion of 2030 as a fixed date is much more important than we might think. Why? Because it will boost the solar and wind industries, and this makes it the most important agreement of the whole summit from the point of view of realism and commitment. If implemented, this pledge will fundamentally change the electricity industry. It is an agreement that will accelerate global decarbonization and energy transition and produce a drastic reduction in global emissions by addressing both energy demand and supply. This is the best news from the COP.  

A goal of greatly reducing global CO2 emissions, including methane, by 2030 was announced. The main problem is not greenhouse gas emissions, but the fossil fuels that generate most of these emissions. Mitigation is inconsequential if we do not directly attack the root of the problem: and so the key is more emission reduction, rather than more mitigation. This is where words matter. Transitioning away means reducing demand but without a deadline (because fossil fuel demand is still rising). This is different from talking about phasing down or phasing out, since the latter would imply starting now to reduce consumption and production. The chosen wording is a respite for lobbyists representing fossil fuel companies. However, the declaration recognizes the importance of transition fuels in the energy transition – and we must decide which are these transition fuels. Will they include natural gas? Probably. Nuclear power? Probably. Some form of petroleum-based fuel? Probably too. While COP marks the sunset of fossil fuel, it may herald the dawn of a transition fuel era. It will be crucial to indicate, as the European Union has done, what is and what is not a transition fuel. 

Another key issue was climate finance – what are the conclusions? 

Climate finance had been carried over as a fulfillment promise from earlier summits. Progress was made on a new collective target, which had already been set at $100 billion to be pledged by developed countries to finance climate change mitigation and adaptation in developing nations. This goal of $100 billion has not yet been met and the deadline is 2024. Increased pressure from countries in the global south to meet this funding requirement was expected at this COP. An agreement was achieved to draft a post-2025 financing target, but the details will be defined next year at COP29 in Baku, Azerbaijan. The creation of a $30 billion Alterra Fund for global climate solutions was announced (and these solutions are already specified). This fund will aim to attract $250 billion of investment by 2030 and will focus on boosting global climate initiatives and improving access to funding for the global south. It consists of two parts with two strategies: one is the Alterra Acceleration consisting of $25 billion for institutional capital to make large-scale climate investments; the other is Alterra Transformation, with $5 billion for risk mitigation capital aimed primarily at encouraging investment in the global south. The decisive year will be 2024, which is the deadline for providing this $100 billion, which, in any case, will fall far short of what the global south really needs. 

A key aspect of funding is the Loss and Damage Fund. Why is this fund increasingly important? 

This is a crucial issue because until now the scientific and political strategy had focused on two aspects: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation means working now to avoid future emissions and increases in temperatures, while adaptation means preparing for climate changes. The loss and damage fund will become the third crucial piece of the climate strategy, accompanying mitigation and adaptation, because climate change is already having impacts in the form of droughts, cyclones, floods, and population movements. This means that an adaptation strategy must be developed immediately because of the repercussions that climate change is having on those nations most directly affected. COP 28 witnessed a historic agreement to support those nations already facing the worst impacts of climate change. The final agreed text retains calls for a doubling of adaptation funding for those countries and for plans to assess and monitor future needs. What are these needs in specific terms? Here again, it is necessary to carefully read the text. It speaks of "the promotion of equitable, safe, and dignified human mobility". This tells us that these losses and damages are going to produce millions of migrants. This type of migration can generate a multitude of social, environmental, and even geopolitical problems. The care and monitoring of this mobility will be important in terms of loss and damages. There will also be water security issues associated with droughts, ecosystem restoration plans linked to massive losses of biodiversity, and public health problems.  

Finally, and this is excellent news, a geographically diverse board of directors has been appointed, with initial fund management by the World Bank. Rich countries pledged in Dubai to support a fund that now totals some $700 million. This is a tiny fraction of the current loss and damages, which are estimated to reach between $215 and $387 billion between now and 2030. This will be one of the most urgent topics at future summits. 

The number of oil and gas lobbyists has grown exponentially in recent summits. Moreover, recent presidencies have gone to nations that are highly dependent on oil exports. Does this type of leadership pose a major obstacle to progress on climate action? 

This is a good question. One could believe that this forum, which more than 90,000 people have attended, is a Babel with a multitude of different languages and strategies and where it is difficult to find common ground. However, the opposite is true. One part of the results is encouraging. After emerging from the previous context of President Donald Trump and the erosion of global multilateral agreements in all areas, it is good news that we now have a summit where corporate representatives can openly lobby and have their demands recorded publicly in the same way as other groups. The multilateral triumph achieved at COP28 was to reach an agreement between nearly 200 countries. A common language and vision of the challenges ahead was also agreed in the discussion forums that operated alongside the negotiations between nations. Of course, lobbyists came to COP28 to defend their interests, but many of them have a sophisticated vision of the energy problem and a technical understanding of the energies now available. This knowledge can help policymakers better understand how to make a green transition that is fair, and most importantly, rapid. This requires a much more complex style of leadership, because it is shared and distributed rather than charismatic and heroic. For the wider public, watching two weeks of long meetings that rumble on late into the night may seem cumbersome, slow, and bureaucratic – but it is the only approach that gathers the voices of lobbyists, journalists, and scientists, as well as ethnic communities and the most affected groups. 

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