Another one down.  28 of them.  100,000 people shivering in the air conditioning while the world bakes outside.  Emissions still going up.  What’s new?

The signal

There is a trade-off in diplomacy between breadth and depth.  You can’t expect a negotiation among 198 parties to agree anything deep and substantial, but it can use its legitimacy to send a broad signal about the direction of travel.  COP28 did that reasonably well.

The commitment to aim for a tripling of renewable energy capacity globally by 2030 (first made by the G20, ahead of COP) is significant because it is in line with the exponential growth trend that renewables are on.  It implies an annual growth rate of 17% – exactly what the average growth rate has been for the past seven years.  That is a big shift: from 2006 to 2020, governments underestimated how much renewable energy capacity they could deploy by an order of magnitude.  It appears that governments increasingly recognise how fast progress can be, and that is good news. 

Incidentally, the shift in perceptions was reflected in almost ubiquitous talk of positive tipping points in the transition.  Even OPEC, the oil cartel, warned its members that “pressure against fossil fuels may reach a tipping point with irreversible consequences”.  (That’s right: irreversible progress towards an economy with cheaper energy that doesn’t make the planet uninhabitable for people.)  I don’t think I heard anyone say the words ‘marginal abatement’. 

The agreement that countries should contribute to a global effort to ‘transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems… so as to achieve net zero by 2050’ helpfully sends a negative signal about the growth prospects of fossil extracting industries, and reinforces the norm that 2050 is about the right time to reach net zero (earlier than many large countries are currently aiming for).

Another signal, less noticed but still helpful, was the formal endorsement in negotiated text of a goal first agreed by leaders of many countries at COP26 two years ago, to halt and reverse deforestation and forest degradation by 2030.

Finally, a different kind of signal was sent by the commitment of $700m to the new ‘loss and damage’ fund – a recognition in all but name of the right to compensation.  How much this will help in practice remains to be seen.  According to one estimate, that amount of money is less than the losses suffered by the world every two days in extreme events attributable to climate change.

The noise

An enormous amount of noise was generated by everyone involved in and reporting on the COP, on the question of which words to use to describe the world’s intention of moving away from fossil fuels.

While the signalling is, as I’ve said, important, the noise can be misleading in several ways.

First: The goal of ending the use of fossil fuels (except where emissions are captured and stored) is already implied by countries’ commitment in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, by the commitment in the Paris Agreement (2015) to achieve a balance between emissions sources and sinks, and by the commitments to achieve net zero emissions nationally that almost every government in the world has made.  The ‘phasing out’ commitment that many called for would have been a more explicit statement of existing goals, not a new goal.

Second: Goals are useful, but they don’t meet themselves.  The pace of progress on global emissions depends far less on the wording that countries collectively use to describe the goal than it does on the actions they take to make it easier for each other to move forward. 

Third: The focus on ‘phasing out fossil fuels’ led many to believe that what was under consideration was action to constrain fossil fuel supply.  This is a misperception.  The US, one of the most vocal supporters of ‘phase out’, celebrated hitting an all-time high in its oil production during COP28.  The UK, another supporter, has not changed its policy of maximising extraction of oil and gas from the North Sea.  No country that has fossils is seriously considering not digging them up and selling them for burning.  Fossil fuels will be phased out by actions that destroy demand for them.  The shift to clean power systems destroys demand for coal.  The shift to electric vehicles destroys demand for oil.  Helping the transition in each emitting sector progress more quickly is the fastest way to ditch the fossils.

The structure

Momentum is growing behind efforts to increasingly focus climate change diplomacy on practical cooperation: the ways countries can work together to make faster progress.  This is welcome.

In every sector, practical cooperation initiatives are emerging, growing, and progressing.  COP28 saw the commitment of $1bn towards practical projects to help countries cut methane emissions, and the creation of new platforms to match financial and technical assistance with developing countries’ demands in industry and hydrogen.  More countries agreed to align policies towards 30% of new heavy road vehicles being zero emission by 2030, and 100% by 2040; this group now covers over 20% of the global market, up from 5% a year ago.  The UK, Germany, US and Canada committed to use public procurement to create the first markets for low carbon steel and cement, as part of a group of countries whose membership has grown over the past year from 9% to 20% of the global steel market.

The Breakthrough Agenda, a process to continually advance practical cooperation in each of the emitting sectors, is steadily growing.  Its member countries now cover over 80% of GDP.  Most of them committed at COP28 to participate in at least some of an extensive set of priorities for collaborative action over the coming year, and added buildings and cement to the list of sectors they will work on together.

In the negotiated text that outlines the world’s response to being off-track for avoiding dangerous climate change, countries decided to launch ‘a set of activities to significantly enhance international cooperation… with a view to keeping 1.5°C within reach’.  The UN negotiations, with their universal participation, cannot be the place for deep and substantial cooperation, but they could at least begin to build some consensus on priority areas to address, and encourage countries to work together more substantively in smaller groups.

There is a long way to go: countries have barely begun to discuss the difficult questions of standards and trade that will be critical to the pace of transitions in industry and agriculture.  A decisive shift in the focus of climate change diplomacy – from economy-wide to sector-specific, from universal participation to small groups, from targets to actions – is still needed. 

The end of a COP can feel like a do-or-die moment, when the future of humanity is in the balance.  Some commentators spoke about the end of COP28 in that way.  But in truth, it isn’t.  Most of the policy decisions that determine the trajectory of global emissions are made in national capitals, at other times throughout the year, usually motivated mainly by interests other than climate change.  Diplomacy is useful when it influences those decisions; if it becomes more practical, it will influence them more often.

So, as we say goodbye to Dubai, and look forward to Baku, it is what climate diplomacy does in between that really matters.

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