The opening plenary session of COP28 saw the adoption of a decision on the operationalisation of the Loss and Damage Fund.

COP28: Searching for a fresh route on a beaten path

The opening of the climate conference has seen a departure from precedent as it delivers a decisive push for the operationalisation of the pivotal Loss and Damage Fund 

COP28, the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), kicked off yesterday in Dubai’s Expo City. The Conference comes quick on the heels of the escalation in conflict between Israel and Palestine, which has captured the attention of the world. Although sights remain affixed on the Middle East, the gaze has now shifted to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as participants and national delegations descend on the federal monarchy. The two-week affair, due to run until December 12, has reportedly garnered close to 100,000 registrations—nearly four times the volume seen during the UK’s Presidency of COP26 in 2021. 

“…the world has reached a crossroads. And yes, since Paris, we have made some progress. But we also know that the road we have been on will not get us to our destination in time. The science has spoken. It has confirmed that the moment is now to find a new road, a road wide enough for all of us, free of the obstacles and detours of the past,” said the newly elected President of the Conference Sultan al Jaber while delivering his opening remarks.

The journey to COP28 has been anything but smooth. If the backdrop for COP28 was not challenging enough, UAE’s path to the COP Presidency itself has been rife with controversy from the moment it bid to host the conference about two years ago. Given UAE’s coziness with the oil and gas Industry, the decision to host the COP in the country raised eyebrows among observers. The choice of person to lead the conference provoked further consternation. Al Jaber is no stranger to controversy either. With a long history and deep ties with oil producer ADNOC, practically every word spoken by him in the year leading up to this week has been viewed with suspicion, especially among civil society. 

Nevertheless, the Presidency has maintained confidence that COP28 will be the most inclusive COP thus far with the ambitious goals of fast-tracking emissions reductions, doubling the finance available for adaptation, and setting the framework for new financial arrangements to meet the requirements of mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change. Success in any of these objectives, however, hinges on the Presidency’s ability to craft a difficult political consensus, particularly in the ‘Global Stocktake’ (GST) process.

Positivity, and a dash of desperation

The lead-up to COP28 saw a flurry of reports suggesting imminent pledges and announcements from several countries. That momentum has evidently carried over to the first day of the Conference, which unlike ever before saw the adoption of a decision (on the operationalisation of the Loss and Damage Fund) at the opening plenary session of the conference. Sultan al Jaber announced the operationalisation of the fund, which is now expected to be hosted at the World Bank for at least an initial period of four years amidst applause and celebrations typically reserved for the end of the Conference. The announcement was quickly followed by pledges for contributions to the fund amounting to a total of $420 million, including $100 million pledged by the UAE and $225 million pledged collectively by the EU. 

“The hard work of many people over many years has been delivered in Dubai.” Dr. Al Jaber said, “…the speed at which the world came together, to get this fund operationalized within one year since Parties agreed to it in Sharm El Sheikh is unprecedented.”

Dr. Al Jaber, President-designate of COP 28, speaks during the UNFCCC Formal Opening of COP28 at the UN Climate Change Conference COP28 at Expo City Dubai on November 30, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by COP28 / Mahmoud Khaled/Flickr)

There are still gaps though, prominently the lack of a sustained funding mechanism or replenishment cycle to ensure the continued functioning of the fund. “It is crucial to simultaneously enhance its (the fund’s) financial scope—necessitating hundreds of billions of dollars annually—and establish a process for initial capitalisation and periodic replenishment. This step is essential to efficiently channel funds to those battling climate catastrophes…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 be held accountable to revise its policies to meet these commitments and to effectively deliver finance to vulnerable communities and countries during its tenure,” remarked Harjeet Singh, the head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International.

The opening plenary of the conference also broke the impasse around the agenda as Al Jaber announced the adoption of a 19-point list of agenda items due for deliberations at this session.

Over the next few days, more pledges and initiatives are expected to be announced at the World Climate Action Summit. Feelers have been put out on a possible expansion of the Global Methane Pledge, the initiation of the Global Cooling Pledge to tackle emissions from cooling needs, and a possible initiative to set the ball rolling on a new agenda and framework for climate finance, to name a few. Al Jaber also indicated the possibility of attaining “critical mass” for agreements pertaining to the tripling of global renewable energy capacity within this decade and a target to double energy efficiency. The latter would be a big win for India, which has been at the forefront of calls to carve out a bigger role for energy efficiency targets in decarbonisation efforts.  

For those paying attention, the heavy front-loading of positive announcements has been a palpable objective—not just for the presidency, but also for several other countries considered vital for the prospects of collective climate action. For the cynics among us, however, it also triggers suspicion—why the hurry in trying to brand the event a success even before the floor opens to any negotiations?

The consequences of taking stock

COP28 serves as a critical juncture in the effort to craft sustained collaborative climate action—offering, for the first time, a vantage point to gauge how far exactly the world has come toward achieving the objective of arresting and reversing the effects of climate change as well as charting the path forward. 

Dubai will see the culmination of a five-year-long exercise of assessing progress in climate action with the express intention of identifying inadequacies and ratcheting up ambition in the next update of parties’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The process, laid out as a part of the Paris Agreement, is considered critical in forging the path ahead for policy-making by setting baselines that strengthen future climate ambition. 

After multiple rounds of information gathering and technical dialogue, a draft synthesis text was prepared in the run-up to COP28 as a compilation of the inputs received by the UNFCCC over the past five years. The text, which is rife with flashpoints, will form the basis for the negotiations in Dubai. 

Formal Opening of COP28 at the UN Climate Change Conference COP28 at Expo City Dubai on November 30, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo: UNFCCC/KiaraWorth/Flickr

As such, questions around global emissions reduction pathways and the significance of the 1.5°C warming target have become inalienable. While several developed countries have in the past called for a reiteration of the 1.5°C target and for a timeline to peak global emissions, developing countries have thus far resisted citing the inequitability of such a timeline and the unfair burden it places on developing countries to reduce emissions. India’s position on the matter is aligned with the view expressed by most developing countries. According to India’s submissions on the matter in the past, any such articulation of a target for emissions peaking or emission reduction pathway should be conditional on developed countries taking the lead in its delivery. 

The most widely endorsed IPCC emission reduction pathway, which also features in the GST draft text, suggests GHG emissions reductions of 43% by 2030, 60% by 2035, and 84% by 2050 relative to 2019 levels. 

India, in the past, has also put forth the need to recognise a global carbon budget for the 1.5°C and 2°C warming targets of the Paris Agreement and its fair-share partitioning between parties on the basis of developmental equity.

The question of emission reductions, however, has profound bearing on the future of fossil fuels, the burning of which has been the predominant driver of climate change. The matter of any phased wind-down of unabated fossil fuels has been a tricky one to navigate for some years now. While intuition would suggest that such a target is inextricable to the objective of combating climate change, negotiating language around this has proven anything but simple. While calls for a phased reduction of dependence on unabated fossil fuels have been led by some developed countries (notably the European Union) and vulnerable countries facing existential threats from climate change, most developing countries (notably Saudi Arabia) have claimed that any such language would trample on the sovereignty of nations in deciding their most suitable decarbonisation pathways, as guaranteed under the overarching UNFCCC agreement. The argument, instead, is to maintain the conventional source- and technology-agnosticism in the negotiated texts, and for targets to be devolved around emissions regardless of their source.

The reluctance to engage in the future of fossil fuels, however, is not an exclusive stance of developing countries and is shared by large oil and gas producers, regardless of developmental status. This became increasingly evident over the past year’s G20 deliberations wherein language around curbs on unabated fossil fuels was ultimately replaced with an elaboration on the role of abatement technologies such as CCS.

UAE’s association with the oil and gas industry and the choice of Al Jaber as the President of this edition of the conference has barely helped matters. The Presidency’s proximity to oil and gas interests has fueled speculation of the outweighed influence of the sector during the conference, with allegations going as far as claiming that the UAE government has used COP28 as a moment to craft new oil and gas deals.

Money matters

Consensus on scaling low-emission and emission reduction technologies, as one would expect, leads to the question of who foots the bill and how equity is maintained in any emergent financial arrangement. As such, mitigation ambitions are unlikely to be free of the condition that finance be equitable and accessible, particularly to those countries that are most vulnerable and carry little economic clout. 

In fact, the entirety of climate negotiations, spanning over 30 years, can be boiled down to two pivotal questions—‘Who does what?’ and ‘Who pays/who receives?’. Climate finance has been a perpetually sticky wicket for international climate policy. 

The first explicit articulation of a commitment for climate finance came in 2012, when developed countries committed to mobilise $100 billion annually toward climate action in developing nations by 2020. Failure to meet this commitment despite an extension in the timeline has been cited as a prime reason for a widening trust deficit at the UNFCCC.

Although the latest OECD statements on the matter indicate that the $100 billion goal pledged in 2009 is likely to have been met in 2022, several countries, including India, have pointed to the lack of public data to validate this claim.

The burden of mobilising finance for climate action in developing countries has historically rested with developed countries, which were deemed to have an oversized “historic responsibility” in creating the climate crisis due to unfettered emissions post industrialisation. Citing a change in global economic and political order, several developed country parties in recent years have called for an expansion in the donor base beyond what was agreed in the early days of the UNFCCC. The riposte from the developing world, particularly large developing countries at risk of being pulled into the donor pool, has rested on the precedent of failure to meet earlier commitments on the part of developed nations.

Developing countries, prominently China and India, have also expressed that expanding the donor base dilutes unmet responsibilities of developed countries. While not shutting the door completely on a possible expansion, developing countries have thus far maintained that any expansion of donors for future climate finance arrangements must be voluntary and can only be considered through an equitable process once developed countries deliver on prior commitments and take the lead on mobilising finance in future arrangements. 

Despite differences in the articulation of responsibilities towards financing climate action, the needle has moved significantly in recent years as far as the quantum of finance requirements are concerned. This was most recently seen during India’s Presidency of the G20, which conclusively shifted the frame of reference for financial requirements from billions to trillions of dollars. 

The New Delhi G20 Leaders’ Declaration, adopted in September, puts its weight behind numbers produced by the UNFCCC-constituted Standing Committee on Finance, which states that developing countries need $5.8 trillion–$5.9 trillion up to 2030 to finance less than half of the climate action listed in their national commitments (articulated in formal submissions made by governments to the UNFCCC) to keep global warming in check.

According to the numbers included in the draft GST synthesis report, “developing country needs (excluding China) will be $2-2.8 trillion by 2030 with other estimates being $5.8–5.9 trillion for the pre-2030 period and needs identified in National Communications of developing countries indicate $9 trillion and almost $6 trillion to implement their NDCs.” Building a clean energy economy itself is expected to require $4 trillion per year up to 2030 for a Net-Zero emissions target to be within reach by 2050. 

The likely inclusion of these figures in the GST will further move the frame of reference for climate finance into the trillions. While this is unlikely to be the figure considered for the provision of long-term finance from developed to developing countries, it is expected to shift the bar significantly higher from the current floor set at $100 billion per year. COP28 host, UAE, has identified adaptation finance as a priority with a clear goal of doubling adaptation finance, which currently lags far behind finance available for mitigation.

Premature celebrations

There is no denying that COP28 has seen among the most positive starts in the history of climate negotiations. The Presidency has undoubtedly created momentum for announcements to be made during the upcoming leaders’ segment. The worry, however, is if this would be enough to carry the Conference to a successful conclusion. While non-negotiated pledges and announcements signal strong intent, there is little guarantee that it will deliver success when the rubber hits the road in negotiation rooms.

Failure to deliver consensus and progress in the negotiated texts, particularly on the GST, could yet puncture the early claims to success. Prudence would suggest holding off on celebrations until negotiations conclude, lest we are left with little to show but a bad haircut—heavy in the front and desolate at the back.