Dec 2023 | COPing mechanisms

The summit began with several big-ticket announcements. Those on the ground, though, were very cautious of this optimism. Photo by COP28/Christopher Pike/UNFCCC/Flickr

A forced victory: How COP28 Presidency chose politics over policy

In Part 1 of a two-part COP special, CarbonCopy looks at how and why the GST text changed dramatically, especially in the last few days of the summit

Read the second part here

After two weeks of intense speculation, COP28 came to somewhat of an anti-climatic end. COP28 President Sultan al Jaber, presided over the closing plenary of the annual climate summit in ExpoCity Dubai with a clear purpose. In a flash, with a swift bang of the gavel, he announced The UAE Consensus had been adopted. A monument of climate policy had been erected in the blink of an eye, and the hall full of country delegations and observers struggled to absorb the moment. Once the initial shock of the moment passed, the stark mix of emotions became palpable. 

The COP Presidency’s self-satisfied candour of victory tried desperately to compensate for layers of underlying despondence. The room was a mix of faces—some beaming, others stony, angry and visibly distraught. A deal had been “struck”, but was it the equal outcome the world had hoped for?

The Pitch

“What is our North Star at Cop28? It is keeping 1.5°C within reach,” proclaimed Dr Sultan Al Jaber at his press conference as COP28 President-designate back in September. “Dr Sultan” as he has now come to be known, has made this “North Star” reference at various other media interactions since then. But as COP28 progressed, many, many questions were raised on the Presidency’s sense of direction.

The summit began with several big-ticket announcements. Those on the ground, though, were very cautious of this optimism. And for good reason. COP28 began under the watchful eye of more than a hundred PR professionals, who were spread out—across the event venues, making rounds of the media centre—something that has never happened at previous COPs. Some members of the media had been contacted by the PR executives at least six months prior to the actual event.  

In the first four days, the Presidency began ticking off their “To Do” list of things that, according to them, would make the COP a success. Passing the Loss and damage fund. Check. Commitment to 3x renewables by 2030. Check. Methane pledge. Check. Declaration on climate and health. Check. Week One was all about photo ops and standing ovations, but by Week Two, the toxic positivity that the Presidency was banking on began to backfire. 

With every iteration of the Global Stock Take (GST) text, the hope of striking a balance between mitigation, adaptation and financial support grew dimmer. On December 9, COP28 had its first leak—a letter from the OPEC secretary general Haitham al-Ghais, urging the organisation’s members to “proactively reject any text or formula that targets energy, i.e. fossil fuels, rather than emissions”. “The fossil fuel industry here [at COP28] is brazen. We have 2,500 fossil fuel lobbyists here, and 500 carbon capture storage lobbyists here. They are coming out in full force, and they are here because they feel threatened. The leaked OPEC letter shows that the oil industry is pushing countries right now to reject this fossil fuel phaseout,” said Jean Su, energy director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity. 

Copen-again: A forced consensus

The last few days of the summit were the messiest. The draft of the GST decision text made public on December 11, the last full day of the schedule, read like a wish list written by novices, with little indication of a clear vision. It mentioned the term “rapid phase down of unabated coal”. But there was no mention of a fossil fuel phaseout, resorting to confusing language that suggested a reduction in production and consumption of fossil fuels with a mid-century timeline for net zero (presumably, emissions). Eleven thousand words, but there was no mention of oil and gas either. The 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement no longer seemed sacrosanct. Placeholders for sections on adaptation and energy transitions gave it an unmistakable aura of unfinishedness. It did acknowledge that more needed to be done on climate finance. It recalled Article 4.5 of the Paris Agreement, which says that ‘support shall be provided to developing country Parties’ and expressed regret about not reaching the $100 billion goal. A flurry of instant reactions panned the language in the draft as basic, unscientific, confusing, repetitive and, worst of all, unambitious. 

That day, Al Jaber gave the media a 15 minute-heads up for two press conferences—once in the morning and once in the evening—both of which were cancelled. In fact, for the evening press conference, the media waited for half an hour, only to find out Al Jaber had started a plenary at another venue. Meanwhile, parties dissected the text and got busy with coordination meetings. Preparations for the forthcoming round of consultations on this text continued late into the night.

Delegates played the waiting game for hours on end on December 12—the day COP28 was to end—with no information coming out of any of the closed negotiating rooms. A frantic energy permeated through the venue, fuelled by the endless rumours that filled the corridors, food courts and smoking zones. 

After several hours of hushed consultations, the tension finally broke around 9pm amidst a torrent of developments. A gaggle of journos had assembled outside one of the many innocuous buildings spread across the venue. The Canadian government’s press office had invited some (mostly western) media for a limited press address to be made by Canadian Environment minister Steven Guilbeault. The word on the street was that top negotiators and high level government representatives from Japan, Canada, Norway, UK and the US were in the room huddled in consultation with the COP Presidency. After several minutes of anxious anticipation, activity erupted outside the building. Consultations were complete, and John Kerry was seen being whisked away with Al Jaber in a trademark COP28 golf buggy. The text was “moving in the right direction,” the American climate envoy managed to say before being shunted out of range of the prowling reporters. Canadian minister Guilbeault resumed with his unscheduled press interaction in which he expressed confidence in reaching a deal before long, adding that while consultations were not complete, the progress had been “encouraging.”

Within a matter of minutes, news of a leaked draft of the GST decision text started filtering through the media centre. Amidst the wildfire, the UNFCCC hurriedly asked the remaining press at the venue to retire for the night, and that the next iteration was only expected in the morning of December 13. Despite a near-deserted media centre, the news had far from died down. An hour later, the first headlines started breaking – “A deal was near; and the decision showed strong language on fossil fuels.” Meanwhile, the Presidency’s consultations with parties were still ongoing. What had changed dramatically were the odds of reaching an agreement that equitably reflected all interests, and the mood. 

The Presidency had finally managed a win and had grasped control of the narrative. With the validation of a headline to boot, the remaining consultations with parties took on a new shade. The decision was no longer something to sculpt, but only one to be tinkered with. Consensus was now close, whether it was forged or forced is a mere academic footnote. “This is a politically negotiated decision, not a technically negotiated one. The text reflects it. It has a little bit for everyone but, more importantly, includes compromises for all,” says one negotiator. Several others noted the increasing politicisation of the negotiation process under the UNFCCC, especially since COP26 in Glasgow in 2021 when the UK’s COP-Presidency resorted to ministerial dialogue to salvage a notable decision. 

In fact, political bargaining has been instrumental in most pivotal decisions in international climate policy, including the Paris Agreement. It is, however, now becoming the norm – and with that comes a reaffirmation of political and economic hierarchy in a forum meant to be built on equity and consensus. COP28 was a testament to this reality. While we might have a slew of “successes” in the COPs to come, it is hardly a guarantee that all interests are protected and reflected. It is more likely that the UNFCCC will become a high stakes table with an invitation to only the rich and powerful.

The sting this year is arguably hardest for nations in parts of Africa and Latin America, who have little to take back home as spoils of the negotiation battle. “We were under the impression that we would have one more round of consultations before the final decision was prepared, and so we are disappointed, especially on what has been delivered as the decision on adaptation and means of implementation (read: finance),” remarked one developing country negotiator under condition of anonymity.  

History does not always repeat but it sure does rhyme. Happenings of that night rung eerily similar to another consequential moment in the saga of climate politics. COP15, held in Copenhagen in December 2009, went down in history books for the secretive deals made between influential parties and brokered by the Danish Presidency. The UAE Consensus carries a similar aura of opacity—the conventional method of open and joint negotiations of text in the presence of observers was abandoned. The GST decision text was instead prepared almost entirely through exclusive consultations held by Al Jaber and his team with nearly no visibility to the public. 

Separated by 14 years, the two moments differ in one significant way. While the Danish Presidency attempted to hammer through an agreement, and in the process evicted civil society representatives and members of the media from the venue to enforce secrecy, the UAE Presidency was much more surgical in its operation. It managed to maintain tight secrecy while effectively locking civil society out of the negotiation process, break the silence strategically at a moment when the world was starved for information and keenly awaiting closure, and finally force the process into a “consensus”. And all of this with a fraction of the noise, controversy and infamy Copenhagen had garnered.

A little after 6AM on December 13, the final decision GST text was uploaded on the UNFCCC portal. The final text had some significant changes—among them was the change to the operative term should (transition away from fossil fuels), which had sparked premature celebrations the night before in some sections of the media. A few hours later, Al Jaber was beaming down on the closing plenary, donned in a distinctive grey kandurah, gavel in hand, speaking into existence The UAE Consensus.

Read part 2 here.

At the outset, the Presidency had a goal to double adaptation finance—to raise $300 million for the Adaptation Fund, but COP28 only delivered $169 million in pledges, a mere 56% of the intended amount. Photo: kiara Worth/UNFCCC/Flickr

Read between the lines: The GST text says more about power, less about climate 

Part 2 examines how the final GST text is not only technically weak, but is also replete with loopholes and compromises for everyone. Read Part 1 here.

In the run-up to COP28, it was common knowledge that the fate of the conference hung solely on one key piece of climate policy. The Global Stocktake (GST) is a periodic, five-year long process of assessing the world’s collective progress towards achieving the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming ideally to 1.5 degrees C and well below 2 degrees C. Enshrined in the Paris Agreement, the objective of the GST is to provide direction of the ratcheting up of ambition among countries. As the moment of culmination of the first GST cycle, it was little surprise that the flavour of COP28 ultimately boiled down to the GST decision text. Beyond the headlines and instant reactions, here is a cold hard take at what the “historic” moment delivered:

Mitigation pathways

With the world awaiting clarity on how exactly countries will go about accelerating emission reductions, mitigation was the big ticket item in the GST. The Presidency had one clear red line—it was determined to get some language around the future of fossil fuels. In the end, the final decision text on the GST, also dubbed The UAE Consensus, satiated the global hyper-fixation on mitigation pathways.

With strong acknowledgement of the scientific basis for urgent emission reductions, the final decision calls on parties to enhance their mitigation strategies through eight sectoral approaches and targets. The final framing is stronger than the early draft, which merely suggested approaches (and used the operative term ‘could), but weaker than the penultimate iteration that leaned more towards prescribing approaches (and used the operative term ‘should’).

RIght up at top of the list is the target to triple global renewable energy capacity and double the rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030—a clear mark of the G20 declaration crafted under India’s custodianship. Most significantly the approaches include “Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050.” Importantly for India, the final decision loosens language around the reduction of coal, and instead reverts to language agreed at COP26 in Glasgow that seeks to accelerate “efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power”. The language, in some ways, flattens the distinction between coal and other fossil fuels—a significant win for large developing countries like India which rely heavily on coal.

On mitigation, the decision is undeniably path-breaking, and succeeds in demolishing the false wall that separated the UNFCCC process and emission sources. But it isn’t all good. Despite the strong intent on energy transition, the text is also replete with loopholes and wriggle room. The decision does not clearly indicate a reduction in fossil fuel use but rather calls for transitioning away from fossil fuels, which can be interpreted in a number of ways. While the most charitable interpretation would imply a reduction in fossil fuel consumption, more critical interpretations would point to the fact that transitioning does not necessitate an absolute reduction in fossil fuel use. A reduced share of fossil fuels in the energy mix, without absolute reduction, could also be described as transitioning away. Even more confusing in the context is the recognition of the role ‘transitional fuels’ which have thus far been used to describe natural gas, non-green hydrogen and blended biofuels, all of which have considerable emission intensity over their lifetimes, even if not as high as coal or most crude oil-derivatives. The language also focuses solely on energy systems at this point, and not on non-energy industrial uses of fossil fuels. The abandonment of conventional sector- and technology-agnosticism under the UNFCCC process has also legitimised unproven abatement technologies, such as carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) and nuclear abatement, which have thus far faced stiff challenges of unit economics, scalability and geography. 

Beyond laying out sectoral approaches, the GST provides important direction on how global biological carbon stocks, held mainly in forest and vegetation, will be managed and incentivised. The GST decision validates “result-based payments” for forest conservation and reforestation activities intended for carbon removal in developing countries. Although a validation in a world where creative offsetting cannot be ignored as an important part of global emission reduction efforts, the framing of the GST language makes financial obligations to developing countries conditional on outcomes, which governments rarely have control over, rather than outputs which governments can more confidently lay out. The current framing firmly thrusts the reins of forest conservation and carbon stock projects in the hands of donor countries and implementing agencies, rather than national governments.

Somewhat worryingly for developing countries, despite strong and clear commitment to the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities in the preambular and introductory portions of the GST decision, neither has been explicitly laid out as a part of the endorsed list of mitigation approaches. While the decision acknowledges the constraints of a tight carbon budget to remain within the 1.5 degree C warming limit, it does away with any articulation of how this limited budget should be split between countries. Without clear differentiation of responsibilities in the energy transition, neither is a clear roadmap for enhancing available financial flows, nor is there a clear understanding yet of where and how the energy transition will be prioritised. 

Further, without a clear understanding of how and where emission reductions will come from, the text creates ample room for emissions from the developed world to be offset using carbon stocks and forests in the developing world. A cynical reading of these paragraphs would recognise the unmistakable marks of a foundation for a future where consumption in the developed world is sustained through emission removals in the developing world, also known as carbon colonialism. 


The Global Goal On Adaptation, the guidebook to inform global adaptation efforts, was due to be completed this year at COP28. While a decision was eked out in the nth hour, it has hardly sent the signals the COP28 Presidency would have hoped for at the outset.

The final GGA decision includes seven approaches to enhance adaptation efforts until 2030, but without any clear targets, that countries have been urged to act on. Hopes that the GGA will provide some clarity on how adaptation efforts shall be funded were also left largely unfulfilled. Despite repeated acknowledgement of the fact that enhanced finance leads to enhanced ambition in developing countries, there is little to suggest how this ambition shall actually be supported. 

The text however, does introduce some new, poorly understood terms—“transformational adaptation” and “maladaptation avoidance” in its articulation of how adaptive capacity needs to be built. These terms, which carry a potential to impact funding for development projects which carry any emission or biodiversity imprint, are now set to be evaluated and clarified through efforts undertaken by the UNFCCC secretariat.

At the outset, the Presidency had a goal to double adaptation finance—to raise $300 million for the Adaptation Fund, but COP28 only delivered $169 million in pledges, a mere 56% of the intended amount. According to the 2023 UNEP Adaptation Gap report, progress on climate adaptation is slowing on all fronts, with the financing gap now at a staggering $194–366 billion per year. Even as needs are growing, international public funding for adaptation in developing economies declined by 15% in 2021.

The proposal for a dedicated capacity-building fund for developing countries, that had featured in early iterations of the GST decision and would bring in new and additional finance, has been axed in the final decision. Instead, is a decision to increase funding for capacity building activity through the existent Adaptation Fund—in effect reducing the available capital for on-ground interventions.

Climate Finance

Matters relating to finance, in general, did not see much progress at COP28. Beyond the avalanche of voluntary pledges, the question of establishing clear roadmaps to bring financial flows more in line with requirements and in accordance with the principles of the Paris Agreement has been kicked down the road to next year, when discussions on the all important New Collective Quantitative Goal (NCQG) are due to be undertaken.

Still, the GST decision does deliver some significant updates in matters related to finance. For one, it legitimises the use of taxation and other innovative methods of finance. This has clear implications for the application of EU’s CBAM (and other forthcoming cross-border carbon taxes), which will now entirely be arbitrated under the WTO. Importantly, it also validates the introduction of taxation on high-emitting industries such as oil and gas, shipping and aviation. 

It also recognises that the quantum of financing has moved well into the trillions, which can be expected to have a mark as negotiations on the NCQG come into effect over the next year. A much-needed Technology Implementation Work Programme has also been established with a view to help transfer and application of technologies in developing countries. It also acknowledges the importance of the quality of finance and stresses on the need for grants and concessional climate finance.

The big win in finance undoubtedly came in the operationalisation of the Loss and Damage Fund, which was announced on the first day of COP28. Although the initiation comes without any indication of how the fund shall be sustained or what a replenishment cycle will look like, the momentum of a first day decision helped raise over $750 million to be used for loss and damage responses in developing countries, especially those that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Taking stock of the trade off

COP28 began with a proclamation by Al Jaber that this COP would be a different one. It indeed was. Past precedents held little value as conventional process was turned on its head and the Presidency took charge of establishing a consensus. Although ultimately decisive, the trade-offs in reaching a conclusion cannot be ignored. The enduring message from COP28, beyond the narrative wins and incremental progress it has delivered, will likely be one of opacity, and a dilution of multilateral consensus. How this new precedent unfolds is a question only time can answer. Will it help sustain the trust that keeps collaborative action alive? Or will the UNFCCC unravel as yet another forum used by power, for power?

Read Part 1 here.