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:
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.
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.