Safe to say, while all the pledges at COP28 may make for good headlines, they are still not good enough for the climate. Photo: by COP28 / Walaa Alshaer/UNFCCC/Flickr

Toxic positivity at COP28: Half-way there, but still a long way to go

The COP presidency attempted to tie the first half of the UN climate summit with a big red bow, which is already unravelling

COP28 in Dubai has reached its halfway mark. Billions of dollars have been pledged, the “historic” loss and damage fund was launched—it was deemed a success on Day One itself. But this is the COP, and all the wins and losses are decided over text. And the message just isn’t getting delivered. 

It was clear from before COP28 began that the Presidency—led by Dr Sultan Al Jaber, who has raised eyebrows for holding simultaneous charge of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC)—was keen to overwhelm proceedings with a slew of announcements. The first was, of course, the adoption of the Loss and Damage fund at the opening of the summit. Immediately after the announcement, $400 million was pledged to the fund by the likes of Germany, UK and the hosts themselves. Money has continued to trickle in since then.

Many losses, little gain

At the opening plenary, Al Jaber proudly announced the initiation of the Loss and Damage fund—a landmark decision to help the most poor and vulnerable nations get the financial assistance they need to deal with climate impacts. The announcement was met with thumping applause and a standing ovation from the attending delegates. What followed were a string of pledges–UAE pledged $100 million, as did Germany. Then there was $60 million from the UK, and $10 million from Japan. At last count, the L&D fund had collected $655.9 million. While it sounds worthy of applause, assessments of financial requirements put climate finance needs for developing countries (excluding China) at over $2.4 trillion in climate finance by 2030. And the reality check doesn’t end there.

The long-term sustainability of the fund has been questioned. The resolution, for example, does not mention anything about how these funds will be replenished. Also missing are details on the funding mechanism of the fund—in other words, how will this money be disbursed, and to whom? Nobody knows.

Promises to (not) keep

If action-packed words could fix the planet, the first week would have seen the climate crisis become a thing of the past. 

First up, the Global Decarbonisation Accelerator. Among the positives is that 118 countries (not including India and China) committed to tripling clean energy and doubling energy efficiency by 2030. But the voluntary pledge has been called a mere “distraction” by some experts, who said it only focuses on operational emissions, thereby sidestepping 80-90% of the oil and gas industry’s environmental impact. For India, the red line was the inclusion of the sentence on the “phase down of unabated coal power”. The specific focus on just coal is what the country is opposed to as it relies on this fossil fuel for 75% of its power generation. 

Next came the methane pledge. It included 50 oil companies pledging to reach near-zero methane emissions and ending routine flaring in their operations by 2030. Critics have pointed out that the pledge is also another distraction, this time from the phase down/phase out of fossil fuels, because the oil and gas industry can capture the methane and repackage it as gas, therefore not making it a scope 1 emission (emission from production). This way, the companies will not have to worry about scope 3 emissions either (emissions from use). This pledge also does not make sense for a country such as India where methane emissions are largely from agriculture and livestock, not from oil and gas. 

Day 4 of COP28, the presidency announced the COP28 UAE Declaration on Climate and Health. It was signed by 128 countries (once again skipped by India). Some of the objectives of the declaration include improving and adapting current health systems to build more resilience to climate-related health risks. It also aims to strengthen “cross-sectoral collaboration to reduce emissions and maximise the health benefits of climate action, and increasing finance for climate and health solutions,” the press release stated. But glaringly missing from the declaration was the mention of health impacts from fossil fuels. “There is no mention of fossil fuels in the declaration despite the fact that they are the leading driver of climate change and therefore of its health impacts, and also the leading drivers of air pollution,” Jess Beagley, Policy Lead, Global Climate and Health Alliance said. 

Among the major pledges announced was also the Global Cooling Pledge, signed by 63 countries. India was missing from this pledge as well. It claimed to be the world’s first collecting focus on emissions from cooling, especially refrigeration for medicine, food and ACs. Under the pledge, countries committed to reducing cooling-related emissions by at least 68% compared to 2022 levels. 

Safe to say, while all these pledges may make for good headlines, they are still not good enough for the climate. 

Lock, stock and quarrel

Pledges and superficial victories aside, the true test for the COP28 presidency lies in getting consensus on the text for Global Stocktake (GST). The word on the street is that it is going to be a tough task. The text is too long, and so are the interventions. The differences are not going to be bridged in such a short span of time. From India’s perspective, the issues haven’t changed drastically since the previous COPs. Including equity in the text seems to be a battle still to be won. 

The GST draft includes three distinct options (other than the “no text” option) regarding the UNFCCC principles of Equity and Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR–RC). While the first two options do nothing more than acknowledge the principles, the third option which “reiterates and respects” the principles of equity and CBDR-RC aligns more clearly with India’s historic position. But getting consensus on this third option seems unlikely. 

Language that recognises the role of historical emissions and the inequitable use of the carbon space (as noted in the IPCC AR6 report) has been included in the last GST draft that was circulated. The option also links mitigation responsibilities to the historical share of emissions, as mentioned by PM Narendra Modi in his speech at COP28 on December 1. But there is also an alternative option that calls for the GST’s focus to be more “forward looking”, and not carry any mentions of historical emissions. 

Climate finance is another tricky issue within the GST draft text. There is language that acknowledges the responsibility of developed countries to mobilise adequate climate finance, and the need to move from billions to trillions of dollars for climate action. The quality of finance has also been highlighted in the draft text. It calls for the expansion of grants, concessional and non-debt instruments to support climate action in developing countries. This means going beyond just granting of loans that come with rising interest rates, which poorer countries are struggling to repay. 

War of words

The Mitigation Work Programme (MWP) has no minimum common agreed text yet. Developing countries are strong on the link with clearly demarcated financial responsibilities. There are some procedural problems also cropping up. For example, developing countries are claiming that their submissions are not reflected in the text. 

Similar procedural problems have also plagued the talks on the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA). For India, the concern in the first iteration of the GGA text was missing language around the CBDR-RC principle, the gap in adaptation finance, targets around finance and mechanisms around accountability. There is some hope because in the second iteration of the text, the CBDR-RC principle is placed as an option to be put into the text. But there is also a ‘no text’ option, which means that the CBDR-RC could be omitted altogether. 

The second iteration has also included option text on the gap in adaptation finance. One of the options expands on ‘finance and means of implementation’ and includes a financial target of $400 billion per year—which was proposed by developing countries after the first iteration of the text was released. A paragraph on doubling adaptation finance is part of the text. However, there is also an option that has no mention of a financial target or an adaptation finance gap. 

A COP for corporations? 

“No government in the world has enough money to affect this transition. We wanted to be the nicest, best, biggest donor beyond where we are today. We don’t have the money. And we are the richest economy on the planet,” US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry proclaimed during a press conference at COP28 on Wednesday. “In Glasgow, we worked together with the COP president Alok Sharma and they put together GFANS [Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero]—the global alliance of asset owners and managers. Because they have the money. And they came up with 131 trillion dollars that they felt would be ready to invest in climate-related activities IF you have a bankable deal. Most of them are subject to fiduciary rules. They are required to do due diligence.” This is an accurate summation of what COP28 is really about. 

An analysis found 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists have been granted access to the COP28 summit in Dubai—nearly four times more than last year. There has also been a major focus this year on carbon markets (especially voluntary carbon markets). The dots to what Kerry is saying seem to be connecting on ground as well.  

The first week of COP28 ended with the closing of subsidiary bodies’ shepherding of texts. The second week will witness more political interventions—when most countries see only red. 

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