Making sense of COP28

Written by Tejopala Rawls, with thanks to Glen Klatovsksy, CEO of Climate Action Network Australia (CANA), for excellent notes that have informed this blog.

People of many faiths united in a vigil outside Prime Minister Albanese's office in Sydney during COP28.

So, what just happened?

COP28 has recently concluded in Dubai. It is being described, depending on who you listen to, as anything from “historic progress” to a “failure”. This is our attempt to make sense of the outcomes. 

Overall, COP28 has provided much needed momentum, but we’re certainly not yet moving at the speed that we need, and time is running out.

People from the Pacific and other climate-vulnerable countries were disappointed that the final agreement is non-binding, lacks the ambition truly needed and includes ambiguities that allow countries to interpret the text in whatever way they prefer. The agreement fails with regard to fairness, and it will deliver far too little finance for adaptation and Loss and Damage. 

Without a doubt the most important breakthrough for this COP was the mention of fossil fuels for the first time in the final text, with the acknowledgment of the need to “transition away" from them. This signals the beginning of the end for fossil fuels. At the same time, the absence of clear and explicit language about eliminating or phasing out fossil fuels is certainly the greatest failing of this COP. Yet while the language is a lot weaker than the term “phase out”, it still sends a clear signal to governments, including the Australian government, as well as to the fossil fuel, renewable energy and energy efficiency and finance sectors. At the least it’s going to be harder to argue for an expansion of fossil fuel exploration and mining.

We will continue to push for commitments that are clear and commensurate to the crisis we face. Anything less would be to break the bonds of compassion that tie us to each other and all living beings. 

Whether we get up to speed or not will partly depend on the next two COPs. Many are calling for COP29 in Azerbaijan next year to focus on the question of getting the finance needed for this transition, which needs to scale up from billions to trillions. That would be a tall order, to say the least. At COP30 in Brazil countries are required to submit more ambitious emission reduction targets. 

On the positive side, the final resolution mentioned staying below 1.5oC of warming, keeping global efforts in line with the science and the need to keep on track during “the critical decade”, if we’re to achieve that - a clear recognition that deep cuts in emissions are needed in the very short term and not just the vague and distant future. In fact there is explicit text about the need for deep, rapid and sustained reductions in emissions in line with 1.5oC scenarios that the IPCC has modelled. There is an undertaking to triple renewable energy capacity worldwide and double energy efficiency by 2030. Crucially, the Loss and Damage fund has now been operationalised, although Australia has committed nothing to that fund. Outside of the formal COP process, momentum continued for the proposed Fossil Fuel Non Proliferation Treaty, with three more countries endorsing it. 

On the negative front, the use of the term “unabated fossil fuels” keeps the door open to the concept of carbon capture and storage, an unproven technology, to be misused by fossil fuel advocates as a way of extending the life of those technologies. There is also a part where the communique “recognizes that transitional fuels can play a role”. This is code for gas. Quite what role gas will be permitted to play in the transition remains undefined, and the range of possibilities is enormous - anything from being used only to smelt new wind turbine blades, to generating electricity for handful of years and only for very short bursts to keep the lights on when solar and wind can’t provide enough power, through to several more decades of untrammelled gas well bonanza. In the absence of any definition, you can bet what the gas industry will be pushing for. Likewise, the Global Goal on Adaptation was weakened. 

And yet the fact remains that the elephant in the room - fossil fuels - has finally been named, and the elephant has been clearly told it won’t actually live forever. This was despite serious pushback up until the dying hours of the summit from Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries who wanted all reference to fossil fuels removed. As Fiona Harvey says in this article in The Guardian “They worked so hard to scupper the deal because they realise that it is not merely words, as some critics insist. The deal will have an impact on the real world, in the decisions made by investors, banks, financial institutions, by governments and by private companies.” This alone is a massive victory for the worldwide climate movement. For a truly nuanced read along similar lines, this is an excellent article from Inside Story

Australian negotiators were much more constructive this year. During this COP our Climate and Energy Minister Chris Bowen supported efforts to include references to a “phase out” of fossil fuels in the final text and said that such a phase-out is key to Australia’s renewable energy plans. This a huge step forward and we applaud it wholeheartedly. Much work will be needed to ensure that there is an actual plan to make this happen, but the Minister has said this now. We need both to applaud him for saying it and hold the Government to honouring what he has now publicly said. 

Our job is clear: to hasten the end of fossil fuels. 

Let’s not forget that the COP negotiations are not at all the only place that progress happens. There’s a broader global context of escalating investment in, and production of, renewable energy capacity and battery technology. There’s an economic race for dominance in this between China and the US. China wants a cheap and secure source of home-grown power and the US has invested $US 2 trillion in cleantech. “The transition to clean energy is happening worldwide and it’s unstoppable. It’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s just a matter of ‘how soon’,” says Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency. 

For now let us take a moment to celebrate our amazing movement. Christina Figueres and & Halla Tómasdóttir gave the credit for any momentum gained to a vibrant, united, insistent and growing global civil society. They wrote, “We stood united in courage and in resolve behind leaders who stepped up to lead and showed us what we can achieve when we put our minds and hearts to a task. ….. We have collectively ushered in an explicit and frank conversation on fossil fuels, which was not always guaranteed.” Last year civil society, especially in the Global South pushed for agreement on Loss and Damage, and got it. This year the push was for phasing out fossil fuels, and we’ve made a serious dent in that too. 

Thank you to all those who participated in prayer and meditation gatherings - online or in person. Thank you to everyone who joined protest actions just prior to COP28 - in Cairns, outside MP offices Sydney, Brisbane, Geelong and other places around Australia, or the Peoples’ Blockade in Newcastle.

Solidarity and determination have got us to this point and we should all be enormously proud even as we’re sober as to how much more remains to be done. Is it enough? Only time will tell us whether this was the moment when history changed for the better or where we were all sold catastrophically short. Honestly, I believe we’re simply too close to the action to see the overall pattern properly yet. Our faith traditions have much to say with living with great uncertainty. For my own part, I find myself going back to the words of the Tibetan Buddhist master Padmasambhava who is reported to have said in the eighth or ninth century “Let these three expressions: I do not have, I do not understand, I do not know, be repeated over and over again.” We must find the grace and equanimity to live with this not knowing, even as we renew our resolve and our compassion. My prayers are with yours.