COPped out? The COP28 Global Stocktake on Mitigation and its implications
So, the dust has begun to settle on COP28. The reactions have been widely diverse. Some decry abject weakness relative to the urgency of the problem. Others hail it as a huge step, signifying the end of the fossil fuel era. It has been reported environmental NGOs have themselves had to convene an international conference to consider their verdict. Most commentators have declared: with due caveats, the outcome wasn’t that bad.
I beg to differ with the last: from the big picture, if the COP itself is supposed to solve the problem, it is that bad. As an observer of COPs for over 25 years, the outcome is really a measure of how the nature of the process has lowered expectations of what is possible, to the point that even a clear process towards meaningful international mitigation commitments is barely conceivable on the official global agenda. It is important then to understand why, and what that may imply. That is vital: for unless we understand that, the world risks following chimera.
One reaction to pessimism on the mitigation outcome – which I elaborate below – is to point to progress in other areas of the Global Stocktake. Indeed, it has been suggested that focusing on mitigation is inequitable and biases the assessment, given the progress on Loss & Damage and some on adaptation. I find it a dangerous idea that progress in other areas can be “offset” against progress on mitigation – which risks inequity in other respects, amplifying the impacts & adaptation challenges for all further down the road.
Before that, an important acknowledgement: in terms of the location, the hosts, and the organisation, this is probably the best COP I’ve ever attended. For a city mostly constructed in concrete from the desert, Dubai is beautiful, and the venue was breath-taking, and despite the size, easy to navigate. Demonstrations and NGOs were given place to vocalise the upset and anger about inadequacy of global responses. The organisation seemed balanced and almost flawless – and, importantly, Dr Sultan Al-Jaber proved a skilled and committed COP President. In its execution, the UAE can be proud of its COP.
Glass half empty?
Yet of the substance, consider this. The Global Stocktake UAE Consensus has, essentially, not only no specific commitments, but few real decisions. In its 195 paragraphs, the word ‘decides’ appears only eight times, all on procedural matters to continue or establish dialogues or review progress. 10% of paragraphs simply ‘recall’ sections of the Paris Agreement and communique; the word ‘agreement’ appears only seven other times. Like most of the other COPs since Paris, the rest is noting, recalling, calling upon, urging, and an assortment of other creative but non-actionable phrases.
For the COP of the Global Stocktake, that is especially sobering. It is thirty-three years – a third of a Century – since the IPCC’s first report, and over 30 years since the world adopted the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Any reading of the science, or the UNFCCC, indicated even then that the world was facing a major problem, that amongst much else, would entail cutting emissions and moving away from fossil fuels.
On collective progress, the mitigation text starts positively by acknowledging significant progress compared to some projections prior to the Paris Agreement. It could not acknowledge the IPCC Sixth Assessment’s finding that much of that progress, on emissions and technology investment, was in countries that acceded to the Kyoto Protocol’s negotiated but binding emission targets – and the US$billions of international investment under its Clean Development Mechanism. Such concepts seem too far from the new reality to even be acknowledged.
It was inevitable that the move to the Paris Agreement would be from ‘deep but narrow’ to ‘broad but shallow’. The progress of COPs since then underlines just how shallow. After acknowledging the numbers from the IPCC Assessment, the UAE Consensus notes with concern that current NDC offerings together barely reduce global emissions by 2030 below 2019 levels – and that policies implemented by end of 2020 would not even deliver these, with “a rapidly narrowing window for raising ambition and implementing existing commitments”.
The Paragraph 28 text correspondingly recognizes the need for deep, rapid and sustained reductions in GHG emissions, followed by the much-vaunted language for global efforts including the headline-grabbing “tripling renewable energy capacity globally” (from when?) and “transitioning away from fossil fuels”. Yet the header just “calls on Parties to contribute” to the global goals, “in a nationally determined manner, taking into account their different national circumstances, pathways and approaches”.
In other words: we are miles from the goals set, and we really would like countries to do better. There are moderate process steps – which may or may not develop some meaningful pressure over the next few years – but almost nothing against which any specific countries or groups of countries could be held accountable. There are of course many other dimensions to the agreement, but in terms of core mitigation, it’s little more than an anguished ‘class should do better’ slap on the wrist for inadequate homework.
Not surprisingly, the markets barely moved after adoption of the agreement. Fossil fuel investments continue apace – half of them by developed countries. After all the efforts and hype – and the hottest year on record, peppered with devastating climate impacts – it looks like both words and business as usual. As, indeed, the markets concluded.
The size and shape of the COP glass
Whether a class is seen to be ‘half full’ depends on its size and shape – in this case, what can one plausibly expect from the COP process.
Environmental NGOs and press would lay much the of the blame for inadequacy at the door of fossil fuel companies, and the oil-producing states. There is of course some truth in that. I could include on my list the fact that these were boosted by the vast profits made from the energy crisis, which has had doubly-damaging impacts on the geopolitics of the issue by luring companies and countries to further exploration, and giving their lobbyists almost unlimited finance. If anything, in the face of this, the first direct reference to “transitioning away from fossil fuels”, from the UEA COP, carries all the more import.
But there are three more important factors, which shape what is and is not possible – which have received only limited attention in the media reactions. As I will explain, they imply something quite fundamental about expectations, strategies, and the feasible role (or not) for the COP direction of effective mitigation.
One is the resistance, led by the US especially, to accept any wording that could even hint at any structured differentiation of efforts between different kinds of Parties. The result is that almost all the specifics in the agreement had to be acceptable to all countries – from Azerbaijan and Australia to Angola; from Britain and Brazil to Burkino Faso and Bolivia; from India to Iceland; from Mozambique to Mongolia; from Sweden to Saudi Arabia and Singapore; from Venezuela to the Vatican and Vietnam, and so on. They all had to sign up to basically the same statements, within the generalised frame of ‘national determination’. Some of the poorest countries get most of their hard currency from fossil fuel production, or hope to (whilst others spend most of it on oil imports). Expecting them all to agree a general goal to “phase out” before they have started, with no real assurance on getting the financial or technological assistance to do so, was never really on the cards.
The wider text of the Global Stocktake UAE Consensus of course carries numerous references to the broad but undefined distinction between developed (23 references) vis-à-vis developing (47 references) countries. It is necessarily undefined not so much because of the US position, but because of the emergent reality. Based on current trends and NDCs, by 2030, the OECD countries will account for less than a quarter of global emissions. The past was theirs; the future is in the hands, first and foremost, of present and future major emerging economies. Haunted by the ghost of what absolutely made sense in 1990, the words ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ have themselves become a vehicle for self-definition, depending on the topic and national stance – but in terms of emissions (and even GDP), increasingly irrelevant to solving the global problem.
Second is indeed the repeated emphasis on “Nationally Determined…” throughout the text. For sure, countries themselves need to determine their specific actions; no country likes to be ’told’ just what to do through global negotiations. Yet the psychology embedded in the text reveals almost a denial of the need for either norms, or for structured international cooperation, within any more effective global governance. The UEA Consensus transparently avoids the issue that should lie at the heart of an international agreement: what should be done if the “nationally determined” offers don’t add up to the agreed goals (they don’t – as acknowledged) and won’t (as is obvious).
On the surface, the centrality of “Nationally Determined” obviates the need for any other differentiation. Increasingly, I perceive almost the opposite. Without any reasonable categorisation, any collective sense of expectations or norms is lost. In a world of sovereign states, the old debate about ‘top-down’ versus ‘bottom up’ was always a caricature of the reality, but at least there was a clear understanding that the industrialised countries – listed in Annex 1 of the UNFCCC – were expected to take the lead, and get their emissions down. Most are now doing so. There are no norms for what the wildly different types of countries in the rest of the world might be expected to contribute to the effort.
The result is obvious to any close observer. ‘Nationally Determined’ is becoming the universal get-out clause, the basis for country A to explain, and justify to itself, why it cannot contribute as much as country B, and vice-versa. The reason why almost every fossil-fuel-producing country signs up to the global goals whilst investing in more production, fully knowing the two to be logically consistent. ‘Nationally Determined’ risks simply setting the stage for the universal blame game when the global goals are not met.
… and the eclipse of ‘International Cooperation’.
The over-arching mantra of ‘Nationally Determined’ in the UAE consensus text moreover seems to obliterate the question: what should be the role and modalities of international cooperation, beyond the established goals on international finance, and limited technology cooperation? The Paris Agreement, in setting up the Global Stocktake process, stated that as well as “informing Parties in updating and enhancing, in a nationally determined manner, their actions”, its outcomes shall inform “enhancing international cooperation for climate action.”
The UAE Consensus does correspondingly have a whole section on ‘international cooperation’, but no-one has remarked upon it because it says nothing of substance for mitigation. Beyond the pre-existing finance and technology processes, perhaps there is one exception. The well-worn phrase warning that “measures taken to combat climate change, including unilateral ones, should not constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade” flags a desire to constrain countries from taking certain sorts of domestic mitigation actions that other countries don’t like.
That is hardly the most positive contribution to the overall goal of global mitigation – cooperation harnessed as trying to stop countries taking certain mitigation actions. There is nothing that points to the kind of cooperative frameworks that are really required: for example, to reduce the high cost of capital for low carbon investment in most developing countries; or to encourage the negotiation of positive trade rules that could support policies for industrial decarbonisation, given their inevitable implications for international trade in energy-intensive goods.
Consensus and voting.
Finally, there is an obvious underlying reason for the inability of the COP to deliver progress commensurate with the agreed objectives. The status quo has become so normalised, most people forget that the UNFCCC is almost unique in having no official rules of procedure, and hence no options to resort to voting. Many UN Treaties and other global governance bodies operate on the principle of consensus, as the normative basis for successful negotiations – but voting rules remain as a backstop, the mere existence of which persuades the most recalcitrant countries, most of the time, to compromise in favour of the global good, as demanded by the vast majority.
With no rules of procedure adopted, the UNFCCC has no such recourse. The results are obvious and evident.
Any seasoned observer understands that the UNFCCC COP process cannot determine specific national actions. Much will inevitably have to remain ‘nationally determined’. The world will continue to make some progress based upon purely national contributions, aided by growing recognition of the potential economic and social value from gaining a stake in low-carbon industries, and shifting development pathways towards sustainability. Some align their own national efforts directly with the agreement global statements, as illustrated by some side statements at COP28. That is all helpful, but equally obvious, under the current COP approach it will not be fast or far enough.
There also remains much truth in Al-Jaber’s closing observation to COP28 – that the sheer fact of an agreement, any agreement, has value at this time of war and geopolitical turmoil. That so many leaders attended shows that climate change is now firmly a top-level diplomatic issue, globally. Governments did strive, successfully, to carve out two weeks to focus on climate, and to navigate deep differences on so many geopolitical questions. Securing a consensus outcome on such a highly charged issue as climate change suggests that multilateralism still has a place, the UN system still functions as the vehicle to reach hard-fought compromise. There is real value in that.
Yet as serious consideration shows that there are many countries – and some types of mitigation – for which some form of international standards, norm-setting, facilitation, and meaningful international cooperation, are vital. Of course there are also many other fora engaged, some mandated (e.g. the IMO and ICAO for international fuels), some affiliated (like the sectoral Glasgow Breakthrough agendas), others well-established (like the G20), along with innumerable bespoke initiatives.
So if the UNFCCC itself is to remain relevant and with anything more substantive to help close the multiple gaps between agreed goals and realised action, the Azerbaijani Presidency and the new Trilateral have their work cut out: to establish with new approaches a better bar for expectations, that is commensurate but achievable; and to re-establish the need – and the options – for meaningful international cooperation to accelerate global emissions abatement.