The COP28 summit in Dubai is taking place against a challenging geopolitical backdrop and an economic context not conducive to keeping global emissions in check. Despite this, the UAE Presidency is focused on achieving a solid result and hopes that significant commitments can be unlocked from high-emitting sectors, including upstream oil and gas. Progress through the formal inter-governmental negotiations looks challenging, but not impossible. Overall, COP28 is unlikely to be the decisive moment of climate success or failure. There will be some progress, but still many questions to answer, including on the ongoing role that COPs play in galvanising global ambition.
Each COP seeks to reach agreement on a wide range of climate issues, signed off through the formal UN process and building on agreements made at previous summits. COP28 is a critical milestone for the 2015 Paris Agreement. It will include the first ‘Global Stocktake’, outlining how far off the world is from delivering the ambition to limit global warming to less than 1.5C. It is also the key moment for mobilising the necessary finance to deal with climate change, with progress needed towards a new international climate finance target and a series of tense negotiations on loss and damage set to dominate proceedings.
The geopolitical context is difficult as fragmentation continues. The UN Climate Week highlighted this, as divisions on mitigation ambition and climate finance continued. The war in Ukraine continues to expose international divisions. US-China relations have thawed slightly, but remain tense. The EU wants to maintain its traditional leadership role in negotiations but has less bandwidth as debate rages about the cost of the green transition. Despite hosting a successful COP26 summit in 2021, the UK will have less clout following recent backsliding on climate ambitions.
China and India are pushing back on new commitments to accelerate the phase-out of fossil fuels, as seen through the lack of progress at the recent G20 Summit. Other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, are opposing the shift towards more binding targets for technology deployment, such as renewable power. Major economies like Japan and Canada are doing very little.
Summit outlook and potential flashpoints
Controversy dogged the summit early this year when the COP President’s role as the CEO of oil and gas company ADNOC attracted attention and NGOs protested about human rights. But the Presidency has since put together a coherent strategy, with a focus on fast-tracking the energy transition and reducing emissions this side of 2030. The UAE is particularly focused on specific, technology-related commitments on climate ambition, such as tripling global renewable deployment and running a coherent overall negotiation to showcase its credibility. That said, many questions remain given the tension between the depth and breadth of climate commitments being fraught among members of OPEC itself.
COP28 is particularly important in the wider COP cycle due to the ‘Global Stocktake’ which is due 8 years after the Paris Agreement. This is the formal process for taking stock of the implementation of the Paris Agreement with the aim of assessing the world’s collective progress against the agreement and its long-term goals. It will help governments see what they have achieved so far in implementing their climate plans, identify what still needs to be done, and bring out opportunities to increase ambition. The lack of new national commitments in the lead-up to the summit means the Stocktake is likely to make difficult reading.
Climate finance remains a thorny topic. Many developed countries are struggling to justify increasing spending on overseas development aid given the economic context. Building on what happened at the G20, finance leaders and economists are due to present recommendations on reforming international climate finance and a roadmap for how to implement them. They will include measures to push multilateral development banks (MDBs) to provide more concessional finance. COP28 must also flesh out details on how to operationalise the funding framework for loss and damage, with tense negotiations expected on who must contribute, and how much.
Global Decarbonisation Alliance
The flagship initiative championed by the Presidency is the Global Decarbonisation Alliance. It aims to unlock a binding decarbonisation commitment from hard-to-abate sectors – including the global oil and gas industry – to reduce Scope 1 and 2 emissions. Many countries, including in Europe, see it as an important moment for including a wider group of emitters in the COP progress, but there are challenges with ensuring that increasing the breadth of commitments does not water down the level of ambition.
Likely outcomes and implications
The summit is unlikely to be a complete failure. The UAE is agile and should be able to avoid a collapse in negotiations, making gradual progress in key areas such as climate finance. The UN would also not want this summit to go down as a failure. Reflecting this, expectations have already been set that success will not rest on new national commitments given the lack of progress to date.
Two key issues will determine success. Firstly, the final language on fossil fuel phase-out. The UAE has started to talk about this more positively but has not committed early to definitive text to avoid confrontation. There also remains a difficult question around conditionality of commitments. Secondly, the credibility of new business commitments, most importantly the commitments made through the OGDA. If COP28 can create a greater sense of material, collective action, it will set an important precedent for ratcheting up ambition in future.
Despite efforts to keep the ball rolling, the narrative coming out of the summit is likely to be one of continued drift, and growing concern that 1.5C is now out of reach. This will only add to the domestic challenges that many countries are feeling on the green agenda. The COP process, and wider climate policy, are nearing a crossroads that will define what is possible not just this decade, but beyond.
This blog was authored by Josh Buckland, a Partner who leads Flint’s work on energy, sustainability and environmental issues, Hayfa Matar, who is a Flint Partner and a former diplomat and policy adviser, and Zoe Alipranti, a Manager who advises corporate and investor clients on managing political and regulatory risks on climate, sustainability and ESG issues across a range of sectors.