Was COP28 a Success? Depends On Who You Ask

COP28 was a success—but only if we’re grading on a very lenient curve.

Attendees applaud after the announcement of a UAE consensus during a closing plenary of COP28 in Dubai on Dec. 13, 2023. Xinhua News Agency via Getty Ima

The United Nations’ climate summit known as COP28 concluded last Wednesday in Dubai, and the results represented a landmark—only observers can’t seem to decide if it was good or bad. President of COP28, Emirati official, and UAE state oil concern chief Sultan Al-Jaber was quick to describe the Global Stocktake final document and other announcements and agreements as a collective “historic achievement.” He was referring in part to the COP decision’s first-ever explicit call for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems.” 

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That a consensus-driven body including every petrostate in the world, and itself chaired and hosted this year by an oil tycoon, could agree to the eventual demise of coal, oil and gas was eye-opening, to say the least. On a recent podcast featuring leading climate policy experts, Amy Harder called the landmark COP decision committing to move past our collective hydrocarbon addiction “a clear success for pretty much everybody.” Melissa Lott, a climate professor at Columbia University, declared the result “incredibly impressive,” “a milestone” and “more than I was expecting.” A voluntary initiative announced in Dubai at the summit’s outset on methane further inspired some environmentalists: 50 oil majors responsible for nearly one-half of global oil output pledged to deeply cut methane emissions by 2030, which alone could spare 0.1˚C of warming. Fred Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund, hailed this and related announcements on Dec. 2 as possibly “the single most impactful day of announcements from any COP in… 30 years.” 

The COP28 result, like a Rorschach test, revealed a completely different picture to others. Environmental advocates, human rights organizations and scientists who had been calling for the agreed text to include a “phaseout” of fossil fuels with concrete actions and timelines were left disappointed. Prominent climate scientist Michael Mann was quoted saying this omission was “devastating.” Anne Rasmussen, the lead negotiator of the Association of Small Island States, admonished negotiators before the summit’s conclusion by saying, “It is not enough for us to reference the science and then make agreements that ignore what the science is telling us we need to do.” 

The anguished and disappointed have a good point that is hard to swallow: A gradual shift from fossil fuels doesn’t get us where we need to go. The Paris Agreement of 2015 called for a global warming target of “well below 2.0˚C above pre-industrial levels” and to endeavor for a limit of 1.5˚C—language that the Dubai decision reinforced. The problem, as the Global Stocktake document noted, is that the 1.5˚C goal requires global emissions to plummet roughly 43 percent below 2019 levels by 2030—at a time when greenhouse gas emissions are still rising. Even the peak of global emissions expected this decade doesn’t drain the proverbial bathtub of atmospheric greenhouse gases; it merely turns off this faucet.

Can we make the COP28 goals a reality? Look to oil, gas and finance sectors for clues. 

In June, China and Qatar inked a 27-year supply deal for four million tons of liquified natural gas a year stretching to 2050—the target year for Net Zero. The global industry is constructing over 5,000 miles of new long-lived oil pipelines, with more than 12,000 more miles planned. The U.S. produces oil at record levels of 13.2 million barrels per day, making it the leading global producer, with no sign of slowing down. The oil and gas industry has invested $170 billion in new projects since 2021, led by the UAE’s own ADNOC, which is planning the world’s biggest expansion of oil & gas projects. And global banks are writing the checks, actually increasing funding for fossil fuel infrastructure from 2021 to 2022 and continuing to invest more in oil and gas than in renewables, despite the imperative to spend four times more for the latter by 2030 in order to meet global climate goals. 

All this amounts to government policies and infrastructure investment inconsistent with 1.5˚C and 2.0˚C emissions trajectories. This fall, the International Energy Agency (IEA) observed that investment in fossil fuel infrastructure “is most closely aligned” with the current policy scenario, far from the Net Zero pathway. Modelers at the Rhodium Group found that the world’s current political and economic trajectory has emissions falling only 19 percent by 2050, and then rising again to 2100 on the back of growth in middle-income countries. Leading sources such as the IPCC, IEA, UN Environment Programme and Bloomberg New Energy Finance project that these policy and economic conditions will yield average global warming of 2.4˚C to 2.9˚C (4.3˚F to 5.2˚F) by 2100. 

What if we miss the target? 

A couple of degrees doesn’t sound so bad, you might rationalize. Unfortunately, warming is closer, greater and harsher than global averages appear. Berkeley Earth finds that the U.S. had already warmed 1.7˚C in 2022 compared to 1.2˚C to 1.3˚C globally, reflective of the fact that surface temperatures rise faster over land masses than oceans, and countries in the northern hemisphere are further impacted by the rapidly warming Arctic. An analysis by Visual Capitalist based upon leading scientific data and projections aligned with current government policies illustrates how devastating the current trajectory is for virtually all countries by 2050, when the average country is projected to experience 2.75˚C (4.95˚F) in warming—much less 2100 levels. Within a few decades, temperatures are expected to accelerate extreme weather, drive all ecosystems to major biodiversity losses, and threaten coastal cities with sea level rise driven by melting polar caps.

And there’s more. Famed climate scientist James Hansen observes that global warming is accelerating even faster than predicted by the official IPCC models on which the collective goals and targets are based. In the annus horribilis for the climate that has been 2023, replete with epic heat waves, droughts, floods and wildfires, global warming has reached a record high of 1.4˚C through November, or about 0.2˚C higher than any previous year. Think about that: Everything we experienced this year, at only 1.4˚C. Both Hansen and the U.K. Met office find a high likelihood of breaching 1.5˚C in 2024. And unlike many in the mainstream scientific establishment, which thinks we still have roughly a decade until we’ve topped 1.5˚C, Hansen believes we have already crossed the threshold for good.

Was COP28 a success? 

Yes, compared to our recent history of clinging to a comfortable but suicidal 20th-century model of fueling and feeding our global economy. But only if we’re grading on a very lenient curve. International climate negotiations veteran Dennis Clare noted bitterly, “This [Global Stocktake] may have been decent language in 1992. But the climate change challenge has grown into a global emergency.” It must be remembered that global climate summits are not so much trendsetters for the politics back home as reflections of that local reality. As we face the vertiginous mountain that is the climate crisis, hopeful language and self-congratulatory applause for the first steps will not be sufficient to propel humanity to the top. Unprecedented political and popular will is the only path to break with the status quo and massively accelerate the lagging adoption of clean energy and climate adaptation technologies. As Hansen bluntly opined this month that “‘A miracle will occur’ is not sensible climate policy.” Whether happy or despairing in the wake of COP28, we must not shrink from the arduous climb that awaits. 

Was COP28 a Success? Depends On Who You Ask