You’ve seen the headlines that Cop28 in Dubai has resulted in an unprecedented call to ‘transition away from fossil fuels’. So why were celebrations from developing countries and civil society so muted?
Countries on the front lines of the climate crisis fear that they are still being left to carry the costs, and sink beneath the waves. This global deal has to work for everyone, or it won’t work for any of us.
Here are ten takeaways.
1. No, this outcome is not enough to avert runaway climate change
Rather than a being a detailed plan to save the planet, the deal is a badly-drawn sketch on the back of an envelope.
It only ‘calls for’ a transition away from fossil fuels, rather than deciding on a full phase out. It makes no requirement of the world’s biggest polluters to act any faster than the lower income countries who have done little to cause climate change.
It doesn’t put in place any finance to deliver any of its goals. And it leans on debunked technologies that the fossil fuel industry use to delay their phase out.
This means that the package does not have a whole lot of structural integrity and does not do much to push the biggest, or pull the smallest, in the right direction.
2. But it may accelerate the stranding of fossil fuel assets
You might have seen people celebrating the ‘signal’ that Cop28’s call to ‘transition away from fossil fuels’ sends. What does that mean? Does it mean anything at all? Well, yes actually.
The outcome could indeed make waves in the distant boardrooms of banks, investors and asset managers.
For seven years, financial institutions have completely ignored the Paris Agreement’s goal of aligning their financial flows with low greenhouse gas emissions pathways, and have instead continued to provide trillions of dollars to the fossil companies fuelling the climate crisis.
But the call on countries to transition away from fossil fuels is more likely to hit investors’ bottom lines. Bank loans to coal, oil and gas developments in countries that undertake the transition might never be repaid.
Shares and investments in fossil resources that will never be exploited will lose their value. Financial actors are strange, stubborn and unpredictable pack animals. The sensible ones will be planning their fossil exit strategies right now, ahead of the stampede.
3. Appetite for climate action is not matched by willingness to fund it
There’s no such thing as a free climate target. Cop28 really showed that while the world’s appetite for climate action has moved significantly forward, its willingness to cover the costs lags behind.
The wealthiest countries refused to offer any new finance to help lower income counties to leapfrog the fossil fuel era.
Many developing countries – those already being pushed into debt by the spiralling cost of climate disasters – will now be forced to make impossible choices between economic security and climate action.
If rich countries had been willing to put real finance and fair timelines on the table, the outcome could have been much stronger.
Finding ways forward on climate finance, and how we can cover the costs for the world we want to build together, must now be part of every climate conversation.
4. Saudi Arabia was willing to move (a bit). The US was not
With Cop28 being held in the UAE, there has been plenty of discussion about the role of the Gulf States, and the fossil fuel industry’s influence on the talks.
Saudi Arabia emerged as the country holding out most strongly against language to phase out fossil fuels.
But in fact, according to sources in the negotiating rooms, the US was the country that refused point blank to allow any language on finance or fair timelines.
In the final hours of Cop28, the head of the UN Antonio Guterres and of UN climate change Simon Stiell, alluded to ‘arbitrary red lines’, ‘entrenched positions’, ‘blocking tactics’ and ‘landmines’. That gave us insights into how the big beasts were locking horns behind closed doors
Ultimately, the call to transition away from fossil fuels represented Saudi’s willingness to compromise, somewhat. But the lack of finance in the deal showed that the US walked away with most of what it wanted, and gave nothing in return.
5. Developing countries leave Dubai with little
Unfairness is getting more baked into climate talks with each passing year. In thrall to the powerful players, Cop28 barely registered the needs of the countries who have done so little to cause the climate crisis, yet who are suffering the worst impacts and bearing all the costs.
The Alliance of Small Island States criticised the final document as a ‘litany of loopholes’ and ‘an incremental advancement over business-as-usual, when what we really needed was an exponential step change in our actions and support’.
Finance and fairness are key to ensuring the whole world can get on board with the transition to a fossil-free future. But with developing countries feeling demoted to bystanders in their own negotiations, these essential components are nowhere to be found.
6. False solutions get a foot in the door
Most people who have done the maths understand that carbon markets, and technologies like carbon capture and storage, simply can’t solve the climate crisis.
But these dangerous distractions provide a lifeline to the fossil industry, who are desperate to repeat the disproven claim that it’s fine carry on burning their products as long as unicorns, sorry I mean ‘new technologies’, take emissions out the air afterwards.
Cop28’s text leaning on these debunked approaches proved a triumph of lobbying over science. Meanwhile, technical negotiations trying to develop rules to govern carbon markets collapsed, with weak drafts deemed dangerous and unfixable.
Efforts to regulate nonsensical concepts will pick up again next year
7. Adaptation is unfunded
Climate change is bringing erratic rainfall patterns, warming oceans, floods, droughts and stronger cyclones to developing countries.
It is causing crop failures, destroying homes and drying up water sources. Governments are desperate to scale up adaptation to help communities strengthen their resilience to these impacts.
But the money that should be coming from the rich countries that are causing the climate crisis, is not forthcoming. Rich counties deleted any language reassuring countries that they will get the support they need.
8. Loss and damage fund finally agreed
There was some good news on the first day of Cop, two long weeks ago. Technical negotiations that took place throughout 2023 put forward an imperfect but important proposal for a loss and damage fund.
Unusually, this proposal was agreed in the opening plenary, and some minor funding announcements began to trickle in. Nothing like what is needed, but a start.
For the first time ever we have a pot that can help countries to rebuild and recover in the aftermath of climate disasters.
We now need to see much more finance, and for the World Bank that was controversially agreed as host, to fix its ways of working so that it can deliver funds directly to the communities in need.
9. Thank civil society for the focus on fossil fuels
We have civil society to thank for the focus and immense pressure on fossil fuels at Cop28. Thousands of organisations strategically echoed the call together for a fossil fuel phase out through their lobbying, networking, stunts and media work, until this became the one big demand that everyone came to expect from Cop.
Although we didn’t get the language we needed, the call to ‘transition away from fossil fuels’ would not have happened without civil society.
10.Finance and fairness will be the goals at Cop29
Ultimately, the Cop28 outcome is deeply unfair, putting an equal burden on rich and lower income countries, requiring no additional action or finance from those that have caused the climate crisis even as the global south bears the spiralling costs of a warming planet.
Cop29 in Azerbaijan is set to agree a new global target on climate finance. Already we know that rich counties want to avoid doing their fair share.
Instead of actually providing grants, they’ll try to claim that loans should count as climate finance, that their own corporations’ activities should count as climate finance, and that their purchasing of carbon offsets should also count.
All of that will not only undercut real finance outcomes, but will deepen rich countries’ neo-colonial grip on the global south, exploiting and exporting yet more profit, under a climate mask.
But if we – all of us – are to have a chance of a safe future, we need the richest countries to move beyond narrowly defined set of self-interests at climate talks, and provide the real finance that can put us on a path for real cooperation and global climate action.
There is much to do to change the terrain of what is possible. But we need to work together to get the public and the politicians on board with the idea that if we want to save our planet from self-destruction, we may actually need to cover the costs.
Teresa Anderson is Action Aid’s global lead on climate justice