COP28 wrap up: Some positives but fossil fuel phase out remains elusive

PhD students working in climate-related research give their reflections on the COP28 climate change conference

Rebekkah Markey-TowlerAisha Azfa William HopkinsonAditya Sengupta

Published 14 December 2023

COP28, where the world gathered to make agreements to solve the climate crisis, has wrapped up in Dubai and now is the time for reflection and analysis.

Was it successful? Are we on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement? Is the Global South being lifted up or left behind?

We asked the next generation of scientists, policymakers and activists – our graduate researchers – for their reflections on COP28.

Governments have a responsibility to make and follow through on climate finance commitments. Picture: Getty Images

Rebekkah markey-towler

Rebekkah is a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Law School whose research focuses on climate change and mortgage lending

It perhaps goes without saying but governments have a responsibility to make and follow through on climate finance commitments. However, public sector action alone will be insufficient to bridge the gap between current financial flows and what is needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Moreover, the financial system itself must be resilient to the impacts of climate change.

This points to the need for private financial sector involvement in climate action. Two developments at COP28 stood out to me in this regard.

Firstly, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) released their 2023 progress report. GFANZ was launched in 2021 to coordinate the financial system to accelerate the transition to a net zero economy.

The initiative has had a bumpy year, with a mass exodus from the specific insurance sector alliance and concerns about anti-competitive behaviour amongst members. Their focus for 2024 will be on transition and enhanced transparency.

Secondly, the IFRS Foundation talked about the next stage of work from the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) following the release of their landmark disclosure standards earlier in the year and the end of the FSB Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD).

They aim to implement their capacity-building program, advocate for jurisdictional adoption of the standards and develop new sustainability standards.

But the trillion dollar question is: will these developments help to advance sustainable finance priorities and outcomes? Watch this space.

Private financial sector involvement is crucial to climate action. Pictured is Mark Carney, Co-Chair of the GFANZ speaking with Shriti Vadera, Chair of Prudential plc. during The Bloomberg Transition Finance Action, September 2023. Picture: Getty Images

Aisha azfa

Aisha is a geographer and PhD candidate in the School of Geography, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, looking at the political economy of artificial islands in the Maldives

The outcomes of COP28 can only be described as an ‘incremental win’ for small islands like Maldives whose people live with the brunt of climate impacts daily.

The only positive I take away from the COP is the operationalisation of the highly anticipated Loss and Damage Fund on the first day. But current pledges are nowhere near sufficient to meet the financial demands so urgently needed by developing countries.

While it is an important first step, it would perhaps take some years for the fund to be actually ‘operational’. We need to build on past lessons, figure out its design, financing modalities, transparency and so on.

Despite promises of this COP being historic and the first of its kind, it has once again demonstrated the complicated politics and power struggles between those responsible and those suffering.

The final approved deal will not create the desired changes the developing world – especially small islands – so desperately need, but would allow the fossil fuel industry to wiggle out through loopholes in the terminologies of the adopted text and continue business as usual.

The COP Global Stocktake confirmed what we already knew – it is already too late.

COP28 is an ‘incremental win’ for small islands like Maldives whose people live with the brunt of climate impacts daily. Picture: Wikimedia / Ibrahim Asad

William hopkinson

William is a PhD candidate in the School of Social and Political Sciences and Melbourne Climate Futures, who researches climate change politics

The background for COP28 could hardly be bleaker. War continues to rage in Ukraine and the UN failed to reach a ceasefire in Gaza, all the while warning that we are headed for a disastrous 3°C warming.

As we struggle to pay enough attention to each of these crises so do our policymakers. Even at the most important climate forum, world leaders carved out considerable time to discuss the Israel-Gaza conflict while other negotiators walked out of rooms in protest.

From economic concerns to ongoing conflicts, the climate crisis remains a victim of its own time lag where other crises are always considered more urgent. There is a limit to countries’ political capital and when attention consistently turns to other priorities, international cooperation over the climate becomes harder.

After over 30 years of skirting the issue, COP28’s most contentious negotiations focussed on fossil fuels. Surging fossil fuel profits from the Russian invasion and record-high numbers of fossil fuel lobbyists at COP28 have undermined efforts to phase out fossil fuels.

But the fossil fuel industry failed to completely thwart the negotiations. The last-ditch agreement to “transition away” from fossil fuels looks like progress but lacks any concrete steps to stop burning fossil fuels.

Reaching this consensus requires huge political capital, focussed cooperation and undistracted leaders.

It is perhaps symbolic of the climate’s position among competing priorities that US president Joe Biden and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping – leaders of the two largest emitters – skipped COP28 while the UAE chose an oil company CEO to head the negotiations.

Until leaders understand the true urgency of the climate crisis, future COPs may continue to fall short.

The COP28 deal calls for “transitioning away from”, rather than “phasing out” fossil fuels. Picture: Getty Images

Aditya sengupta

Aditya is a PhD candidate in the School of Geography, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, studying climate variability and global teleconnections post net-zero

COP28 had several positive outcomes, starting with the draft resolution on a much awaited ‘loss and damage’ fund, with multiple countries pledging a substantial amount of money. However, there are many questions yet to be resolved, regarding the tentative size of the fund, dispersal of funds, and what constitutes ‘loss and damage’.

Increased commitments on climate finance, and recognition of the impacts of climate change on food systems and on public health were also positive outcomes from COP28. More than 120 countries also pledged to increase their renewable energy generation capacity by 2030.

But, the agreement from COP28 calls for “phase-down”, rather than “phase out” of fossil fuels. This is not just a missed opportunity, but indicates lack of initiative. This decision emphasises an over-reliance on development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies alongside existing fossil fuel infrastructure in near future.

But, significant emissions reductions, alongside development of clean energy infrastructure, is necessary to maintain a chance of staying below 1.5°C warming.

Despite its issues, the decision is still a long-awaited and important one. However, as seen in the past, there always remains a significant gap between stated commitments and actionable plans.

It is my hope that the momentum generated at COP28 translates into tangible policy measures and collaborative efforts, with specific emphasis on ‘phasing out’ carbon emissions in the coming decade, alongside the development of clean energy infrastructure.

Banner: Protesters at COP28 call for an end to fossil fuels. Picture: Getty Images

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