The Stakes Couldn’t be any Higher: COP28 has to Succeed

By Martha Molfetas - 29 November 2023
The Stakes Couldn’t be any Higher: COP28 has to Succeed

Martha Molfetas sets the scene for COP28 and argues fossil fuels remain the biggest obstacle to climate justice.

Against the backdrop of an ever-present climate crisis, record greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), and continued financing of fossil fuels, global leaders will be meeting at the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP) shortly. COP28 will be convening at Expo City in Dubai, UAE to decide the fate of our climate reality and energy future, from November 30th through December 12th.

Uniquely, COP28 will focus largely on our energy transition and the conclusion of our first Global Stocktake, this represents a huge opportunity to increase ambition. We cannot address our energy, human rights, climate, and sustainable development challenges without a just energy transition. This could be so much more than ‘yet another COP’, it could be an opportunity for nations to rise to this moment. Our collective future is at stake.

Today, we are seeing the consequences of delayed action with rapidity, exceeding the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) past assessments of where we should be for 2023. Recent reports show we are currently on track for a 2.7°C world, if current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) hold, warming would hit 1.7°C. We only have a 14% chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C.

To keep the 1.5°C dream alive, COP28 has to raise ambition, integrate a just energy transition, and meet the funding challenges for developing countries. An unsuccessful COP28 would likely kill the 1.5°C dream and goal established at Paris (COP21), fortified at Glasgow (COP26), and reiterated at Egypt (COP27).

Costs of Inaction

Today, global greenhouse gasses are at an all-time high, despite efforts to reduce emissions and transition towards a clean energy future. Last year, the US witnessed a $1 billion climate-fueled weather event every three weeks on average. For comparison, in the 1980s, the US had roughly four of these events a year. Global South countries, like Pakistan, have seen unfathomable amounts of displacement and damage from floods, amounting to an estimated $40 billion in damages. Meanwhile, nations like Greece and Canada have faced wildfires that have baked the ground and darkened skies. Climate change knows no borders. We are already bearing the costs of climate impacts at 1°C of average annual warming.

A 1.5°C or 2°C world would cause irreparable harm to communities, at costs far exceeding the cost of climate action. For the US alone, the costs of climate impacts would put a $14.5 trillion dent in the economy from now through 2070. Meanwhile, transitioning towards a green economy and renewable energy would add an estimated $3 trillion over the same period. Continuing to buttress the fossil fuel sector will leave us all poorer and residing on a sick planet.

An Increasingly Unequal World

While the world is on fire, roughly a dozen billionaires alone account for as much pollution as two million average homes powered by coal. Their various yachts, jets, investments, and mansions all add up to 17-million tons of GHGs annually. The majority of this disparity in emissions contributions is from investments.

We’re experiencing in real time what this inequity is creating. People least responsible for our climate reality are bearing the starkest consequences, while those most responsible have the means to avoid climate impacts. A 2°C or 3°C world would create an increasingly resource insecure world, one where potable water and arable land are both more precious and more at risk, widening the gap between haves and have nots both within and between nations.

The UAE is currently facing climate risks associated with rising seas and an increase in extreme heat days. While oil is an essential part of the UAE’s economy, every nation stands to gain from transitioning away from fossil fuels.

The Dinosaur in the Room: Fossil Fuels

We must acknowledge that one industry stands in the way of a more sustainable global future. Responding to our climate emergency means an equitable and phased transition away from fossil fuels. Instead, we are seeing more preferential treatment of oil firms, whose assets should be considered stranded at this point.

COP28 President, Sultan Al Jaber, has called on oil companies to decarbonize, but the means of this decarbonization is unclear. It will likely involve carbon credits, which in many instances prevent people in developing countries from farming their own land and on the whole fail to actively reduce emissions. It will also likely involve carbon capture and storage (CCS) at mining sites. The issue with CCS and fossil fuels is that the majority of emissions happen after mining, within the transportation and power sectors. COP28 is already becoming a backdrop for potential additional oil and gas deals, which goes against UN guidelines for events like this.

We cannot power our energy futures by continuing to burn the fossils of long extinct organisms. But despite this reality, and the reality that fossil fuels account for 65% of all global emissions; financing for fossil fuels remains. Not only did the industry receive $7 trillion in global subsidies last year, accounting for 7.1% of total global GDP. The fossil fuel industry receives preferential terms and reduced fees for loans from multinational banks, more so than any other industry - including clean energy alternatives. Both private and public financing mechanisms are opening the door to more fossil fuels at a time when the industry has hit record profits - reaching $4 trillion last year - and our climate reality requires fossil fuels to stay in the ground. These should be considered stranded assets, instead it’s an open season.

The UAE is an OPEC member and presently the eighth largest producer of oil in the world, pumping 3.2 million barrels of oil each day. Sultan Al Jaber is the current president of ANDOC, the national petroleum company. He also previously worked in renewable energy for two decades. Despite these clear conflicts of interests, he has pushed nations to meet emissions cutting goals of 43% by 2030, and increase climate finance for loss and damage, and climate adaptation.

It’s possible that a very unlikely actor can achieve results in unprecedented times. But it is more likely that oil interests will push for a longer off-ramp or a continued presence in our energy mix, in conjunction with CCS.

Global Stocktake

Whether or not COP28 generates an agreement for more robust climate action, the Global Stocktake will tell the world exactly where we are on meeting this historic moment. It’s a put up or shut up moment for governments.

COP28 will mark the end of the first Global Stocktake, where we will understand more fully how NDCs have been measured against actual action. The results of the Global Stocktake could signal an opportunity for increased action, and help inform future NDCs, to be submitted at COP30. NDCs were established in the Paris Agreement as part of the unique binding and voluntary structure of the agreement. Nations submit their voluntary contributions and are bound to the Paris Agreement itself. The success or failure of COP28 will shape the validity of the COP process and the Paris Agreement more broadly.

The Global Stocktake involves a deep technical dive on: national climate assessments, civil society reports, and reports from various UN and scientific bodies to assess where emissions are, measure whether or not stated goals are meeting real results regarding emissions reduction and climate financing. Right now, the first Global Stocktake is in its final phase, with a political outcome anticipated as one of the primary responsibilities of COP28.

Cause for Hope

The problem is if things stay as they are, we’re headed for disaster. But the future isn’t fixed and there is more that can be done to deliver a brighter future. A just energy transition is the answer. Whatever the outcome of COP28, it will elevate the necessity to cut fossil fuels out of our national priorities and global economy. For COP28 to be a success, it needs to signal to the world that fossil fuels are not the future and that financing and tools are available to support a just energy transition. That would look like concrete financing commitments from G20 nations and an equitable and clear phase out of fossil fuels - starting with ending fossil fuel subsidies. It makes zero sense for global tax dollars to continue to be spent on perpetuating and exacerbating our collective climate crisis.

We still have time to shape our collective future. COP28 can be a watershed moment where global leaders take decisive action and truly lead the start of a just transition and more sustainable future. The world is watching.



Martha Molfetas, MSc is a Senior Fellow, Planetary Politics at New America, and a Visiting Assistant Professor at Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture in the Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment. Martha is a senior climate policy consultant, writer, and strategist with over 15-years of experience helping NGOs, think tanks, and businesses unpack climate, environmental justice, conflict, sustainable development, and global policy issues.

Photo by Daniel Ponomarev

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