Was COP28 a Success? It Depends on Who You Ask 

Brian McCowan, Zondits staff, 1/9/2024

At the close of 2023, 100,000 individuals representing nearly 200 nations met in Dubai to negotiate an updated climate action agreement at the United Nations COP28 conference. The UN Climate Change Conference – United Arab Emirates | UNFCCC, officially known as the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties, has been widely viewed as the most controversial of the U.N. climate conferences since the inaugural conference held in Paris in 2015, which first established international climate goals. 

The controversy started long before the conference kickoff when the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was selected as the host nation, and Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the UAE envoy for climate change, was designated the COP28 President. Jaber is both the UAE Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology and the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. He also founded and now serves as the Chairman of Masdar, an Emirate state-owned developer of utility-scale clean power projects.  

Shortly after Al Jaber’s appointment, Time magazine reported that more than 100 members of the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress declared that Al Jaber had “severely jeopardized” the COP process and called on him to resign. In a TED talk, Al Gore said that fossil fuel interests “have brazenly seized control of the COP process. He’s a nice guy. He’s a smart guy. But a conflict of interest is a conflict of interest.” As the conference got underway, many amplified their concerns when Al Jaber stated that no science demonstrated that eliminating fossil fuels would achieve the climate goals of the Paris Accords. 

In preparation for COP28, the UN commissioned the United Nations Stocktake on Climate Change Progress, see Zondits article Heading into COP28, the United Nations Calls for the Rapid Acceleration of Climate Change Action. The Stocktake set the stage for the conference by documenting how little progress has been made since the Paris Agreement of 2015 and calling for dramatic accelerations in the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy sources. 

The policy and technical recommendations outlined in the Stocktake were largely adopted at COP28 following contentious negotiations over proposals to call for an international transition away from fossil fuels. The World Resources Institute, a global science and policy research organization, reports that “The decision to transition away from ‘fossil fuels’ was the first time the term [‘fossil fuels’] appeared in a COP’s formal outcome since UN climate negotiations began 30 years ago. Despite immense pressure from oil and gas interests, key country negotiators stood their ground and landed a deal that marks the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era—a fitting close to the hottest year on record.” See COP28: Outcomes and Next Steps | World Resources Institute (wri.org).

In addition to the core climate protocols, the conference established a new $700 million fund to mitigate the damage that vulnerable nations increasingly face due to climate change. Attendees also established new commitments in forest management, sustainable agriculture, and methane emissions. 

Now that COP28 has concluded, it is interesting to consider the wide range of opinions as to the success of COP28: 

  • UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell: “Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end,” said in his closing speech. “Now all governments and businesses need to turn these pledges into real-economy outcomes, without delay.” 
  • U.S. climate envoy John Kerry: “I am in awe of the spirit of cooperation that has brought everybody together.” 
  • Climate activist Greta Thunberg: “The COP 28 climate deal reached with huge fanfare this week in Dubai is a stab in the back for the nations most affected by global warming and won’t stop temperatures rising beyond critical levels. This text is toothless, and it is nowhere even close to being sufficient to keep us within the 1.5-degree limit.” 
  • Samoa representative Anne Rasmussen on behalf of the 39-nation Alliance of Small Island States: “It seems that you just get on with the decisions and the small island developing states were not in the room. We have come to the conclusion that the course correction that is needed has not been secured. We have made an incremental advancement over business as usual, when what we really need is an exponential change in our actions.” 
  • Canadian Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault: “COP28 reached a historic agreement…It provides opportunities for near-term action and pushes for a secure, affordable, 1.5C compatible and clean transition. The text has breakthrough commitments on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and the transition away from fossil fuels.” 
  • Marshall Islands’ head of delegation, John Silk: “I came here from my home in the islands to work with you all to solve the greatest challenge of our generation. I came here to build a canoe together for my country. Instead we have built a canoe with a weak and leaky hull, full of holes. Instead we have put it in the water.” 
  • Denmark’s Minister for Climate and Energy Dan Jorgensen: “We’re standing here in an oil country, surrounded by oil countries, and we made the decision saying let’s move away from oil and gas.” 
  • Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore: “The decision at COP28 to finally recognize that the climate crisis is, at its heart, a fossil fuel crisis is an important milestone. But it is also the bare minimum we need and is long overdue. The influence of petrostates is still evident in the half-measures and loopholes included in the final agreement. Whether this is a turning point that truly marks the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era depends on the actions that come next, and the mobilization of finance required to achieve them.” 
  • Bangladesh climate envoy Saber Hossain Chowdhury: “Adaptation is really a life and death issue…We cannot compromise on adaptation; we cannot compromise on lives and livelihoods.” 
  • China’s Vice Environment Minister, Zhao Yingmin: “Developed countries have unshirkable historical responsibilities for climate change.” 
  • Senegal’s Climate Minister, Madeleine Diouf, on behalf of the bloc of Least Developed Countries: “(the agreement) reflects the very lowest possible ambition that we could accept rather than what we know, according to the best available science, is necessary to urgently address the climate crisis. It highlights the vast gap between developing country needs and the finance available, as well as underscoring rapidly dwindling fiscal space due to the debt crisis. Yet it fails to deliver a credible response to this challenge.” 
  • Brazil’s Environment Minister Marina Silva: “We’ve been working very seriously in order to reach these results…After 31 years of debates, and for the first time, we have a result that takes into consideration a trajectory of transitioning away from these fossil fuels. Obviously, this road map is an effort we will have to pursue from now on. Brazil’s position is based on the idea that developed countries and developing countries must all be committed to having a common responsibility, however…developed countries should take that lead.”
  • Singapore’s environment minister, Grace Fu: “I think we have to take the outcome as part of a deal that has been negotiated all round. Very often in a negotiation, parties are too hunkered down in their respective positions. And words like phase out became a problem… The important part is to look at the content and the intentions.”
  • Colombia’s environment minister, Susana Muhamad: “There were two positive things—first, having this discussion at the heart of the oil production system, and also that it was led by somebody that could speak to those countries and that sector.” 
  • Achim Steiner, chair of the UN development programme: “Some are understandably frustrated that the agreed language could have been stronger. But it remains the most unequivocal signal to date that the world is moving beyond the fossil-fuel era.” 
  • Harjeet Singh, Director of Strategy for Climate Action Network International: “Developing countries, still dependent on fossil fuels for energy, income and jobs, are left without robust guarantees for adequate financial support in their urgent and equitable transition to renewable energy. The final outcomes fall disappointingly short of compelling wealthy nations to fulfill their financial responsibilities; obligations amounting to hundreds of billions.” 
  • Jennifer Morgan, Germany’s climate envoy: “Now the signals are clear,” she said. “If you’re an investor, the future is renewable. Fossil fuels are stranded assets.” 

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