News | Socio-ecological Transformation - Climate Justice - COP28 Loopholes, False Solutions, and Empty Promises

The consensus reached at COP28 satisfied no one — except for the big polluters


Press conference of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance at COP28, 11 December 2023. Photo: IMAGO / TT

One day later than planned, the UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai came to an end on 13 December with a consensus that falls far short of expectations around a full phaseout of fossil fuels, as well as on reaching peak emissions by 2025.

David Williams directs the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Climate Justice Programme in New York.

Tetet Lauron lives in the Philippines and works as a consultant to the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s New York Office.

Nadja Charaby is head of the International Politics and North America units at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and an advisor on climate policy.

The manner in which this unsatisfying consensus was reached showed how participating nations deftly utilized diplomacy to arrive at an outcome at all costs. Yet the disparity between the responses of between government officials on the one hand and civil society representatives on the other underlines the growing rift between the two camps’ understandings of what effective climate action means. With 2023 set to be the hottest year on record, the urgency of the climate crisis cannot be denied — but too many governments continue to do just that.

Geopolitical Rifts

Climate change negotiations never take place in a political vacuum. This is also true for the Conferences of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that take place every year in a different location. At COP26 in Glasgow, the COVID pandemic had a huge impact on events in and around the negotiations. At COP27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh, the Russian invasion of Ukraine along with the Egyptian government’s atrocious human rights record played a similar role. This year, the war in the Gaza Strip and the relentless bombardment of the Palestinian people sparked a number of debates.

The war caused diplomatic spats during the first days of the conference, when scheduled speeches by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, and Israeli president Isaac Herzog coincided with the ending of the four-day humanitarian ceasefire and were cancelled as a result. It proved to be the dominant issue for civil society and social movements throughout the negotiations, the former viewing the violations of international law occurring in Gaza as directly linked to climate justice. Accordingly, numerous civil society groups connected their demands vis-à-vis the climate negotiations with calls for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the Israeli occupation.

A rift running through international movements also became visible. Representatives of several German organizations were reluctant to join some of the protests calling for solidarity with Palestinians. This phenomenon is not limited to the climate justice movement, and will pose greater challenges for international cooperation in the future — at least for large parts of the German climate movement and environmental NGOs.

While the importance of a just transition to cleaner energy sources was recognized, the lack of financing offered to developing countries for implementation rendered those recognitions meaningless.

The more-than-questionable human rights situation in the United Arab Emirates also played a central role in civil society organizing. While protests were permitted within the venue of COP28 in accordance with the rules of the UNFCCC, which the host country used to cultivate its image, there was no room for demonstrations or alternative events outside the venue.

Loss and Diplomacy

Before the negotiations could get into full swing, the operationalization of the Loss and Damage Fund was announced during the opening plenary, considered a key success of diplomatic efforts by the conference’s hosts. The Loss and Damage Fund was agreed on at COP27 in Egypt to assist vulnerable communities in developing countries facing climate change impacts, such as droughts, heatwaves, floods, or storms.

While caveats remain, such as its interim location at the World Bank, the voluntary nature of contributions, and the lack of clarity around who will contribute how much, the operationalization of the Loss and Damage Fund still marks the culmination of years of civil society pressure, predominantly led by the Global South. Overall, 700 million US dollars have been pledged, including early pledges of 100 million dollars each from the UAE and Germany. Nevertheless, however noteworthy these early pledges may be, they pale in comparison to the 400 billion dollars actually needed every year.

This early development allowed delegates and observers to focus on the Global Stocktake, seen by many as the most critical process at this year’s negotiations. Its function is to assess progress on fulfilling Paris Agreement commitments, including limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Gaps identified during this assessment will then serve as the basis for shaping future climate policy at the national level.

The key issues of contention here included use of language around fossil fuels. Saudi Arabia denied the scientific basis for phasing out fossil fuels, a sentiment now infamously shared by Sultan Al-Jaber, the COP Presidency of UAE, and the Executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Corporation. Further battles were conducted over whether to cite the need for a “phase down” or “phase out” of fossil fuels, and whether to refer to fossil fuels”, fossil fuel emissions”, or unabated fossil fuels” — the latter two leaving the door wide open to capturing and storing the resulting greenhouse gas emissions through unproven and controversial carbon capture and storage technology (CCS).

Paper Transition

While the importance of a just transition to cleaner energy sources was recognized, the lack of financing offered to developing countries for implementation rendered those recognitions meaningless. An earlier text proposal on mitigation efforts was received so poorly it was described as a “death sentence” by representatives from Samoa and the Marshall Islands.

After the negotiations were extended by a day, Sultan Al-Jaber managed to pull off a surprise. Within a few minutes of the closing plenary, he gavelled the Global Stocktake, meaning the text was accepted. Participants praised him for his negotiating skills at the final hour. Yet there were also harsh criticism from small island states, who felt they were not given the opportunity to interject meaningfully in the process.

The disparity between expectations and outcomes at COP28 has led to widespread disappointment among civil society groups, and underlines how much pressure must be intensified to address the climate crisis.

In addition, they voiced grievances around the mitigation measures that did not go far enough, as the decision to phase out the production of fossil fuels was not clear or unequivocal. This is because the text only talks about a transition away from fossil energy systems so that global climate neutrality can be achieved by 2050. However, there is no mention of the fact that greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025, in accordance with findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This is a matter of survival for small island states, for whom rising sea levels threaten their very existence.

The text also contains questionable approaches to reducing greenhouse gases, such as the use of CCS technologies or nuclear power. Colombia and Bolivia were critical of loopholes that permit the further extraction of fossil fuels, of carbon markets that perpetuate colonial patterns of exploitation, and of a global energy transition that threatens indigenous communities and territories for the extraction of resources. Additionally, to phase out fossil fuels, developing countries will need financial support, particularly in the face of spiralling debt and rising costs in relation to the impacts of climate change.

Another key element of this year’s negotiations were discussions around adaptation, hugely significant for developing countries at the forefront of climate change impacts. With 3.6 billion people highly vulnerable to climate change, adaptation describes the avoidance of harm caused by droughts, heatwaves, floods, or storms. Specifically, setting the Global Goal on Adaptation, a process established in 2015 after being proposed by the African Group of Negotiators (AGN), was set to be completed at COP28.

Expectations and Reality

A crucial aspect of implementing adaptation is finance. According to the recently published UN Adaptation Gap Report, the estimated costs of adaptation in developing countries alone are around 215 billion US dollars per year. Actual adaptation finance provided, however, has actually declined to 21 billion. For this reason, many of the discussions at COP28 revolved around the need to scale up adaptation finance and who should fund it.

In this context, US negotiators insisted on removing references to the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, as referred to in the preamble of the UNFCCC to make clear the different historical responsibilities of the developed and the developing world for the climate crisis, meaning in this case the expectation of providing funds would not fall on developed countries. In the final text, stringent language around the need for climate finance to be provided as concessional and grant-based funding and not adding to the debt burden of developing countries was also watered down, as developed countries advocated for bolstering private sector finance. This represents a heavy blow to many countries of the Global South who are severely impacted by the compounding effects of debt and climate crises.

Overall, what we witnessed at COP28 was yet another abdication of responsibility by those who have caused the climate crisis, and now refuse to pay reparations for the colonial legacy of extraction and exploitation. The polluting countries outright rejected aligning future finance flows in accordance with historical and cumulative debts.

As we commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is clear that developed countries are not willing to step up and protect those rights for all. When comparing the actual outcome of the negotiations with the reality faced by affected communities, some observers were astonished that those government representatives present reacted with so much applause.

The disparity between expectations and outcomes at COP28 has led to widespread disappointment among civil society groups, and underlines how much pressure must be intensified to address the climate crisis. With Azerbaijan selected as next year’s hosts, civil society engagement will again be crucial.