Here’s Some of What Happened at the UN Climate Talks

The good, the bad, and the ugly from COP28

By Tina Gerhardt

December 18, 2023

Photo by Hannes P Albert/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Two women walk across the COP28 site on December 11, 2023, in Dubai. | Photo by Hannes P Albert/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The annual UN climate negotiations wrapped up last week, and the tens of thousands of government negotiators, corporate lobbyists, civil society activists, and hangers-on have now left Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and headed back home. So, what happened at COP28? You can boil it down to the good, the bad, and the ugly.

While the agreement coming out of COP28 did call for transitioning away from fossil fuels, tripling renewable energy, and doubling energy efficiency, it was also filled with loopholes that will allow the fossil fuel industry to continue business as usual. And totally lacking were any details about the much-needed funding from the Global North to the Global South to support the energy transition and address the already disastrous effects of the climate crisis.

Here’s a quick overview.

The Good

In a historic first, the 200 nations represented at COP28 formally acknowledged that fossil fuels are the primary cause of climate chaos and explicitly called for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems.” While it may be hard to believe that it has taken this long to state the obvious, it is still a huge win for the global climate movement. Roman Ioualalen, global policy lead at Oil Change International, said, “The draft text calls for the first time on all parties to contribute to the transition away from fossil fuels, which is unprecedented in the UNFCCC and would have been unimaginable just two years ago.”

The final agreement also called for “tripling renewable energy capacity globally … by 2030.” The transition to renewable energy will be pivotal to reducing emissions and averting the worst of the climate crisis. And the explicit mention of 2030 is important. As laid out in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report, in order to halt global temperature rise, we need to be reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030. And we are already one-third of the way through the decade during which we need drastic emissions reductions.

The final text also called for the “doubling … of energy efficiency improvements by 2030.” Energy efficiency is unsexy but it is also vital to reducing emissions. Energy efficiency means reducing the energy leakiness of buildings and workplaces, so that less energy is needed to heat or cool them. It means improving appliances and electronics—for example, back-up data storage facilities—so that they, too, use less energy. It is a key that can help unlock other climate gains.

Perhaps all this rhetoric sounds like just that—words on paper. But in his most recent Substack article, “What We Can Do With a Sentence,” Bill McKibben makes a strong argument that this phrase is “a tool for activists to use henceforth.” It can be used as a lever for continued progress. If governments are held to their word, that will mean, McKibben writes, “no more new LNG export terminals,” as well as no more coal power plants and no more new oil fields. The phrase “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly, and equitable manner” will only have meaning, he writes, if grassroots activists “supply that meaning.”

The Bad

Yes, the mere mention of fossil fuels is a big deal. After all, the first step in breaking an addiction is admitting you have a problem. But the final text is still, in many ways, weak sauce and it fell far short of what many nations were asking for. 

Going into COP28, some 140 nations were calling for a more robust “phase out” of fossil fuels—that is, a clear intention to get on a path to ending the use of coal, oil, and gas. The phase-out demand was accompanied by the idea of a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty that calls for an end to the expansion of fossil fuels and a transition to renewable energy. The informal treaty has been signed by a dozen nations, about one hundred cities and sub-national governments, hundreds of elected officials, hundreds of Nobel Laureates, hundreds of civil society organizations, and over 3,000 scientists and academics. In the end, the “phase out” language fell victim to the “transition away from” compromise.

And even the agreed-upon “transition away from” has loopholes allowing the fossil fuel industry to continue business as usual. These loopholes include phrases like the “phase-down of unabated coal power.” What a mouthful! First, a phase-down is, of course, not the same as a phase-out. And what does “unabated” mean? It is saying that continued burning of coal—the filthiest of fossil fuels—is still OK as long as it is “abated,” that is, moderated by capturing the resulting carbon pollution. Basically, “abated” refers to carbon capture and storage, the notion that one can collect the pollution from smokestacks and put it somewhere, perhaps underground or beneath the ocean seabed.

In other words, “unabated” and “abated” are smokescreens for carbon capture and storage. Numerous studies and articles have pointed out that CCS is prohibitively expensive and cannot be scaled up quickly enough to meet the 2030 carbon pollution goals. Most worrisome, it will allow for the continued burning of fossil fuels. 

Aside from allowing coal use to continue, the final agreement also “recognizes that transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition.” “Transitional fuels” are read as a reference to gas. The continued use of fracked gas is problematic as it does not help reduce emissions during this crucial decade—which must peak by 2025 and be reduced by 45 percent by 2030 to avoid irreversible tipping points. So, gas needs to be phased out.

But, unfortunately, gas extraction has been expanding. In Europe, gas use in Germany is growing as the country shifts away from Russian energy supplies. Just this past week, Germany sought permission from US energy regulators to begin construction on an LNG project in Louisiana.

Reuters reports that US LNG exports hit record levels in November. And McKibben called them “a smoking gun for Biden’s big climate decision,” referencing a study that suggests burning gas is worse than burning coal.

Under the Biden administration, the number of gas facilities to ship and export LNG abroad has doubled. New gas-export mega-facilities have been proposed in Louisiana. Residents have protested this expansion, for example, the LNG exports in Washington State and in Texas. Just last week, Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, called on the Biden administration to show leadership in phasing out fossil fuels, including gas.

The Ugly

Lastly, COP28 did not achieve a long sought and desperately hoped for breakthrough on how to pay for climate-change-related damage, destruction, and adaptation. For years now—from one COP to another—the world’s poorer and more vulnerable nations have been calling on the rich nations to assist them in coping with the climate chaos. At COP28, the rich nations once more evaded their moral and historical obligations.

Nations in the Global North did not take responsibility for being the biggest historic emitters, and thus their responsibility for creating and addressing the climate crisis. Nations in the Global South have done the least to contribute to global emissions and the climate crisis, but they already have been impacted disproportionately. Money and resources from the Global North need to be offered to the Global South.

Yet developed nations continue to drag their heels on much needed funding. Way back in 2009, at COP15 in Copenhagen, developed nations promised to pay $100 billion per year by 2020 to developing nations. This promise was then extended to 2025. But developed nations never paid this promised amount.

And even the $100 billion per year figure is an embarrassing lowball of what is actually needed. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that, in 2019, “delivering both climate and development goals demanded $2.5 trillion of annual financing for developing countries, a number that will have risen since then due to the pandemic and ongoing economic and financial shocks.”

Or, in short: The world’s wealthy nations still haven’t come close to helping the globe’s poorer nations cope with this crisis that the rich countries created.

The Future

There are a couple of ways to look at COP28. It may be the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era. It may have been an agreement filled with loopholes, allowing wealthy nations to defer the most important decisions on fossil fuels and finance. In any case, it is at least clear that many big decisions—especially on the phase-out of fossil fuels and on finance—will need to be dealt with at next year’s confab, COP29. 

As Jean Su, acting co-executive director at the Center for Biological Diversity, put it, “People power has gotten us here, and the momentum is stronger than ever. The fight to end oil, gas, and coal must now be taken up at the country level with the United States leading the way by halting new fossil fuel project approvals and setting a strong nationally determined contribution for next year’s COP29.”