Photo by COP28 / Christopher Pike

Global climate agreement reached at COP28 – Expert Reaction

More than 200 countries have agreed to to begin reducing global consumption of fossil fuels.

The COP28 deal is the first time that countries have agreed on the need to transition away from fossil fuels.

The NZ SMC and global Science Media Centres asked experts to comment.

Dr James Renwick, Professor of Physical Geography, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“I was pleased to see that the COP28 statement acknowledges the need to move away from fossil fuels (finally!), even if it is a pretty soft-shoe approach.

“A step in the right direction, let’s hope it can turn into a stampede!”

Conflict of interest statement: I am a climate change researcher at VUW-THW and contributed to the latest IPCC Assessment. I am also a Climate Change Commissioner, advising government on its response to the climate crisis.

Professor Bronwyn Hayward, Director Hei Puāwaitanga: Sustainability, Citizenship and Civic Imagination Research Group, University of Canterbury, comments:

“Watching the COP 28 negotiations virtually, as both a political scientist and an author involved in the last IPCC round that provided evidence for these meetings, I was struck by three things.

“First, while it is frustrating to listen to diplomats argue for national interests when the collective future of the planet is at stake, it is also striking how significant breakthroughs can occur. Small Island states have been particularly effective in acting with others to promote new possibilities in a way that can suddenly isolate larger, powerful states taking an unreasonable position in meetings.

“Second, despite much criticism of diplomats there are many unsung heroes within the COP process, including New Zealand’s Kay Harrison and others, sometimes very young representatives who work with integrity as meeting chairs to find common ground in fast moving debates where a comma or a single word can fundamentally alter the impact of a text (consider phasing “down” or phasing “out” or “fossil fuels”).

“Thirdly, these meetings don’t happen in a vacuum. While COP negotiators sat in windowless rooms in Dubai pressing buttons on microphones, the world outside could watch and listen. Journalists and civil society in home nations are reporting, reading, protesting, taking action and talking about climate issues in ways that research tells us is shifting public understanding, (including governments’ understanding), of what is at stake and what new possibilities for action might exist.

“In the closing of COP 28 the UNFCCC Chair Simon Stiell urged the public not to stop pushing as hard as we can for change. This is important because the Paris Climate Agreement has no mechanism to force governments to increase their actions other than public and peer pressure.

“Despite a watered-down final COP text with a “litany of loop holes”, as the Alliance of Small Island States described it, it is increasingly difficult for politicians, lobby groups and donors to benefit from business as usual. New alliances of diverse communities and businesses understand what is at stake. Speaking out loudly on climate is not “hysteria” it is a vital action for change. The next international climate negotiations will be in yet another oil state, Azerbaijan and will depend even more on publics around the world pressing governments as hard as they can for real, transparent, and lasting action.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr. Dalila Gharbaoui, Political and Social scientist, Postdoctoral Climate Crisis Research Fellow, University of Canterbury, comments:

“COP28 parties finally reached an agreement on the outcome of the first Global Stocktake where language around “phasing out of fossil fuels” have dropped from previous drafts, replaced by “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.”

“This is a historic milestone and a major achievement inaugurating the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era that wasn’t reached in almost 30 years of climate negotiations which is significant. However, far more still needs to be done to achieve equity and climate justice for nations and communities across the world most impacted by climate change. The latest IPCC report urges for both incremental and transformational acceleration of climate adaptation and mitigation; “Transitioning away from fossil fuels” is incremental but “phasing out fossil fuels” would have been also transformational.

“Climate negotiations are, by essence, a diplomatic instrument that is used to urge collective action from governments that have various political and economic contexts and often divergent national interests so small wins are crucial steps towards major decisions, but some climate vulnerable countries simply cannot afford to wait another decade for complete phasing out of fossil fuels to be agreed upon in future COPs.

“As highlighted by the IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report, above a global temperature rise of 1.5°C the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) regions will face impacts which may be irreversible. Not achieving agreement on phasing out fossil-fuels today has critical implications for these States that have contributed little to climate change while being the first impacted with a number of Islands States such as Tuvalu or Kiribati whose survival is threatened by sea level rise.

“It is important to acknowledge that this conversation is about 28 years overdue, and it is critical that we are finally getting there. The agreement sends a strong signal to markets to increase investments in energy transition and climate-resilient economic growth, particularly in developing countries. Post-COP28 impacts on gas and oil markets would already indicate a major turnover. However, it is still unclear how this major and rapid increase in investment, particularly in emerging market and developing countries will happen without more significant finance related commitments.

“The agreement lacks sufficiently consistent provisions around financing a just transition for developing countries that are still relying on fossil fuels to develop their economies and will not be able to transition to clean energy without addressing this gap. Most of these States are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and economically dependent on oil and gas with less resources than developed countries to deal with the global transition away from fossil fuels. This is a major incoherence that will need to be addressed; developed nations that have built their economies based on fossil fuels exploitation, are now expecting emerging and developing countries to transition to renewable energy without a just and equitable mechanism in place to ensure it can be financed and affordable for all.”

No conflict of interest.

Our colleagues at the UK SMC also gathered expert comments:

Prof Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change, Tyndall Centre, University of Manchester, said:

“No doubt there will be lots of cheer and back-slapping among many pontificators and even some climate ‘experts’, but the physics will not care. As the new agreement locks in high levels of emissions for years to come, so the temperature will continue to rise.

“To add a bit of science and maths to this harsh assessment, we have between five and eight years of current emissions before we blow through the carbon budget for just a flip-of-a-coin chance of not exceeding 1.5°C. Even if we seriously began to cut emissions from the start of 2024, and there’s no such requirement in the new text, then we’d still need zero fossil fuel use, globally, by around 2040. Throw in a few years of political and technical inertia as we pivot from rising to rapidly falling emissions, and we’re really talking about eliminating fossil fuels by the mid 2030s. This is far removed from the fraudulent language of net zero by 2050.

“So, what about “well below 2°C”? Well, to start, this means far more severe climate impacts and a significant risk that we’ll trigger various planetary scale feedbacks or tipping points. In terms of global emissions, we would still require cuts from January 2024 of over 5% year on year. Put another way, if all nations deliver on their emission-reduction pledges (NDCs), then in 2030 the remaining carbon budget for 2°C will be similar to what we have left for a 50:50 chance of 1.5°C today; a budget many/most analysts consider is no longer viable.

“The climate challenge we face today is 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide harder than it was last year, and around one third of a trillion tonnes more difficult than at the time of the Paris Agreement. COP28 might well have been appropriate if it had taken place in 2000, but in 2023 it falls far short of our Paris temperature and equity commitments. The time for polish, rhetoric and applause is long gone. We face a climate emergency that the COP process appears simply unwilling or unable to address.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Our colleagues at the SMC Germany also gathered expert comments:

Wolfgang Obergassel, Co-Head of the International Climate Policy Research Department, Energy, Transport and Climate Policy Department, Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, comments:

“When evaluating a COP, you have to start from what it is and can do. It is a negotiating platform and the negotiators include many countries that are highly dependent on fossil fuels. Hope dies last, but it was always very unlikely that the same countries that have done everything to delay progress for more than three decades would suddenly turn around and agree to phase out fossil fuel use.

“At its core, the fight against climate change is a massive distribution conflict. The world has accumulated a huge amount of fossil capital, and this capital will have to be massively devalued in order to maintain a livable planet. One of the most important functions of the international process is to provide climate change advocates with ammunition in this distribution conflict. The process sets the standards for what behavior is expected from governments and other actors.

“From this perspective, the last three climate summits have brought enormous progress. Finally, within the framework of the UNFCCC Framework Convention on Climate Change, there is a discussion about what reducing emissions actually means. COP26 was the first to include language on fossil fuels in an adopted decision. The phase-out of the use of fossil fuels was one of the central conflicts at the now concluded COP28 and made it into the final decision.

“The impact will depend on what the actors do with it. The more than 120 countries that have spoken out in favor of a clear decision to phase out the use of fossil fuels should follow their words with action. With the public positioning of these countries and the COP result, climate protection advocates now have new tools to pressure them to do so. This is of course far less than is necessary, but we have to deal with the world in which we live. And in this world, fossil fuel advocates still wield vast amounts of power.

“A clear win is the operationalization of the loss and damage fund. The Global South has fought for decades to address this problem, now the fund is here. But here too, the effect will depend on the actual implementation. The initial capitalization of the fund can only be the starting point.”

(Translated with the help of AI)

No conflict of interest declared.

Our colleagues at the SMC Spain also gathered expert comments:

Alejandro Caparrós, Professor of Energy Economics at the University of Durham (United Kingdom) and Research Professor at the CSIC, says:

“A transitional COP. The meeting in Dubai concluded by adopting the first global stocktake. The stocktake reminds us that much remains to be done, although it also recognises that progress has been made since the adoption of the Paris Agreement. If the nationally determined commitments (NDCs) are met, which remains to be seen, the world is heading towards a warming of between 2.1 and 2.8°C, instead of the 4°C we would be heading towards without these commitments. After arduous negotiations, at the mere mention of fossil fuels, the balance sheet also indicates that to achieve net zero emissions by mid-century the world must transition away from fossil fuels (“transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems”). A no-brainer if we accept the goal of zero net emissions by mid-century.

“The agreement is only relevant in that it implies that the process initiated with the Paris Agreement is still alive and has passed its first step, its first stocktaking. This is not trivial, as the process initiated in Kyoto was interrupted when it came time to renew it for the first time, in Copenhagen in 2009. In the meantime, global emissions have continued to grow. The world needs short-term commitments and actions, we already have enough long-term commitments. In this area, COP28 has left us with a commitment to triple installed renewable energy capacity by 2030 and a modest increase in financing for developing countries.”

No conflict of interest declared.