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COP28 - Is this Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

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COP28 - Results

The 28th COP, or Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, took place in Dubai from November 20 to December 13, 2023. If you're an optimist, you might think it’s a great sign that a critical global climate change event took place in a fossil-fuel-production-dependent nation.  As a pessimist, you might note that the COP28 President, Sultan Al Jaber, is also the CEO of the UAE’s state-owned oil company, Adnoc, and therefore has great incentives to make more profit from oil. You might further be concerned that Sultan Al Jaber made comments near the start of this event (which he later edited) to the effect that fossil fuels did not need to be phased out to reach Paris-Agreement goals to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celcius. It was also widely reported that during the conference that leaked documents showed the UAE intended to use this convening to lobby for favorable oil deals, which would be contrary to the point of so many earnest people bothering to use energy to gather to achieve greater environmental goals for all.  


So, should we be excited about COP28’s results or worried? The answer is easily both.  The thing is, it’s a good thing that the world’s nations are still formally convening and negotiating.  But many of the plans and even commitments lack teeth, and these "agreements to agree" also don’t have fully thought out financing mechanisms to bolster one’s confidence that they can work. In building industry terms, we can say this effort is still foundational.  So much time and work has been invested by passionate people and organizations, and for decades, but we need to set even bigger goals to make even bigger leaps, and fast, to a time where we can really require and then see more progress.  


Positive Outcomes of COP28:


  • COP28 opened with the operationalization of the “Loss and Damage Fund” to assist vulnerable countries with climate damage consequences beyond what vulnerable nations can adapt to or recover from without assistance. $700 million was raised in initial commitments to meet this goal.  

  • COP28 Closed with the "UAE Consensus", an agreement being referred to as the outcome or main agreement of the first Paris agreement Global Stocktake, or planned every five-year analyses of Paris Agreement plans versus reality.  This document represents the first COP agreement to directly address fossil fuels as the recognized main contribution to climate change. The agreement also calls upon all nations to increase commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in their next Nationally Declared Contributions (NPCs), which will be delivered in 2025.

  • Many other agreements gained momentum or even signatories through formal processes and also through side channels, though it’s not easy for a non-expert to even catalog exactly what happened or what these efforts mean in sum.  Briefly:

    • More nations committed to phasing out coal or at least recognizing that coal must be phased out and that new coal can not be allowed to come online without restrictions. 130 countries have now signed the Global Renewables and Energy Efficiency Pledge, committing to double energy efficiency and triple renewables. 

    • New efforts to reduce methane emissions were announced at COP28, with over 150 countries signing a Global Methane Pledge

    • Health gained greater attention at COP28 as a part of an overall effort to ensure a just energy transition and just climate change mitigation efforts. The Conference hosted the first ever Health Day and produced the COP Declaration on Climate and Health.  

    • 159 countries signed the COP28 Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action. 

    • In the Glasgow Leaders Declarations on Forest and Land Use, 137 counties pledged to end forest and land degradation by 2030, and additional funding commitments were announced, along with corpoprate and organizational commitments to reduce forest loss and transition to more sustainable land use within supply chains.

    • The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty continued to gain momentum, though the number of country signatories is still emerging. 

    • Specific to the green building industry, The Buildings Breakthrough launched to make near-zero energy and resilient buildings the “new normal” by 2030. 

    • Recognition is increasing that cities and other sub-national entities have been and will continue to play a key rile at the leading edge of climate change mitigation. To this end, COP28 included the first ever Local Climate Action Summit. 70 countries also endorsed the Coalition for High Ambition Multi-level Partnerships (CHAMP) for Climate Action, to support sub-national climate efforts. 


Reasons for COP Concerns:

  • The current estimate per UN reporting is that the leaders of countries who have not yet reached targets to cut emissions 50% and limit climate warming to 1.5 degrees celsius must now find the will to cut emissions 65% by 2035. 

  • It was disheartening that when the Damage and Loss fund was set up, the US pledged $17 million, which will not have the needed and sufficiently just impact. Even at $700 million total, the fund is not near the size it needs to be, or even the $100 billion per year previously promised by wealthy nations, and there is also a lot of work to do before funds can reach those in need. Adaptation is just not on target, and this seems pretty unfair given existing impacts and prior promises. 

  • For too many COP28 commitments, the financing mechanisms and processes to put them into action are not yet in place. 

  • COP28 allows reliance on transition fuels and technologies, which is really a way of saying that we’re still relying on fossil fuels and that carbon capture can still count as a mitigation strategy when it really is not. 


COP28 Upshot: 


The COP28 Global Stocktake effort affirms that we’re late to truly committing to climate change mitigation, but that existing efforts have not been sufficient, and some are truly questionable. What’s crazy is that this and other efforts show that we can as a global community mitigate climate change, that we have the solutions available now to get the job done, which sadly means we are as a community choosing not to do it. The people and organizations with the most power and money to enable change are simply too afraid of “losing” advantages, and seem to be “getting what they can” as an opportunity and resources disappear, while others who have never had those advantages are suffering and will clearly suffer more.  But we can still get back on course and limit damage if we do try harder, we don’t have the choice really but to keep going, as honestly, something still beats nothing.  It would seem there’s a hope that even though COP28 almost meets only what some might see as a bare minimum, these agreements set up the opportunity for rapid change “from here.”  


COP29 will take place in Azerbaijan. It’s pretty widely thought that we must strengthen and add needed-detail to key commitments, and properly finance the still-loose if also significant commitments made at COP28 and previously, and really use COP29 to make more of a practical difference.  The UN’s UNPCC, or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already reported that we have passed the 1 Degree Celcius mark and that it would take signifiant and immediate effort to prevent up to a 3 degree temperature rise.  With visible climate impacts are already present and growing in severity, it’s difficult not to panic at the pace of change, even while recognizing gains. Because the truth is that these gains are taking a long time we might yet not have to lose.  We’ve formalized now what people have known for quite a few decades about fossil fuels, and we’ve agreed to be more just in the transition.  It’s hard not to be impatient to see more change now in less time. “Clear direction” for COP29 is not a bad idea - but COP29 has to deliver real change. The impatience should be forgivable, as one or two more kicking-the-can conferences in terms of binding and financed actions will mean disaster. The UNPCC calls COP28 the “beginning of the end” of the fossil-fuel era. Put simple, this has to be true, “or else."


For additional Information:

COP28: A Report Card, Architecture 2030 






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