The Six Biggest Takeaways From COP28

The United Nations climate change conference drew praise for new pledges and criticism for watered-down language

Sultan al-Jaber, the president of COP28, and other participants at the conference applaud. The final document resulting from COP28 mentioned transitioning away from fossil fuels, rather than phasing them out over time. Hannes P. Albert / picture alliance via Getty Images

In recent weeks, nearly 200 countries gathered in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, to haggle over a 27-page document that is meant to shape the planet’s climate future. The nations were meeting at the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP28, to take stock of the current climate trajectory and chart the path for addressing a warming planet.

The negotiations come at the end of an unprecedented year, climate-wise. Extreme weather events, ranging from drought to floods to wildfires, have wreaked havoc in various corners of the globe. This year was officially the hottest on record, with global temperatures averaging 1.4 degrees Celsius above those of preindustrial times. At the current rate of warming, global temperatures will inevitably exceed preindustrial values by 1.5 degree Celsius around 2026, instead of in the year 2100, the goal set eight years ago at COP21 in Paris.

As valuable as the opportunity was to bring nations together to brainstorm climate solutions, the conference was a mixed bag. Pressure from the oil and gas industry watered down climate commitments from nations. And those commitments aren’t legally binding.

Still, the COP conferences are important for mobilizing nations to act, even if the collective responses might not be as great as the science demands for averting the worst climate effects, says Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy and an advisory board member for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Despite the current global warming crisis, the 2015 Paris talks were nonetheless instrumental in calling forth policies that reined in the temperature trajectory from an original 4.5-degrees-Celsius bump to a less disastrous 3 degrees by 2100.

COP28 offered a chance to suppress the temperature climb further. Even though the COP agreements are simply good-faith promises by nations to act on their home turf, they at least set a standard to which advocates can hold their governments accountable. “Every bit of warming matters” and is worth fighting against, Hayhoe says. As to how impactful COP28 negotiations were—here are some of key results of the event.

High-emissions industries exerted influence on the negotiations

This year’s climate summit drew an unprecedented level of participation among stakeholders that will benefit from lax climate policing. The location of COP28 itself was telling: Dubai is the biggest city in the UAE, one of the world’s top ten oil producers. Among the organizers and attendees were nations and companies invested in keeping the oil and gas pipelines flowing. According to Nina Lakhani of the Guardian, almost four times as many oil industry lobbyists attended COP28 compared to last year’s summit.

The presence of the lobbyists sparked criticism of their influence on negotiation outcomes. While their impact is hard to measure, environmental advocates argued industry lobbyists are bad-faith actors who peddle false solutions that dance around the issue of fossil fuels.

“It’s so incredibly important to bar any influence from the fossil fuel industry in climate summits going forward,” says Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Sultan al-Jaber, who is also the chief executive of the UAE’s national oil company, Adnoc, presided over the discussions. Prior to the summit, Jaber erroneously claimed that there was “no science” linking the elimination of fossil fuels to keeping temperature rises to 1.5-degree-Celsius limits by the end of the century. And after the summit, Adnoc continued to roll out plans to increase investment in oil and gas production to record levels.

Industry representatives from other pollutive sectors were also in attendance. Per the Guardian, meat, dairy and fertilizer companies made up a significant fraction of country delegations, double to triple the number of attendees at last year’s summit. Increasingly, agriculture is identified as a contributor to the climate crisis due to its high greenhouse emissions, especially from livestock and fertilizer use.

Lobbyist presence is likely to continue at future COP summits. Next year, the conference will be held in Azerbaijan, a fellow fossil-fuel-rich nation.

Countries finally addressed the elephant in the room: fossil fuels

Coal-fired Power Plant
A coal-fired power plant in West Virginia Visions of America / Joseph Sohm / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

This year’s conference acknowledged that fossil fuels were the cause of the warming climate for the first time, despite scientist warnings for decades. The final decision text called for the “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner” to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

This was the first time that the term “fossil fuels” has had a mention in COP decision texts. It was a small but historic step, especially given that the final text needs a unanimous vote to pass. “When you’re trying to get every country in the world to agree on something, it’s amazing to even get anything,” Hayhoe says.

However, many countries, especially smaller developing nations, said that the call to act on fossil fuels wasn’t urgent enough. As the text was finalized on December 13, many small island developing countries were absent from the room, due to a delay in their arrival. Samoa’s Anne Rasmussen, the lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, excoriated the final agreement as having “a litany of loopholes” and the potential to “take us backward rather than forward.”

Critics noted that the term “transitioning away” is weaker than the original language—to “phase out” fossil fuels—that over 100 nations were pushing for in earlier drafts, Carbon Brief reports. The original wording was rejected by a cadre of oil-producing nations led by Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the final adopted language makes room for countries to look to other measures to compensate for their carbon footprint, Rasmussen says, rather than directly target the emissions sources. Experts also slammed the lack of emission reduction targets and a clear timeline to make action explicit.

Nevertheless, some countries are taking action. Among the new initiatives are Canada’s plans to cut emissions by 38 percent by 2030 and Australia’s vow to end its financing of fossil fuel expansion overseas.

Countries pledge to invest in carbon-reduction technologies

Delegations raised other emissions-whittling solutions that skirted the issue of fossil fuel production, including tripling the global renewable energy capacity, boosting energy efficiency and investing in carbon capture.

Analysis has shown that some of these ambitious pledges are achievable. The world is already on track to meet this renewable energy expansion goal by 2030 if it continues to grow at 17 percent annually, writes Maxine Joselow for the Washington Post.

While these solutions are critical tools in society’s arsenal for tackling global warming, experts tell the Post, other advocacy groups say that they don’t substitute cutting fossil fuels altogether.

Carbon capture and storage technology in particular is less promising than it sounds. Experts warn the technology is still unproven, is expensive and can be energy intensive. Manufacturing processes may generate more emissions than the technology can snag from the air.

In the meantime, countries have also pledged to rely on “transitional fuels” to wean off oil. However, this was broadly understood to refer to natural gas, which is a fossil fuel itself, per a CNN report. Although natural gas combustion generates less carbon dioxide than canonical fossil fuels, research indicates that it has a higher content of methane than was previously estimated.

According to an assessment by the International Energy Agency, if all the carbon reduction pledges at COP28 were implemented without phasing out fossil fuels, the reduction in emissions will only amount to 30 percent of what the world needs to limit a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Wind Farm
A wind farm in California Qian Weizhong / VCG via Getty Images

Wealthy nations created a fund for developing nations impacted by climate change

On the summit’s first day, wealthy nations most responsible for climate change committed to a combined $700 million loss and damage fund for developing nations.

The biggest pledges came from Italy and France, which each promised around $108 million. The U.S., historically to date the largest greenhouse gas emitter and fossil fuel producer, committed $17.5 million.

“It’s a move in the right direction,” says Sandra Whitehead, a professor of sustainable urban planning at George Washington University. However, she thinks that rich countries aren’t doing enough to atone for their historic pollution levels.

The sum falls short of the true damage that developing countries face from global warming. The current annual cost of the fallout is estimated to be around $400 billion, over 500 times as much as the size of the pledge.

“The millions promised for the loss and damage fund at COP28 are a drop in the ocean of what is needed,” Lien Vandamme, a senior campaigner at the Center for International Environmental Law, tells Lakhani of the Guardian.

Moreover, the funds don’t cover climate adaptation and mitigation measures in developing countries, only existing destruction. Experts say that more funding is needed for adaptation and mitigation to limit the extent of climate-inflicted loss and damage.

Countries and coalitions promised to crack down on methane emissions

Methane is a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide for trapping heat. The gas is responsible for over a quarter of the temperature rise since preindustrial times. A major source of methane is the oil and gas industry, which leaks this pollutant from pipelines, drill areas and storage facilities.

In conjunction with the climate conference, U.S. officials announced the federal government would require fossil fuel companies to detect and fix methane leaks that waft from their production facilities. The ruling, which doesn’t require congressional approval, will take effect in 2024. It could prevent 58 millions tons of methane emissions by 2038.

Other groups also announced ambitious plans to join the methane fight. A coalition of 50 oil and gas companies that include ExxonMobil, BP and Adnoc made its debut at COP28. Named the Global Decarbonization Accelerator, the coalition pledged to reduce methane emissions from oil and drilling activities by 80 percent by 2030, reports Timothy Puko for the Washington Post. Partnering with various environmental agencies, Bloomberg Philanthropies also unveiled a $40 million program to research and track methane leaks in the fossil fuel industry with more transparency and accuracy.

The multiple commitments toward reducing methane pollution were welcomed by activist groups. The move “has the potential to be the most impactful climate action in my more than 30-year career,” says Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund. However, experts also warned that curbing methane alone is insufficient. Per the Post, it should not detract from the real task of shutting down fossil fuel production once and for all, which is the primary source of both methane and carbon dioxide emissions.

The conference served as a reminder to act in other ways

The COP summit may be the largest climate conference of the year, but it’s not the be-all-end-all, according to experts. “Climate action cannot wait for or hinge on the decisions of world leaders,” Hayhoe says. “We need climate action at every level—every business, every organization, every school, every city. We need action everywhere, from every single one of us.”

The average person who doesn’t attend the lofty COP conferences can still help the climate fight, says Hayhoe. Change starts with advocating for it and pressuring local governments. “We all have a voice, and it’s up to all of us to use that voice,” she says.

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