Guest columnist Peter M. Haas: Was COP28 a transition point?

United Nations Climate Chief Simon Stiell, from left, COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber and John Kerry, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, pose for photos at the end of the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

United Nations Climate Chief Simon Stiell, from left, COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber and John Kerry, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, pose for photos at the end of the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. AP PHOTO/KAMRAN JEBREILI

By PETER M. HAAS

Published: 12-17-2023 3:30 PM

The recently concluded Climate Change COP28 (the 28th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) surprised many observers by generating more concrete decisions than had been expected. Most participants were glum when the conference had to be extended for a day, and yet the participants and the oil friendly COP president pulled a rabbit out of the hat at the last moment and generated an agreement that all signed on to that was far more constructive than had been expected even 12 hours before.

The COP created new funds to provide concessional finance for poor countries facing imminent threats from climate change through sea level rise and warming temperatures and to support investment in renewable technologies. Many governments made pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars to these funds, including $3 billion USD from the United Arab Emirates. A declaration calling for a “transition away from” oil, coal and gas was also adopted, although it avoided the contentious worlds of “phasing-out” or “eliminating” fossil fuels. A thorough review — “the stocktaking” — of collective efforts since the 2015 Paris Agreements clearly demonstrated that few governments have undertaken measures sufficient to curtail global warming.

The writing is on the wall: fossil fuels are done. The scientific community is overwhelming in agreement about the magnitude of the threat and the urgency of coping with it. Most of the world’s citizenry want renewable energy, even if their behavior does not always conform, especially in the U.S. The majority of the world’s governments are starting to promote industrial policy to encourage the energy transition, driven largely by the Inflation Reduction Act.

However, the politics are complex and run deeply. Fossil fuel companies and petrostates are afraid of losing “stranded assets”: oil and gas reserves they cannot use. These countries and firms, especially Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the UAE (which hosted the conference) and Exxon Mobil, are trying to postpone the end of fossil fuels as long as possible, while activists and most northern governments are seeking to achieve firm commitments by 2050 or so.

The COP declaration reflects this difficult political divide: more money for the vulnerable and sending a signal about future directions of multilateralism. While it provides an aspirational statement, it does not provide any enforcement provisions, concrete targets, or timelines.

There is an irony to having a staunch oil supporter as the president of the conference. Because of the stigma associated with hosting a failed summit, the president has to modulate their own position in order to achieve a compromise. The UAE seems to have done this, just as Brazil did in 2012 at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

The process over the last 30 years of near continuous negotiations is ambiguous. Efforts to adopt multilateral agreements have advanced, but not at the same pace as global warming has been advancing.

Appraisals of the outcome vary. The commitments are not up to keeping average global temperatures below the aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees centigrade. For critics the agreement looks like lipstick on a pig, given the lack any enforcement measures or clear time schedule. Beyond public pressure and peer pressure there is no accountability for countries that do not pay their promised commitments to the developing world. For moderates the outcome maintains momentum towards more binding commitments in the future. And the oil industry just heaved a huge sigh of relief at being able to avoid clear targets and timetables for cutting production and emissions.

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Peter M. Haas is professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.