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Reflecting on COP28: A comprehensive review
Blog...Reflecting on COP28: A comprehensive review

Reflecting on COP28: A comprehensive review

Green News
view over the city of Dubai
This article examines the controversies that preceded COP28 and the actual results achieved at the conference.
Green News
view over the city of Dubai

On November 30th, record numbers of participants (over 97,000), made up of heads of state, government officials, climate experts, and leaders of global industrial sectors, descended upon Dubai (United Arab Emirates) to attend the 28th session of the Conference of the Parties - more commonly referred to as COP28. 

This year's talks were perhaps the most important yet. It follows the publication of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report in March 2023, in which scientists and climate experts delivered a “final warning” on the climate crisis: act now or it will be too late. 

However, the conference was marred with controversy right from the start due to the appointment of Sultan Al Jaber as COP28 President-Designate by the UNFCCC Secretariat. The fact that Sultan Al Jabar is the Emirati Minister of Industry and CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) garnered criticism from climate activists and sparked calls for him to relinquish his role long before the conference opened its doors to delegates.

👉 In the context of this challenging and complex backdrop, we explore the outcome of COP28 and ask ourselves was progress made when it comes to limiting dangerous global warming, or did fossil fuel lobbyists win out? 

Article overview

To provide a clear overview of this year's COP28 it's important to first understand the context in which the conference took place, as this is central to the focus of discussions at COP28, which ran from November 30th to December 13th. 

This is why the first part of this article will cover the background to the Conference of the Parties, the outcomes of the previous COP (COP27), the reasons why COP28 was steeped in controversy, and the issues that climate experts consider most urgent. 

This background will help readers better understand the events and decisions at COP28, as outlined in the second half.

First up, what is COP28 and why does it matter?

Before we dive into the details of what was achieved at the 28th Conference of the Parties, let’s take a step back with a refresher on what COP28 is and why it’s so important.

COP28 is the 28th session of the Conference of Parties - in other words the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference. COP has been running since 1995 and is held every year as an opportunity for signatories to the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) to discuss and find solutions to climate change - undoubtedly the biggest challenge of this century. COP28 brings together leaders from governments, businesses, NGOs, and civil society from across the globe.

The UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - also referred to as the UN Framework Convention) is an agreement between UN member states to stabilise greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human-induced) interference with the climate system.

COP functions as the decision-making body of the UNFCCC, and is made up of all 199 signatories to the UNFCCC. At each COP event, signatories are able to review and assess the measures they've introduced, and to discuss global solutions to the climate crisis. 

Perhaps the most notable outcome of any COP is the Paris Agreement, which was agreed at COP21 in 2015. The landmark deal was signed by 195 parties (out of 199) who agreed to reduce global levels of GHG emissions and to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (and ideally 1.5 degrees Celsius) to prevent dangerous global warming. 

The Paris Agreement marked the beginning of a global transition towards net zero emissions and has spurred national governments across the world to take climate action to reduce their emissions and decarbonise their economies. Each annual COP offers renewed hope that governments will double down and strengthen their climate goals. COP28, as the latest annual meeting, represents the most recent opportunity to boost collective ambition on climate action and support.

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What were the main takeaways from the previous conference - COP27?

The previous Conference of the Parties (COP27) marked the 27th session of the Conference of Parties. Held in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt, the conference brought together over 35,000 people from across the world to discuss the climate crisis and climate action. 

COP27 was seen as an opportunity to advance discussions from previous conferences, however, it also resulted in a historic advancement of its own. 

Let's take a look at the most significant takeaways of COP27 and what topics have been carried forward to COP28:

The creation of a Loss and Damage Fund

Undoubtedly, the crowning achievement of COP27 is the decision to create a fund for responding to loss and damage resulting from climate change. After decades of calls for such a fund from climate-vulnerable countries, it marks an important milestone that will help to address the geographic imbalance between the cause and effect of climate change.

Developing countries and indigenous peoples are the most affected by global warming and climate-related extreme weather events, yet they typically contribute the least to GHG emissions.

💡 Africa in particular contributes the least to climate change yet is particularly vulnerable to the effects. It's estimated that they will need to spend as much as 5 times more on adapting to the effect of global warming than they will spend on healthcare.

The Loss and Damage Fund is primarily aimed at helping developing countries (who are the most vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather events) and is intended to cover the cost of damage caused by natural disasters related to global warming - for example, wildfires, rising sea levels, extreme heat, drought, crop failure, etc. 

As the poorest countries are only marginally responsible for the current climate situation, it was agreed that the richest countries should participate in financing their climate debt. Without the Loss and Damage fund, developing countries have often been left with no other option but to borrow money to mitigate the consequences of extreme climatic climate events (a problem they barely contributed to).

💡 Did you know? 10% of the world's richest households are responsible for 40% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and 1% of the richest households emit as much as the poorest two-thirds of humanity.

👉 Learn more about the Loss and Damage Fund in our article

man crouching on the porch of his flooded house

No new measures were introduced to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions

COP26, which was held in Glasgow was largely seen as a success on account of the renewed commitments by signatory governments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Building on the Paris accord, the Paris Rulebook (which isn't legally binding) laid out timeframes for emissions reduction targets. Additionally, 190 countries agreed to the phasing out of coal for energy production, which is expected to mean a 76% drop in the number of planned new coal power plants.

It was hoped that COP27 would build on this success and push targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even further. Especially since the current commitments of signatories to the Paris Agreement don't go far enough to successfully limit global warming to under 1.5 degrees Celsius (vs. 1990s global temperatures).

While the final agreement did mention “the urgent need for deep, rapid and sustained reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions', sadly, participants failed to reach any agreement on new ambitions to reduce gas emissions.

If we're going to be able to achieve the target of capping global temperatures at 1.5 degrees Celsius, IPCC experts have warned that we will need to achieve a 43% reduction in global emissions by 2030, and 84% by 2050. Attaining this goal necessitates a level of global cooperation never seen before, coupled with a substantial escalation in climate action across all nations and industries.

Failure to move away from fossil fuels

The biggest failure of COP27 is undoubtedly the lack of commitment to phase out fossil fuels - the burning of which is responsible for huge amounts of harmful greenhouse gases. India proposed their complete phase-out, however, COP27 came up empty-handed on this issue. 

Instead of committing to the phase-out of fossil fuels - something that is essential if we're going to have any chance of reaching net zero emissions - conference participants instead simply restated the need to “accelerate efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” 

Many (quite rightly) were not only disappointed by the lack of commitment to end our reliance on these harmful energy sources but were also concerned by the wording used in this statement. The wording leaves gaps for workarounds. For example ‘unabated coal use' leaves the possibility of continued coal use where carbon dioxide emissions can be offset with carbon capture technology. And ‘inefficient fossil fuel subsidies' raises questions based on the interpretation of the term ‘inefficient'.

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Why did COP27 fall short on some topics?

COP27 was somewhat overshadowed by the ongoing war in Ukraine, which has strained energy supplies, forcing many countries to expand their domestic fossil fuel reserves.

World leaders, concerned about rising energy prices and the growing cost of living crisis, were hesitant to make any bold commitments to phase out fossil fuel use. Essentially this resulted in a watered-down commitment to simply ‘boost low emission and renewable energy'. 

Not only this, but the timing of the conference resulted in distraction. It took place only one week ahead of the US midterm elections, coincided with the G20 summit in Bali, and the Qatar World Cup was also just about to start. The lack of a singular focus on the issues of climate change may have played some part in the outcome of the conference. 

👉 Find out more about the key discussions at COP27 in our article

sunset view over Dubai city and skyscrapers

Key issues and challenges at Dubai's COP28

Loss and Damage Fund

While the Loss and Damage Fund can undoubtedly be heralded as a win for low-income countries that feel the brunt of climate change, the lack of detail on how the fund will function left a lot to be desired. 

At COP27 no agreement was reached on how large the funding stream would be, who would be responsible for paying what, and who would be eligible to receive funding. At COP27, a transitional committee was established, tasked with the responsibility of devising recommendations on the structure and operation of the fund. It was hoped that progress could be made at COP28, and a lot of these details fleshed out. 

❗️Experts have warned that we shouldn't be too quick to claim the fund as a big win because a lot will depend on how quickly it is able to get up and running, and how effectively it functions.

firemen standing in the wreckage of a forest fire

Climate finance

In 2009, at COP15 in Copenhagen, developed countries committed to a collective goal of mobilising 100 billion USD per year by 2020. The money is intended for climate action and mitigation efforts in developing countries. 

However, developed nations have a disappointing track record and have so far failed to meet these annual funding goals. In 2020, adaptation funding fell short of the 100 billion target, reaching only 83.3 billion USD.

The lack of commitment to funding pledges is creating an atmosphere of mistrust amongst COP signatories - something that needs to be addressed. The fight against global warming must be carried out equitably, otherwise, we risk increasing global inequalities.

💡 According to the IPCC synthesis report, it is essential that we prioritise equality, climate justice, social justice, inclusion, and fair transition processes to enable successful adaptation, mitigation, and climate-resilient development. Climate funding was a central point of discussion at this year's COP28. 

Fossil fuels

Perhaps the most crucial (and controversial) aspect of COP28 is the continued negotiations on fossil fuels. These harmful fuels have been mentioned many times at previous conventions, but they remain a touchy subject. Yet, the fact remains that we must eliminate their use to reduce our carbon emissions. 

❗️The production of oil, natural gas, and coal is responsible for as much as 75% of total emissions worldwide. Yet, despite the harmful impact of these fuels, only the phasing out of coal was the subject of a commitment at COP27. Many climate experts and scientists have highlighted the importance of the phasing out of fossil fuel extraction and were hopeful that a firm commitment could be reached at COP28. 

This hope was bolstered in early November 2023 by the announcement of China and the US to sharply increase clean energy and displace fossil fuels to reduce GHG emissions globally. Together these two countries account for 38% of the global emissions and so it was hoped that their commitment to reducing emissions could encourage other countries to follow suit.

factories and power plants releasing pollution into the air

Global Stocktake

Established by the Paris Agreement, the Global Stocktake is intended to “assess the collective progress towards achieving the purpose of the Paris Agreement and its long-term goals”. The major UN report evaluates the progress of signatories at an overall global level and identifies trends that should inform countries' national climate commitments (NCC), which must be updated every 5 years. 

In October 2023, the first global stocktake was released. Providing a comprehensive assessment, the report revealed that the world is NOT on track to meet the Paris Agreement's goals. This assessment, important for shaping NCCs, aims to drive wider global climate action. With its foundation in rigorous science and research, the outcomes of the Global Stocktake are not only vital for future climate policy and investment decisions but have also influenced the agenda of COP28.

👉 Find out more about the findings of the first Global Stocktake on our blog.

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Why was COP28 the subject of criticism before it even started?

The appointment of Sultan Al Jaber as President-Designate of COP28 UAE

The appointment of Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber as President-Designate of COP28 was seen as a deeply controversial decision. Not only is Al Jaber the UAE minister for industry and advanced technology, he's perhaps better known as being the chief executive of the UAE's national oil company, ADNOC - one of the world's largest oil and gas producers. 

Even more controversial is the fact that ADNOC is planning a large-scale expansion of oil and gas operations (ADNOC recently received permission from OPEC to start producing more oil in 2024), leaving many wondering how Al Jaber could effectively function as President-Designate of COP28 with such split priorities. 

The Executive Director of Climate Action Network International, Tasneem Essop, has been quoted as saying:

He [Al Jaber] cannot preside over a process that is tasked to address the climate crisis with such a conflict of interest, heading an industry that is responsible for the crisis itself.

And Tasneem Essop isn't the only high-profile figure to criticise the decision. Al Gore has also been outspoken in his critique, noting that oil and gas companies have already "captured control of the political and policymaking process in too many countries and too many regional governments."

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Yet despite this quite glaring conflict of interest, Al Jaber insists that he's the man for the job. He voiced his intentions to focus talks at COP28 on how the private sector can help to limit greenhouse gas emissions, stating “We need a major course correction and a massive effort to reignite progress. This cannot be done by governments alone.” 

Al Jaber stated that he intended to inject a business mindset into talks at COP28, inviting oil and gas companies and business leaders from around the world to participate. He also promised an ambitious action-oriented agenda and voiced his hope for a collective pledge to triple renewable energy by 2030.

Responding to critics of his appointment, Al Jaber has also referenced the fact that the UAE -which has traditionally been a big player in the oil and gas industry - has successfully diversified its GDP so that 70% of it now comes from other (non-oil based) sources. He argues that this provides a great example and motivator for other oil-producing countries. 

Some commentators supported this view and pointed out that fuel-producing countries need to be given a seat at the table if we're to have any hope of effecting rapid change.

Still, there's no denying that mistrust between the two sides runs deep. In fact, earlier this year organisers of COP28 were accused of 'greenwashing' when automated Twitter accounts were found to be promoting the environmental credentials of the UAE (a COP28 spokesperson denied the allegations, claiming that outside actors wishing to discredit the climate conference were responsible).

More recently the UAE came under fire after leaked documents revealed "COP28 UAE key messages" which included no mention of fossil fuels or oil and gas. This was seen to be problematic as eliminating these energy sources is the most critical action that is needed to limit global warming and reach net zero.

The United Arab Emirates - a country of contrast

There’s no denying that the decision to host the 2023 climate summit (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) was controversial. After all, the host nation has historically been heavily reliant on the production and export of oil. Something that doesn't seem to show any signs of abating.

We've already touched on how Adnoc, the UAE's national oil and gas company, is undergoing expansion which will result in a significant increase in oil and gas production. So much oil in fact, that if the UAE were to meet the International Energy Agency's net zero scenario, 90% of the barrels of oil produced by the company would need to stay in the ground.

And yet, the UAE was also the first country in the Middle East to announce a strategic Net Zero initiative. It's also been increasingly investing in renewable energy. 

It's a land of contrast. But perhaps the rationale behind this can best be summed up by the President-Designate himself:

Policymakers are beginning to understand that the energy transition will not happen with the flip of a switch. You need to maintain the current system, while the world still relies on it, and drive down its emissions, while driving up investment in new energies.

However, many are doubtful that a pragmatic and business-oriented approach is capable of delivering the rapid and large-scale climate action that we urgently need to prevent climate breakdown in time.

👉 The question remains - did COP28 deliver and what was achieved at the conference? 

COP28 - what happened?

COP28 was shaping up to be a tense negotiation long before delegates even set foot in the air-conditioned Expo City in Dubai. The controversial lead-up to the conference, combined with the presence of record numbers of fossil fuel lobbyists left many fearful that no meaningful progress would be achieved at the conference. 

This fear almost became a reality when the draft agreement released on Monday 11th December failed to even mention fossil fuels, following strong opposition from the OPEC oil producer group and its allies. Thankfully, clashes over the deal forced discussions into overtime, and following tense negotiations and compromise, historic progress was made.

So what exactly are the key takeaways from COP28 and its resulting agreement?  


Historic agreement to transition from fossil fuels 

“Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end.” UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell.

The discussions on fossil fuels turned into a marathon debate at COP28, extending the conference by an additional day. The final Global Stocktake agreement, which was finally adopted on Wednesday 13th, is the first COP text to actively call on countries to “transition away” from fossil fuels, as well as “phase down” the use of coal. 

This is the first time that the international community has expressed a unified desire to work towards ending our reliance on fossil fuels. It's hoped that this will inspire policy creation and a change in the flow of investment leading to the total transformation of the oil and gas industry.

Undoubtedly, the agreement is a step in the right direction, however, it’s not without criticism. For many the language doesn’t go far enough.” Transition away” is somewhat vague and climate experts believe that explicit language calling for the “phasing out” of fossil fuels would have sent a much stronger message. 

Others have voiced concern over the wording of the text which allows for the transition from fossil fuels to be carried out “in a just, orderly and equitable manner”. Combined with the inclusion of references to unproven carbon capture and storage technology, this has left many concerned that the agreement is riddled with potential loopholes. 

“The resolution is marred by loopholes that offer the fossil fuel industry numerous escape routes, relying on unproven, unsafe technologies”. Harjeet Singh, Head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International.

Yet, the wording of the text - while far from perfect - is what helped OPEC countries stomach the final agreement. Oil-producing countries, led by Saudi Arabia, were strongly against the inclusion of fossil fuels altogether - OPEC even issued a letter to members during the conference urging them to “proactively reject any text or formula that targets energy, ie. fossil fuels rather than emissions”. So the fact that the agreement includes the call to “transition away” from fossil fuels should be celebrated as an achievement. It’s the start of a global push to end our reliance on fossil fuels. 

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Adoption of the framework for the Loss and Damage Fund 

The Loss and Damage Fund was first conceived at COP27. It represents a significant achievement in the fight against climate change, aiming to support communities and nations most affected by climate disasters.

COP28 built on this success after governments uniformly adopted the framework for setting up the fund, following the recommendations of the transitional Committee. The announcement was met with applause and a standing ovation, however, critics have voiced their concern over the lack of funding commitment that followed. 

Several countries pledged financial support for the fund, totalling 700 million USD. This might sound like a significant figure but it falls far far short of the 400 billion worth of damage caused by climate change every year. To put this funding disparity into perspective, current pledges cover a mere 0.2% of the funding needed. 

👉 The UAE and Germany pledged $100 million each. France and Italy promised slightly more at $108 million each. The UK committed $75 million, while the US - which is historically the largest greenhouse gas emitter - pledged only $17.5 million, and Japan offered $10 million. Other pledges include Denmark at $50 million, Ireland and the EU both with $27 million, Norway at $25 million, Canada at $12 million, and Slovenia at $1.5 million. 

Besides funding pledges, discussions at COP28 also centred on how the fund should be operated. The fund’s board is scheduled to meet in January to finalise the framework and kick-start operations.

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Discussion of the Paris Agreement and the culmination of the Global Stocktake

COP28 also marked a critical juncture in assessing progress towards the goals of the Paris Agreement. The conference brought into sharp focus the growing gap in meeting these targets and the need for more robust and actionable climate plans. 

COP28 was the culmination of a process known as the Global Stocktake (GST). This is a core component of the Paris Agreement, which requires an in-depth review of how far the world has come in terms of tackling climate change. Sadly, this comprehensive assessment has revealed that current national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions don’t go nearly far enough, and the world is not on track to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

❗️If we’re to have any chance of hitting this target, emissions need to be cut by 42% below 2010 levels by 2030 at the latest. Under current NDCs, we’re on track for only a 14% reduction. 

Sadly, financial constraints, especially for developing nations, loomed large over these discussions. The rising interest rates in advanced economies have exacerbated the debt burdens of these developing nations, leaving them with limited resources to invest in climate change mitigation. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), approximately 70 countries around the world are currently in “debt distress”, which means that they have defaulted, or are projected to default, on loan repayments. 

This financial dynamic has called for a rethinking of the global financial system to better support climate action. Experts argue that the system needs to be restructured to allow developing countries to sufficiently invest in climate change measures. 

The rise of renewable energy

COP28 made it abundantly clear that renewable energy is the future. The agreement called on countries to triple their renewable energy capacity by 2030. This has sent a clear message to the markets that while fossil fuels are on the out, renewable energy is the future. This will hopefully spur further investment in the sector and improve the renewable energy capacity of countries around the world.

wind farm

COP28 roundup

The agreement reached at COP28 is being heralded as a historic win by some, and as a compromise where everyone loses by others. However, it can probably best be summarised as being a mixed bag - it’s not an outright win, but nor is it a loss either. 

The final text undoubtedly doesn’t go far enough on some topics, and there are concerning loopholes that mean that the call to “transition away” from fossil fuels leaves a lot of room for manoeuvre for oil and gas companies and oil-producing states. Yet, the international consensus is clear, the era of fossil fuels is coming to an end, and renewable energy is the future. 

As we look towards COP29, which will be hosted by Azerbaijan (another oil state), there's a real sense of both urgency and opportunity. The momentum generated at COP28, despite its shortcomings, sets the stage for further advancements. COP29 presents a renewed chance to tighten the loopholes, particularly in the transition away from fossil fuels. It also offers a platform to solidify commitments to renewable energy, building upon the global consensus that renewable energy is not just the future, but an immediate necessity. 

Importantly, COP29 will be a critical opportunity for establishing a new, ambitious climate finance goal. This gathering is not just about agreements but about actionable strategies to mitigate climate change impact, emphasising adaptation, loss, and damage, and mobilising both political will and financial resources for a more sustainable future. The world needs COP29 to produce stronger, more concrete actions against climate change, and set a clear path towards a sustainable and green future.

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