What to Expect from COP28

Later this week, an expected 70,000 delegates will descend on the United Arab Emirates for this year’s COP summit – COP28. World leaders, businesses, media, and climate activists will come together in a bid to keep the 1.5°C global warming target within reach. This year’s COP includes the first ever ‘global stocktake’ of collective progress towards the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, in the face of news that the planet is currently on course for 2.5 – 2.9C of warming. But what will the main themes and priorities for COP28 be and what might success look like? 

Emissions Reductions

Dialling up plans to reduce emissions lies at the core of preventing catastrophic global warming. COP28 President-Designate Dr Sultan Al Jaber has called for ambitious targets to be agreed at the Summit, including the tripling of global renewable capacity, and the doubling of energy efficiency, by 2030. Both targets are included in the IEA’s pathway to keeping warming below 1.5C, with the tripling of global renewable capacity labelled the ‘single largest driver’ of emissions reductions by 2030. 

More than 60 countries have already said they would support a draft pledge to triple global renewables and double the world’s energy efficiency. However, achieving consensus on both won’t be easy – the recent US-China climate statement committed both countries to support a tripling of renewables, but overlooked a doubling of energy efficiency, mirroring the G20 Leaders’ Declaration. Agreement on the renewables target is more likely at COP28, but if negotiators manage to secure consensus on both, it will send a clear message of global commitment to keep the path to 1.5C open.

Securing Climate Finance Commitments

Climate financing will be a major area of focus at COP28. Centre stage will be the adoption of the (highly contested) recent proposal to operationalise the ‘Loss and Damage Fund’, which was established at COP27 to provide financial assistance to nations most vulnerable and impacted by the effects of climate change. The proposal rests on the World Bank acting provisionally as the administrator, with a supervisory role for developing nations on the fund’s board. However, many tensions remain, including around whether donor nations should commit to capitalise the fund at a particular quantitative level – developing nations want that clarity and accountability, while developed nations would prefer to keep things vague. If this fragile agreement holds, the Fund could be written into history at COP28, but past broken climate finance promises shed light on the need for pledges to go beyond just words. Resolving financing is central to developing a global climate approach rooted in burden-sharing, and is a key opportunity for developed countries to convey their legitimacy to countries on the frontline of climate change.

Phasing Down or Phasing Out

At COP27, countries pledged to ‘accelerate efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’, and Al Jaber seeks to replicate this pledge at COP28. However, voices – from the European Union to highly vulnerable small island states – have been calling for more ambitious pledges – from the phase-out of unabated fossil fuels, to the complete phase-out of all fossil fuels, by 2050. Given that the G7 committed to accelerate the phase-out of unabated fossil fuels earlier this year, and more than 80 countries backed a proposal at COP27 to gradually phase-out all fossil fuels by 2050, there is ripe ambition to push for more ambitious language to be included in the final text of this year’s Summit. Yet supporters face staunch opposition from developing nations and emerging economies, who maintain they need access to all energy sources to underpin their economic growth, as well as nations which have a high reliance on fossil fuel exports, like Russia and Saudi Arabia. 

While it is unlikely there will be an agreement to phase-out fossil fuels and their subsidies at COP28, it could still deliver progress on this issue. The coalition of ‘high ambitionnations, made up of both developed and developing nations, is trying to rally support for, among other things, a voluntary pledge towards the phase out of fossil fuels. If such a pledge gains momentum, it may place longer-term pressure on those who refuse to participate to shift the dial of their own stance on a phase-out, as well as tying those who do make the pledge to make the transition.

An Onus on the Emitters

A key shift from past COPs, the UAE is committed to working with the energy industry, including the world’s biggest oil and gas producers, to accelerate decarbonisation and the net-zero transition. For Al Jaber, this includes ambitions to formulate a plan with the world’s biggest oil and gas producers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in line with 1.5°C. However, critics are concerned that oil and gas companies will seize on the lobbying opportunities presented by being allowed into the Cop28 discussions, while agreeing only minimal changes to their activities and pledges. Yet supporters insist that the participation of the fossil fuel industry shows realistic ambitions for progress on the major issues, including a recognition of the need for these companies to be part of the solution. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, and given these companies have now been given access to COP negotiations, it is integral that COP participants both hold them to account and find a route forward with them to ultimately phase out fossil fuels.

Success for the UK?

Against this backdrop, the UK has five official ambitions for COP; keeping 1.5°C within reach, reducing emissions, scaling up climate finance, boosting resilience, and protecting biodiversity. Elsewhere, the UK has emphasised the importance of securing a good outcome for the global stocktake, and, for the sake of the diplomatic success of the Global Food Security Summit that the UK hosted last week, commitments around food security. But while achieving ambitious pledges across these fronts may well translate into a successful COP28 for the UK’s negotiating team, the more systemic challenge for the UK will be rebuilding its reputation as a climate leader on the world stage. 

Following the UK’s shift towards what the Government regards as a “more pragmatic, proportionate, and realistic approach to meeting net-zero” in recent months, the UK’s hard-fought reputation as a climate leader lies under threat. Notably, the UK wasn’t amongst signatories to the recent high ambition statement, and the UK was not invited to the UN Secretary General’s climate ambition summit in September. Both seem to signal that the UK is no longer viewed as the leader it once was on climate. However, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attending COP28, alongside new Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron, and last week’s international development white paper focusing heavily on climate change, it’s clear that climate leadership is still seen to be a big part of how the UK is, and wants to be, seen in the world. Leadership at COP28 will go some way to restoring the UK’s leadership credibility in this field; it remains to be seen whether we capitalise on this.

Eliza Keogh

Eliza is BFPG's Researcher and Programmes Manager