Time to get miserable about the COP28 declaration

to avoiding the very worst effects of . Earlier this week, delegates from around the world ratified a document setting out what we need to do, and when. Even better, the text finally ended the decades-long omerta of never talking about the impact fossil fuels have had on our environment. It’s a landmark moment in history and one that means we can have hope for the future of humanity. Unless, that is, you spend any time examining the substance of the deal to see if the expectations meet the reality. Because then you’ll see that while it’s not all doom and gloom, it’s certainly not the bold action we really need.


All of this took place at the Conference of the Parties (COP) an annual, UN-backed conference to build international consensus on climate change. Delegates from all UN member states, as well as bodies like the EU, all meet at a host city for two weeks to speedrun something that looks a lot like a treaty. The 28th such event was hosted in Dubai, which attracted plenty of criticism given the emirate’s fossil fuel wealth. Its president was Sultan Al Jaber, UAE minister of industry and, uh, the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil company.

The perception that the event would be a fossil fuel industry stitch-up wasn’t helped when reported the UAE secretly planned to use the event to strike new oil and gas deals. Or that Al Jaber was quoted by saying there was “no science” supporting the idea that a phase out of fossil fuels was necessary to prevent further warming. He later said his comment had been taken out of context and that he supported work to reduce fossil fuel use.

For all the light and heat around COP, it’s not as powerful as you might hope or think, since there is no real enforcement mechanism. The parties (should) negotiate in good faith but if nations don’t actually follow through on their promises, there’s no mechanism to address it. Diplomacy is a delicate art, especially with so many moving pieces, so maybe we should all learn to appreciate the subtleties. That’s the positive case.

The negative one being that COP28 has been more theater than politics. Anne Rasmussen, representing the Alliance of Small Island States, pointed out her group wasn’t even in the room when the declaration was ratified. Ironic, given that the event was dubbed as “the most inclusive COP to-date, ensuring all voices could participate in the process.” During the plenary, Rasmussen said the text, approved in her absence, and carries a “litany of loopholes” for wealthy nations to delay, or avoid their responsibilities.


opens with a long introductory section admitting that humanity as a whole hasn’t been doing a good enough job. It admits humans are responsible for raising the Earth’s temperature by at least 1.1 degrees celsius, and we’re on the hook to fix it. And the 1.5 degrees celsius limit agreed in Paris in 2015 isn’t going to happen unless we really start putting the work in right now. It adds that while the technology is there, we haven’t made enough use of it, and that plenty of small island nations and countries in the developing world will bear the brunt of our inaction.

1: The Task at Hand

Because we’ve dragged our feet for so long, the extent of action needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees celsius will be stark. (And 1.5 degrees isn’t maintaining the status quo but the limit that keeps the slew of natural disasters it precipitates from becoming biblical.) Humanity needs to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 42 percent by 2030, and 60 percent by 2035. To get a sense of that task, we emitted around in 2019, and now we’ve got a decade to cut it by more than a half. Should we reach that ambitious target, we then need to repeat the same feat even faster to ensure we reach net zero emissions by 2050. Even though most climate scientists I’ve spoken to feel that the 2050 deadline is far too late.

2: The Loopholes

Rasmussen already highlighted that the goals laid out in the text are hazy, more guidelines than real processes. They’re written with the caveat that nations should contribute to the overall goal in a “nationally determined manner.” On one hand, that respects “their different national circumstances, pathways and approaches.” On the other, it allows some nations to pass off insufficient work as them doing their part without consequence.

3: Tripling global renewable energy capacity by 2030

One of the biggest pledges in the document is to triple renewable energy generation capacity by 2030. Data from the says that in 2022 that figure stood at 3,371,793 MW. So, we’ve got six years or so to manufacture and build 6,743,586 MW of renewable energy, from wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear and the rest. Simple, right?

Not so much. Not to denigrate the work that’s already been going on, but we’re nowhere near that level. Between 2021 and 2022, the world got a little under 300,000 MW of new renewable generation up and running. To lay even one finger on the target COP28 has set down, the world needs to be averaging closer to 1.2 million MW every single year.

But, and here’s the thing – these figures don’t actually feature in the ratified version of the text at all. I’ve done the math from the 2022 figures because that seems relevant but the text itself has no baseline, or any frame of reference at all. It’s conceivable a bad actor could say they’ve tripled domestic renewables work from an earlier date, or start their count from zero.

4: Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems

You’ll have seen plenty of the headlines out of COP28 commenting this is the first declaration to explicitly mention fossil fuels in its text. It’s wild to think we’ve had nearly three decades of these summits and everyone has chosen to just look the other way until now. You can see how tightly these points have been massaged and lawyered to make sure while the elephant in the room has been pointed out, it’s still very welcome to stay. It can continue to knock over the furniture and drop big piles of dung, too, so long as certain folks keep making money.

One clause pledges to speed up efforts to “phase down unabated coal power,” which means plants that gesture toward carbon capture aren’t targeted. The fact that the deal doesn’t call for a near-instantaneous blanket ban on coal burning boggles the mind given the . After all, coal isn’t just the worst fossil fuel, it’s the most environmentally harmful: if you burn one ton of coal, you’ll actually create more than twice that amount of CO2. Earlier this year, the said that global CO2 emissions from coal power increased by two percent, reaching “a new high in 2022.”

Another clause pledges an acceleration toward “net zero emission energy systems” that use “zero and low carbon fuels” before 2050. And then there’s the big one — a clause talking about a transition away from “fossil fuels in energy systems” in a “just, orderly and equitable manner.” I’m enough of a cynic to think those phrases can be bent miles out of shape, and the fact there’s no benchmarks or enforcement mechanisms means that, for now, it’s all just cheap, sweet words.

Then we’ve got a push for other low-emission technologies which, alongside renewables and nuclear, include “abatement and removal” like carbon capture and low-carbon hydrogen. It’s fair to say that those last two should be treated like the mythical unicorns they really are. After all, abundant, low-carbon hydrogen created with renewable energy . And while it’s fair to say (mechanical) carbon capture is still relatively new, data from the suggests it’s a non-starter.

It’s hard not to be cynical watching entities with a vested interest in the status quo gesture toward these projects when they’re likely to use them as license to stick with business as usual. If there’s one good point in this part, it’s that there’s a pledge to “substantially” reduce the volume of non carbon dioxide emissions. It specifically namechecks methane, a greenhouse gas that is significantly more damaging than CO2 in the short term. There’s also a reference to cutting emissions in road transport by pushing infrastructure for low and zero-emission vehicles.

As notable as the mention of fossil fuels was, the declaration also “recognizes that transition fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security.” To you and me, that means countries can continue to exploit and burn fossil fuels like natural gas. Now, gas is better than coal for greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s a bit like saying you’ll only burn down the ground floor of your home rather than the whole thing. Not to mention that natural gas is predominantly made up of methane, that thing we’re also meant to be reducing.

5: The rest

Much of the work at COP28 was focused on broader issues, including making sure the financial gravity of the situation was addressed. There was a lot of negotiation around various monetary tools and funds that could be used to incentivize responsible emissions reduction. There were also pledges made for international co-operation, knowledge sharing and protecting economic growth. One clause that did leap out was a pledge to phase out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies that “do not address energy poverty or just transitions,” which is similarly weak in its definition. And while there are gestures toward halting deforestation and restoring the natural environment, there’s little substance. One section invites — invites! — parties to “preserve and restore oceans and coastal ecosystems.”


Dr Phil Williamson, Honorary Associate Professor in Environmental Science at the University at East Anglia said that COP28’s declaration “represents modest political process, recognising what has been scientifically obvious for at least 30 years.” And it’s this point that probably needs highlighting given how many Very Serious People will likely hail COP28 as a landmark. Yes, it’s a massive achievement to finally mention that fossil fuels are the reason we’re in this mess. But the fact it’s taken so long for us to even be confident enough talking about the problem means we now have almost no time to do the work to get us out of it.

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