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The Verdict of Dubai: Reflecting on COP28's Outcomes for Global Climate Action

By Stathis Poulantzas

This article attempts to critically assess the 2023 COP28 Summit in Dubai, over a month after its conclusion, by exploring its pivotal decisions and analysing their implications for global climate policy, while also highlighting its failures for agreements in key topics. Focusing on key topics discussed like fossil fuel elimination, nuclear energy or other renewable energy sources, and climate finance, it evaluates the summit's effectiveness in addressing urgent environmental concerns and setting a progressive path forward for climate change. The article aims to present an in-depth analysis of the political, economic, and environmental stakes involved, the roles of key nations, as well as the summit's potential long-term impacts on global climate goals. 

To commence, the debate stealing the show in Dubai surrounded the present and future of fossil fuels. Burning fossil fuels, the main cause of carbon build-up in the atmosphere, disrupts the natural carbon cycle and drives anthropogenic climate change, pushing the world towards a critical 1.5°C warming threshold, a situation widely acknowledged as needing urgent action. The main question on the topic is centred around whether we should “phase-out”, or “transition away” from fossil burning, with the latter eventually being agreed upon. Nevertheless, such a decision can be seen as a step back from the initial discussions of gradually eliminating this energy form, where no particular timeline was agreed. Another crucial concern about this decision is the reference to the role that transitional fuels, and especially natural gas, can have in the energy transition. On the bright side, countries have not agreed to transition away from burning fuels in almost 30 years, so this climate summit can be viewed as a diplomatic success on this topic

Another upside was the agreement of the delegations to phase out inefficient state subsidies for fossil fuels as soon as possible, with exceptions for cases addressing energy poverty or facilitating a fair transition. Nonetheless, given that major economies like the USA, UK, and other developed countries such as Norway continue to fund fossil fuel extractions, indicate that a significant journey lies ahead to eliminate these subsidies

Moreover, COP28 delegates from over 100 countries agreed to aim towards triple renewable energy capacity and double energy efficiency by 2030, a move expected to drastically cut carbon emissions and provide more widespread access to clean energy. Renewables nowadays are becoming ever more viable due to reduced costs, enhanced battery storage, and regulatory incentives. Thus, a push for their increased energy share is essential for the world to achieve a 43% emissions reduction by 2030, in order to stay below a 1.5°C temperature rise (right now at 1.1°C since 1980, according to Nasa). However, without addressing the injustices from unequal energy development, these improvements might continue existing inequities. Also, key players such as China, Russia, and India did not support this initiative, a significant obstacle to a worldwide climate agreement between all major actors. 

It is worth noting that special focus was granted to nuclear energy, a very important form of nuclear energy, especially endorsed by France and Japan, which nevertheless also bears numerous risks. The nuclear energy lobby during the summit worked hard to promote this energy form, especially small modular reactors. They pointed out that it can provide “realistic pathways to providing the clean energy that countries need to meet this goal (of reaching net zero emissions by 2050)”. However, it is vital to highlight that the construction of a nuclear power plant requires, on average, 15 to 20 years. If the dangers of nuclear reactors are additionally taken into consideration, it is arguably better to focus on safer and more short-term solutions

What’s more, most developing nations will severely struggle to significantly increase their share of renewable energy, as well as reduce their fossil fuel dependence, given the rising interest rates worldwide and their rising debt to GDP ratio. Especially taking into consideration that over 70 states are currently facing “debt distress” according to the IMF, it is clear that the global financial system and, crucially, the richest actors with large emissions, should restructure the debt of developing countries and provide large funds in order to facilitate their climate-focused investments

Recognizing these financial challenges, developed countries causing high emissions committed in the UAE to a climate loss and damage fund, first proposed in COP27 in Egypt last year, marking a crucial step towards addressing these disparities. Such a fund aims to assist vulnerable and developing nations most affected by climate change, helping them adapt and build resilience against natural disasters, sea-level rise, and biodiversity loss. Despite criticisms over the fund's logistics, including its funding and management, it is seen as a vital initial measure to direct aid to the most vulnerable communities. Although this action seems to be heading in the right direction, in reality, it nevertheless lacks substance; all developed countries participating have pledged a combined $700m, which does not even remotely come near the $400bn yearly attributed to climate change. In fact, it has been estimated that the fund will cover around 0.2% of the yearly needs of developing nations. In parallel, the two largest global emitters, the US and China, have only promised $17.5m and $10m respectively, to the fund, far fewer than the approximately $100m that the UAE, Germany, Italy and France have pledged

To note some more general points about COP28, countries also decided to accelerate the reduction of non-CO2 emissions and placed a special focus on cutting methane emissions globally by 2030 by around 25%. Delegates from over 150 states additionally endorsed a declaration for sustainable agriculture, resilient food systems, and climate action, while the FAO announced a plan to combat hunger, and a fund of around $2.5b was pledged for the protection of large forests. Finally, it is noteworthy that the EU was a valuable partner in negotiations, with its widely-known ambitious goals (55% greenhouse gas reduction by 2030, 90% by 2040, and climate neutrality by 2050), comprehensive policies across various sectors, and its support towards the gradual elimination of fossil fuels being all essential driving components in Dubai.

All in all, pressure was mounting for countries in the COP28 to adopt a new climate agreement amid growing gaps in the goals set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. While the summit was overall an important step forward, particularly due to the diplomatic breakthrough on the issue of transitioning away from fossil fuels, and the commitment to triple renewable energy, it also demonstrated the considerable distance that is yet to be travelled. At this critical point for global climate health, major emitters must make courageous environmental decisions. Without their leadership, we risk exceeding the crucial 1.5°C warming limit and jeopardizing an equitable transition for all nations. One can therefore understand that the stakes for the next climate summit, COP29, to be hosted by Azerbaijan, are immensely high. 

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