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Was the COP28 climate meeting a cop-out – or something bigger?

A big energy transition is coming, but not necessarily quickly.

- December 14, 2023
Large field of photovoltaic arrays at a Hawaii solar power station.
Photovoltaic panels at a Hawaii power station, by Reegan Moen, U.S. Department of Energy

The global climate summit in Dubai – formally, COP28, the 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – had to go into overtime but has now concluded. Global leaders are heralding the final deal as a breakthrough on acknowledging the need to transition away from fossil fuels. Yet experts point out the deal does little to create new levers to reach this goal. 

But it is important to remember that decarbonization has significant momentum behind it. The big takeaway here is that an energy transition is coming – though it may not be as fast as needed

Blathering on while the world burns? 

It can be easy to dismiss climate diplomacy as ineffective. Climate activist Greta Thunberg famously derided high-level speeches on climate as just “blah, blah, blah.” As the world is increasingly experiencing harms from climate change, the pressure grows for fast action to stop emissions as soon as possible. And so does the need for spending, both to adapt to climate change and to help make up for the losses and damages of those suffering from negative impacts. 

The 2015 Paris Agreement from COP21 put forward the goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius and pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees C. It also set up the system of country-level promises – Nationally Determined Contributions. These promises have become a key piece of the ongoing climate negotiations. The assessment of these efforts – a “global stocktake” – just took  place in Dubai.

The Special Report on 1.5C published in 2018 argued forcefully that impacts from a 2-degree C rise in global temperatures were far worse than 1.5 degrees C. The 2018 report stated clearly that the world needed to cut emissions in half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 to stay on track to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees C. Instead, 2023 will see emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses reach new highs. This kind of bad news is becoming so routine the U.N. Environment Programme titled its 2023 report on emissions “Broken Record.“

Much of the ink spilled about this year’s COP28 meeting focused on specific language in the final resolution related to reducing emissions from fossil fuels. A year before in Sharm El Sheikh, the COP27 report called for “accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power.” By many lights, COP27 “flinched,” only using ”phasedown” for “unabated coal” and ignoring oil and natural gas. 

This year, many expected a more fulsome call for phasing out all unabated fossil fuels. But it seems as if Saudi Arabia, among others, objected. Given its reliance on revenues from oil, Saudi Arabia represents a classic example of the kind of holder of “climate-forcing assets” that will treat climate mitigation as “existential politics,” as Jeff Colgan, Jessica Green, and Thomas Hale wrote in International Organization. Saudi Arabia intends to resist calls for the ending of its chief export. 

The COP28 president, Sultan Al Jaber – who heads the state oil company of the United Arab Emirates – had similarly claimed that fossil phaseout would “take the world back into caves.” The final text elides these objections, saying that states should be “rapidly phasing down unabated coal” and “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly, and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade.” 

The references to speed here are important. A gradual path to net zero by 2050 yields a far higher level of global warming than one where emissions are cut quickly. 

Unanimity means everyone

The institutional rules that require consensus for adoption of a given climate resolution show the promise and perils of unanimity. Those concerned about climate change often attack consensus rules as leading to weak results. If every petrostate has a veto, then the resolution has to be acceptable to make it past that gauntlet. 

However, we also tend to downplay the flip-side perspective. The requirement of unanimity also means that microstates, such as island nations that worry about their future survival if their territories are submerged, have a voice beyond their political or economic might. A representative of the Marshall Islands also framed climate policy in existential terms, saying that they will not “go silently to our watery graves.” The institutions that structure political processes like the unanimity rules at COP have tradeoffs, and ignoring the benefits by harping only on their weaknesses presents a distorted picture of their net effects. Indeed, the loudest applause at the conference was not for Al Jaber announcing the decision’s adoption but when the representative from Samoa said that this falls far short. 

Tripling renewables is this year’s big pledge

More significant than the sturm und drang over phase down/phase-out/transition language was the pledge to triple renewables. While full decarbonization of the economy is quite difficult, clean electrification is the clear centerpiece of such efforts. So that makes this year’s target of tripling renewables by 2030 particularly significant. In the 12 years from 2010 to 2022, the world tripled its renewable energy capacity. The 2023 resolution follows the International Energy Agency’s “Net Zero Roadmap” to do so again over the next eight years. 

New financial commitments at COP28 to achieve such a tripling were slim. But rapid price declines of solar panels and batteries makes these clean technologies the cheapest way to produce electricity that the world has ever known. And if deployed capacity increased to 11,000 terawatts, as envisioned, renewable energy would massively displace fossil fuels. 

Will this actually happen? The IEA recently projected in its World Energy Outlook that in its basic “stated policies” scenario, renewables would grow from 30% of electricity generation this year to 47% by 2030. However, a net zero trajectory of tripling renewables would essentially double the share of renewables in the generation mix, to 59%. So while renewables are being deployed rapidly in any case because of their underlying economics, to do so at the pace required to keep the 1.5C goal in sight necessitates even more deployments. 

Of course, it isn’t that simple. There are geopolitical tensions to navigate, questions of equity, technological uncertainty, and concerns about mining the materials needed to construct the zero carbon energy system, among others. But for today, perhaps, one can take solace in the “UAE Consensus” and judge that their claim that “We United. We Acted. We Delivered.” is more than just the usual blah, blah, blah.