Comment and analysis: COP28 – a consensus that isn’t enough

Katie Kouchakji, IBA Environment Correspondent Friday 15 December 2023

In my years of covering the UN climate talks and the annual Conference of the Parties (COP), I’ve never seen one begin with so much unexpected – and good – news as COP28 in Dubai. On day one, countries agreed to establish the Loss and Damage Fund, which was quickly seeded with $100m each from COP28 host the UAE and from Germany. The Fund’s creation stands in contrast to years of ire and bickering about the need for countries who’ve contributed the most to the climate crisis (ie, developed economies) to pay to help those suffering the worst consequences of it. But had COP28 peaked too soon?

Initially, it seemed not. That first week of COP28 also saw 116 governments – 123 by the end of the talks on 13 December – sign the Global Renewables and Energy Efficiency Pledge, to triple installed renewable energy capacity to 11,000GW by 2030 and to double the global average annual rate of energy efficiency to four per cent every year to 2030. Energy efficiency will be placed at the heart of future energy policy decisions. The deal thus addressed both the oft-overlooked demand side of the energy equation as well as the supply side.

Further, 50 companies – representing 40 per cent of global oil production – signed up to goals to reach net-zero by 2050, reduce methane emissions to near-zero and eliminate routine flaring by 2030, and to invest in renewables and other low- and zero-emissions technologies. Signatories here include major oil companies Shell, bp, ExxonMobil, Total and Saudi Aramco. In a speech recapping the first four days of the talks, COP28 President Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber – who’s also the Chair of oil company ADNOC – noted too that over $57bn in new climate finance had been mobilised. Food supply, agriculture, water, youth engagement, nature protection and restoration – this COP had it all.

Twists and turns

And yet, from such a high, there was, alas, only one way to go. And down hard it went.

For beyond all the news and good words, this COP had a big task at hand: this session was also to host the first Global Stocktake of progress towards fulfilling the objectives of the Paris Agreement. This in turn is meant to inform the next round of countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the 2015 framework, due in 2025, and identify where ambition can and needs to be ramped up.

One of the big – pleasant – surprises at this COP was the growing chorus of voices pushing for the final high-level political decision to include a fossil fuel phase-out. Even resource-rich countries such as Colombia backed the move, with the country’s President Gustavo Petro telling the conference: ‘Some may ask, why would the president of this country want to commit suicide with an economy that relies on fossil fuels? We are trying to halt a suicide, the death of everything that is alive.’

Given that just two years ago the annual international climate talks first agreed to accelerate the ending of fossil fuel subsidies, we’ve come a long way in a short space of time, diplomatically.

As the talks entered the home stretch, however, a letter reportedly from the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Secretary General to the organisation’s members was leaked, warning that the mounting pressure for a fossil fuel phase-out puts ‘our people’s prosperity and future at risk’ and urging its members – including the UAE – to reject any language that specifically targets energy. The Secretary General didn’t comment specifically on the letter but stated that OPEC wanted to keep the summit's focus on reducing climate-warming emissions and that ‘the world requires major investments in all energies, including hydrocarbons’.

We needed a global green light signalling it is all systems go on renewables, climate justice, and resilience. On this front, COP28 delivered some genuine strides forward

Simon Stiell
Executive Secretary, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

This was then followed on 11 December by the release of a draft text for the Global Stocktake that was suddenly missing any mention of the phasing out of fossil fuels – despite such a proposal having been in every preceding draft in some format or another.

Thirty-five hours later, just after 0400 local time the day after COP28 was originally scheduled to end, a new draft text was put forward, which was adopted by the plenary – ie, the approximately 190 governments represented at the COP – a few hours later. This final decision, as it’s referred to in COP parlance, notes the urgency to act and cut emissions faster and that the world is not yet on track to meet the Paris goals, while expressing ‘concern’ that the Paris-aligned carbon budget is ‘now small and being rapidly depleted’.

It ‘calls’ on governments to ‘contribute’ to global efforts – according to national circumstances – on initiatives such as the trebling of renewable energy, reducing emissions from road transport and hastening the global phase-down of ‘unabated’ coal power. In a historic first, it endorses the development of nuclear power. As for proponents of a fossil fuel phase-out – they got paragraph 28, sub-paragraphs C, D and E, with sub-paragraph D specially calling for contributions to the ‘transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade’.

‘We needed this COP to send crystal clear signals on several fronts,’ said Simon Stiell, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, at the close of the talks. ‘We needed a global green light signalling it is all systems go on renewables, climate justice, and resilience. On this front, COP28 delivered some genuine strides forward.’

‘COP28 also needed to signal a hard stop to humanity’s core climate problem – fossil fuels and their planet-burning pollution. Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end,’ he added.

In a closing statement, Samoa’s Anne Rasmussen, Lead Negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), pointedly noted that representatives from these countries were absent when the final text was gavelled through, and so instead delivered the statement they would have given had they been present. While Rasmussen’s organisation welcomed some advancements, ‘the question we have considered as AOSIS is whether they are enough. Zoning in on paragraphs 26-29 of this draft decision we have come to the conclusion that the course correction that is needed has not yet been secured,’ she said.

And, with this statement, Rasmussen sums up what many think: ‘it is not enough for us to reference the science and then make agreements that ignore what the science is telling us we need to do. This is not an approach that we should be asked to defend.’

Others were blunter with their assessment. ‘It is frustrating that 30 years of campaigning managed to get “transition away from fossil fuels” in the COP text, but it is surrounded by so many loopholes that it has been rendered weak and ineffectual,’ said May Boeve, Executive Director of the non-governmental organisation ‘The prize is finally on the table – a phaseout of fossil fuels and a world powered by renewable energy – but rather than clearing the way to it, we’ve been presented with yet another set of distracting doors that could still hold oil and gas expansion, and we don’t know just where the finance will come from.’

The Dubai outcome is a start, but not enough. Expect to see intensifying calls for governments to decarbonise their economies – power generation, heat, transport are all easy, affordable wins many can realise now. For those that can’t – with Colombia noting how its decision to move away from fossil fuels tanked its credit rating and perversely made the cost of its clean growth plans more expensive – financial support is needed. Uganda’s Minister of Energy and Mineral Development Ruth Nankabirwa Ssentamu said during COP28 that the country’s transition plans would cost $70bn to implement, and that exploiting its fossil fuel resources could bring in $47bn.

Fairness and finance

It comes back to old arguments about fairness: developed countries became rich off the back of fossil fuel-driven economies, so developing countries shouldn’t be penalised for wanting the same and are justified in wanting help in growing cleanly. As well as the many several-billion dollar climate funds – including those created by the COP process – there’s also the prospect of finance via cooperation between governments. Here, Japan, Singapore and Switzerland are leading the way in deals to make use of the Paris Agreement’s Article 6 market-based approaches. This is despite governments not adopting the texts for the two market mechanisms in Dubai.

It is not enough for us to reference the science and then make agreements that ignore what the science is telling us we need to do

Anne Rasmussen
Lead Negotiator, Alliance of Small Island States

Finance will be a key item at COP29 next year in Baku, Azerbaijan, with parties needing to agree a new climate finance goal. Ahead of COP28, news broke that the 2009 pledge to mobilise $100bn annually by 2020 had finally been met, two years late. In 2025, governments will need to present their next NDCs, covering the period from 2031. Here, there needs to be clarity on what finance will be available to help those who need it so that this next round of pledges can be more ambitious.

And this is why the COP process – as frustrating and exhausting as it can be – matters. It helps keep the momentum and the pressure on governments to do more and holds them accountable on a world stage. Even with the Dubai outcomes receiving a mixed welcome, it still shows that multilateralism is possible, despite global conflicts. The challenge is for governments to bring that international willingness to tackle the climate crisis home and do the hard work on making a change.

While governing isn’t easy, a part of good governance is having the courage to take the difficult decisions, irrespective of the impact on electability. Time is fast running out for many to realise this and act.

Katie Kouchakji is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at

The IBA was represented at COP28. Watch our discussion on the role of lawyers in tackling the climate crisis here. Learn about legal capacity building, regulatory steps, and climate-conscious lawyering’.

Image credit: Rafael Henrique/