COP28: Celebrating the Crumbs 

Photo: COP28 UAE/Facebook

After 28 years of international climate negotiations, the COP summit finally reached an agreement to transition away from fossil fuels. The mention of fossil fuels is in itself a breakthrough. But it is low-hanging fruit in regard to the clear scientific evidence for the need for a fossil fuel « phase-out if we are to remain below 1.5°C.   

For Pacific Countries, climate change is the biggest threat to a safe future. A clear, binding and financed agreement to end fossil fuels is not just a matter of words, it is a matter of survival. Many countries walked away frustrated at the weak language and « litany of loopholes» of the agreement, allowing for continued production and consumption of coal, gas and oil.   

Fossil Fuel Transition  

The decision not to adopt language to phase-out fossil fuels is disappointing to the Pacific Island Nations, who know the science shows a phase-out is the only way to keep the 1.5°C goal within reach. Against the backdrop of 2023 being declared the hottest year on record, every fraction of a degree of temperature rise signals the death warrant for many island nations who are on the frontlines of climate impacts.   

On the side of the main agreement, pledges and alliances such as the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance and the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Paving Past Coal Alliance, Coal Transition Accelerator, Clean Energy Transition Partnership, the Joint Statement on Phasing Out Fossil Fuel Subsidies, and the Oil & Gas Decarbonisation Charter can offer promising pathways to facilitate an effective transition. However, voluntary pledges such as these can only be measured by real action. Some seem to be attempts at ‘greenwashing’ by oil and gas companies, and some fossil fuel producing countries.  

The decision to triple renewables to install a capacity of 11TW by 2030 is welcome, as is the decision to double energy efficiency from 2 percent to 4 percent. The Pacific Island countries hope that the benefits from such an investment will flow through by way of technology to help with their energy security.  

Global Stocktake (GST)  

The GST has shown that countries are falling short of their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that are supposed to ramp up emissions reduction over time. Many of us, members of the Pacific Elders’ Voice (PEV) were in leadership positions in 2015 and took active part in the negotiations leading to the adoption of the Paris Agreement. We followed, with interest, the discussions on the GST, to see how pledges and actions taken by countries over the last 10 years or so match up to the intentions under the Paris Agreement.   

COP28 was the culmination of the first GST, the outcomes of which inform the next round of NDCs (to be finalised at next year’s COP) which will extend through to at least 2035. The GST text demonstrates a stark contradiction in the recognition of the urgency to respond to the climate crisis and the means it suggests will achieve this. The decision “recognises the need for deep, rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions”, but fails to create impetus to end reliance on fossil fuels. In this critical decade, vague COP commitments to “contribute to transitioning away from fossil fuels”, and “accelerate climate action” are a major gain for fossil fuel producers. For the Pacific, all it means is a slower death sentence.  

Loss and Damage  

The loss and damage fund, launched in the opening hours of COP28, has a long way to go before it can adequately achieve its remit – to provide financial support to countries including Pacific Island nations to address unavoidable climate harm. At its launch, the fund failed to set a goal for the level of funding necessary to support developing countries’ needs. The $770.6 million in committed funding at COP28 is a weak start, when loss and damage costs have been estimated at US$400 billion. Sadly, loss and damage has not been embraced as an ‘independent third pillar’.  

Notably, the fund does not oblige developed countries to contribute, nor set an expectation for the size of any contribution – it simply relies on charity. It was not unnoticed that while Australia pledged $150 million in climate finance for the Pacific at COP28, it did not make a contribution to the loss and damage fund. The US committed a miserly $17.5m, subject of course to approval from Congress!  

The process by which funds will be allocated is also unclear. The announcement of a 26-person board for the Loss and Damage Fund with majority of members from developing countries, is welcome. Pacific Island nations should be strongly represented.  

The Global Goal on Adaptation requires further targets and timelines for implementation. The countries who need and deserve help responding to the climate crisis should not wait any longer for promised money that never arrives.  

Environment  

While fossil fuels were centre stage, environmental issues like food systems, deforestation, nature and health, and oceans also featured, and COP28 included a Nature, Land Use and Ocean Day. Key outcomes included the Joint Statement on Climate, Nature and People, endorsed by 18 countries including Palau and Samoa, which pledged coherence between the next NDCs and National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs). It is reassuring that synergy between UN Climate Summit and UN Biodiversity Summit outcomes is a priority.  

In recognition of climate threats to food availability faced by vulnerable communities, and the need to tackle emissions from food systems, 158 countries including many Pacific Island countries (Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu, Samoa, Palau, Tonga, Nauru) signed the COP28 UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action. However, the Declaration lacked specific language and targets and legal binding. It thus remains unclear what impact it will have.  

Following the success of the UN Ocean Treaty earlier in the year, oceans were also on the agenda.  But while the GST calls for a “strengthening of ocean-based action”, it does not contain specific commitments nor milestones to protect oceans and coastal systems. The call for more “ocean-based mitigation action” is also worrying in that it casts the ocean as a carbon-absorbing solution rather than a system to protect. The announcement that the Organisation of American States joined the High-Level Ocean Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy is welcome.  

Private pledges made on the side of the official negotiations including the $100 million Bezos Earth Fund committed to help Pacific Islands restore and maintain their coastal environments, and the Coral Reef Breakthrough which aims to secure $12 billion to protect coral reefs, are welcome. However, it is dangerous to rely on private investment to protect oceans and coastal ecosystems from the worst impacts of climate change. More is required by international governments to prioritise better climate outcomes for environments and oceans.  

Strategies for the Future  

Despite the pledges, the bold statements, the heartfelt rhetoric from the global community, small island states have been abandoned at COP28. Pacific Island leaders and civil society organisations should be praised for their moral integrity and tireless fight for the survival of their communities – always, but particularly over the last two weeks.    

It was great to see so much interest in COP28, with unprecedented numbers from Pacific Island countries (Fiji, Palau, RMI, Samoa & Tuvalu had over 50 in their delegations, and similar numbers from the regional organisations including PIFS, SPC, and SPREP). Samoa’s performance as AOSIS Chair was commendable. Marshall Islands ably supported the High Ambition Coalition (a brainchild of the late Tony de Brum), with the Minister staying back for the final moments when their leadership mattered.   

Despite great efforts from Pacific delegations, we regret that the process was not as inclusive as it ought to be. That AOSIS Pacific representatives were not in the room when the final decision was made reveals the true character of our ‘allies’.  Hilda Heine, a member and former Chair of PEV resigned from the COP28 Advisory Body at the start of the COP.  

In her communication to the COP President, she cited that ‘fossil fuels were at the heart of the crisis’ and expressed deep disappointment that the ‘role of COP Presidency has been used to promote oil and gas interests, and the actions undermine the integrity of the COP Presidency and the process as a whole’.   

Whilst ‘science’ was used to prosecute arguments from all sides, the words of the AOSIS Chief Negotiator during the final plenary: “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”, must remain the cornerstone for progress.   

Pacific unity and solidarity could not be more important. COP28 showed how Saudi Arabia and the Gulf allies could use their wealth and unity to prevent significant progress. COP28 also set a record of attendance for fossil fuel lobbyists, with 2456 lobbyists, up from 636 last year in Egypt – this is more than any country’s delegation, apart from Brazil and the UAE.   

More than words, strong action is needed from countries that currently have hundreds of fossil fuel projects in the pipeline, such as Australia. It is the view of the Pacific Elders’ Voice that the only consensus reached in Dubai is that humanity is secondary to the financial interests of the fossil fuel industry and their enablers.   

For now, we can only be hopeful from the small gains and continue to have faith in the multilateral process.

Pacific Elders’ Voice is an independent group of prominent Pacific leaders.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication.

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