COP28: beginning of the end or end of the beginning?

Thoughts on COP28 conference outcomes and the road ahead

COP28 climate summit stands out as the largest and arguably most discussed Conference of Parties yet. Occurring in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, it was mired in controversy yet resulted in several solid climate agreements that suggest a shifting tide in global ambitions to address the climate crisis.

COP28: Beginning of the end for the fossil fuels era?

Jumpstarted with the long-awaited launch of a Loss and Damage Fund, COP28 concluded the first Global Stocktake, a comprehensive assessment of global progress on the full scope of climate issues to date accompanied by ambitious pledges to triple global renewable energy capacity and double energy efficiency by 2030, peak global emissions by 2025, significantly scale up adaptation finance and prepare economy-wide NDCs. This was complemented by other groundbreaking climate firsts, like emission reduction pledges for cooling, methane, and ground transport, alongside progress in integrating human health and food security considerations into the climate response.

Most conspicuously, for the first time in 28 years of UN climate negotiations, the COP28 final text - UAEConsensus included forceful language calling on nations to “transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly, and equitable manner… so as to achieve net zero by 2050...

While these accomplishments are laudable and one can call it a historic moment, one should acknowledge there have been too many “historic” moments in climate negotiations. Keeping in mind that COP decisions, as well as pledges and declarations, are not legally binding, their implementation into national policies and revised NDC submissions relies heavily on the political discretion of individual countries. Thus, the critical imperative remains the adoption of precise and effective rules, encompassing national climate laws and policies to facilitate the transition to a net zero. This is not merely an easy task, as it should happen in the context of decreasing geological stability, ongoing energy crises, and businesses pushing back on commitments despite the research-proven economic benefits of the green transition.

Two months after the COP28 was completed, the concerns over loopholes posed by ambiguous UAEConsensus are coming true - none of the major historical emitters is implementing policies to move away from fossil fuels but actively expanding production. Canada is launching the $23.05 billion expansion project to triple the flow of crude oil to 890,000 barrels per day, the UAE state oil company ADNOC is expanding its oil production capacity from four million barrels a day (bpd) to 5 million bpd by 2027 and the UK adopting Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill to boost oil and gas extraction in the North Sea.

The latest study from January 2024 indicates that we are not on track to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement and predicts global warming to reach 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. Continuing substantial fossil fuel use for decades longer constitutes a tragic moral failure of immense proportions. The narrow chance remains to correct course by radically transforming global energy systems. And it looks like we are losing the chance.

COP29: End of the beginning?

COP29 will be hosted by Azerbaijan, fossil fuel production of which represents 40% of the nation’s GDP. Though the government set a target for 30% renewable energy integration by 2030, it expands oil and gas exploration in the Caspian Sea, which echoes the UAE’s contradictory climate positioning. Compounding concerns, Azerbaijan saw 30 wrongful dissident imprisonments in 2022 amid strained human rights conditions, displacing tens of thousands in renewed conflict with Armenia, undermining its credibility in “convening different players in a spirit of inclusion and compromise” on the world stage.

Ultimately, COP29’s success may hinge on compelling reflection on what a just transition entails for petrostates. The influence of fossil fuel interests, combined with the support of authoritarian regimes and dictatorships so far has been diluting international climate action. The substantial financial investments in the expansion of oil and gas infrastructure worldwide exacerbate the situation. With people and ecosystems hanging in the balance, accelerated action of the biggest polluting nations and businesses guided by moral courage, not equivocation or obstructionism, remains imperative. Let the COP29 slogan be: “If not now, when?”

P.S. While the main attention at COPs is always around formal negotiations and final documents, the most important developments happen beyond the spotlight. In noisy country pavilions, water fountain lines, or late-night metro trains academics, businesses, and activists have passionate debates over “out” or “down”, climate justice, rights of nature, and the last gasps of capitalism. And this is where and how climate action is truly built.  So, my personal takeaway from COP28 – do not wait for governments, corporations, or big ‘others’ to act. Take action yourself!

* The author, Ievgeniia Kopytsia, is a fellow of Tarello Institute and an MSCA4Ukraine fellow at the Law Department of the University of Genoa. Drawing on a background in environmental, energy and climate law, her research takes a look at how to ensure resilient and resistant climate law in the poly-crisis era. This article is supervised by Andrej Kristan, Professor of Philosophy of Law at the University of Genoa.

di Ievgeniia Kopytsia*