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5 golden nuggets you may have missed from COP28

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By Christopher Caldwell

· 7 min read

The fix is in.

As I write this, the ink is drying on the global stocktake document from COP28. ‘Fossil fuels’ appears for the first time, although with neither a ‘phase-out’ nor ‘phase-down,’ but a ‘transition away.’ 

Whatever the language, without reversing emissions it remains just talk – for now. If we can triple renewables – and then some – by 2030, we might start making real progress. But we also have to tackle the oil industry (more on that later).

Beyond the headlines there were other important elements of this year’s meeting that might have slipped under your radar, even as they offer crucial clues about the future of climate governance. 

Here are five nuggets from COP28 you might have missed.

1. Colombia picks up the torch

Let’s start with some good news. Colombia stood out for their inspiring leadership on moving away from fossil fuels, joining the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. This matters because Colombia is a big coal exporter itself, and is pushing for a new financial compact – a $3 trillion Marshall Plan for the SDGs – to solve climate and help developing countries leave their own resources in the ground. 

Sadly, their climate policy has been met with the opposite response from the financial sector – a credit rating downgrade. 

We need to incentivise climate ambition, not punish it!

(Interestingly, other elements of the private sector are showing more creativity, such as the CCCI and Rockerfeller’s announcement of a trial to use ‘coal-to-clean’ carbon credits to voluntarily retire an active coal plant in the Philippines ten years early.)

Nonetheless, Colombia were deserved winners of the Climate Action Network’s ‘Ray of the Day’ award for their vision, outspoken advocacy, and world-leading work prioritising indigenous rights, and labour and gender issues in the process.

Following Mia Mottley’s breakout last year, and the Pacific Islanders in previous COPs, it seems that real leadership is coming from the South. 

2. We need a fossil NPT – and momentum is building

‘Phase-out’ didn’t make it into the final document, but at least it was under discussion, say the optimists. That would have been impossible a few years ago, and that is a positive direction of travel.

Another encouraging sign is the further spread of other radical ideas into the mainstream this year – and a fossil fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty was one of those. This is a logical next step for what a ‘phase-out’ would look like in reality, in a world where we already have ten times more oil reserves than we can safely burn and exploration continues apace (led by ADNOC and western banks).

This idea was given another boost by Colombia (here they are again) joining the dozen-strong NPT alliance, with President Gustavo Petro explaining the decision beautifully: 

Some may ask: why would the president of this country want to commit suicide with an economy that relies on fossil fuels?…This is not economic suicide. We are avoiding the omnicide of the world.

This is an idea that deserves its moment in the sun. It will come.

3. Loss and Damage remains a bitter joke

The carefully choreographed announcement on loss and damage funding which opened this year’s summit was supposed to be a coup for Al Jafer. But when you dig into the details, it looks more like the work of an ironic TikTok comedian.

Pledges have amounted to $700 million so far. But the actual need is more like $400 billion every year – 500 hundred times greater than those promises.

The UK promised $75 million, but it turns out that was just a reshuffled and relabelled pot of money that was already committed.

The US promised $17 million. Just $17m from the world’s biggest economy, greatest historic polluter, and biggest natural gas exporter. 

If you think that $400 billion a year sounds an unaffordable amount, let’s put that into context.

The US spends more than double that on defence every year. So that’s 50,000 times what it pledged for loss and damage.

The world spends $7 trillion on fossil fuel subsidies each year. That’s 10,000 times total pledges so far.

Numbers aside, another COP has passed without any real progress on financing mechanisms. Most existing funding is mitigation. Loss and damage was left out of the critical Global Stocktake and Way Forward documents. The South is angry that the World Bank has been given the funding reins, and most financing is still loans. And the need for proper adaptation funding went ignored yet again, despite the fact that every $1 invested in adaptation saves $6 in loss and damage down the line.

The climate crisis is already here for these countries. Where is the money? 

4. A worrying failure on carbon markets

Another big hope was that we would settle on an operational framework for an official UN-sanctioned carbon market, as per Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. This is one of those technocratic sideshows that can actually make implementation a reality.

After a torrid year in which carbon credits have been (rightly) rocked by scandals and the bottom fell out of the market, a rigorous common framework would restore confidence. 

Unfortunately, Article 6 negotiations were amongst the most disputed and ran the furthest into overtime. This is particularly bizarre as these rules were supposed to have been settled by a technical body over the last year; but under the COP spotlight these talks essentially collapsed.

The US wanted a light-touch approach that would empower the private sector and voluntary markets. The EU, Africa and Latin America demanded a more transparent system focussing on integrity. The final ‘take it or leave it’ text contained provisions on confidentiality (i.e. avoiding scrutiny) that the EU-led bloc found unacceptable, and so it was rejected. 

Back to the drawing board next year…

5. We have a serious problem with fossil capture

Much was made of COP28 being hosted by a petrostate. Rightly so; the first draft of the GST – packed with CCUS and abatement and optionality - had the oil lobby’s fingerprints all over it.

Al Jafer aside, there were nearly 2,500 fossil fuel lobbyists with passes this year – four times as many as last year, outnumbering all but one of the national delegations. Nearly 500 lobbyists come from CCUS companies alone. A quarter of the 34 billionaires present (and their 400 delegates) made their fortunes from fossil fuels.  Russia was openly cutting oil deals. At least 166 climate denial and oil PR groups were in attendance, many with access to closed-room negotiations unavailable to civil society. 

Next year will be no better. Petrostate Russia vetoed an Eastern European host (whose turn it was in the UN rotation) and instead COP 29 will be hosted by another repressive petrostate, Azerbaijan. Over half their GDP and 90% of their exports are from fossil fuels.

Has COP been completely captured?

On the positive side, many see this full-frontal assault by Big Oil – captured in OPEC’s rather desperate leaked letter – as demonstrating they see the writing on the wall. It is also encouraging to see how roundly that first text was condemned, including by go-slow giants like the US. Even moderates were repeating the ‘death certificate’ framing of small island states.

This is the real struggle for COP’s soul. We will never turn the corner – truly go from words to actions – without overcoming the fossil lobby. 

For now, we can all breathe out again. It’s another year until COP29. 

I’ll leave the final word to President Gustavo Petro, who put it beautifully when he said that all our crises are really one: the crisis of life. The only path is to bring peace to our planet.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Christopher Caldwell is the CEO of United Renewables, where he employs his past experiences as a corporate lawyer, investment banker, and team leader to lead all aspects of the business. Chris holds a degree in business from Trinity College Dublin, an MBA from London Business School, and is currently reading part-time at the Yale Center for Business & the Environment. 

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