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Climate accountability at COP28: bridging promises and progress

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By Yousra Salem

· 7 min read

This Thought Piece was written on the eve of COP28. We present it to you for its renewed relevance in the climate debate.

The paradigm shifts and the first-ever Global Stocktake

With global temperatures hitting record highs and extreme weather events affecting people around the globe, this year’s UN climate change conference, COP28, is a pivotal opportunity to correct course and accelerate action towards climate justice. Previous COPs have energized climate action and produced pledges from many governments. Still, there has been a big gap between ambition and action, and despite the promises, we’ve not seen enough progress. 

This year’s COP28 will take place in Dubai from November 30 until December 12, 2023, and is expected to be a moment of accountability and action as the discussions will be heavily focused on paradigm shifts to deliver systemic changes and the first of the Global Stocktakes (GST) of the implementation of the Paris Agreement (beginning in 2023), which aims to assess the world’s collective progress and closing gaps towards achieving climate goals. The COP28 President, Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, wrote a letter to the parties in July 2023, setting out his vision for the talks. He has made it clear that this COP intends to create a call to action focused on four paradigm shifts:

  1. Fast-tracking the energy transition and slashing emissions before 2030.
  2. Transforming climate finance by delivering on old promises and setting the framework for a new deal on finance.
  3. Putting nature, people, lives, and livelihoods at the heart of climate action; and
  4. Mobilizing an inclusive COP where heads of state and government, alongside leaders from civil society, youth, indigenous people, and other sectors, will come together to discuss plans to scale climate action.

The event will also conclude the UN’s first-ever Global Stocktake. In this main accountability event, countries’ climate negotiators will assess the progress in achieving climate goals, including reducing emissions to minimize global temperature increases and advancements in climate adaptation “to keep 1.5 C alive”. The Global Stocktake synthesis report released in September 2023 revealed that the world is off track from achieving the Paris Agreement’s goals to hold global temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, and ideally 1.5 degrees Celsius and emphasized the closing window of opportunity. But it also charts a path forward, providing a roadmap for the transformations needed to dramatically decarbonize economies, build resilience, and safeguard our future. If the GST is undertaken effectively, it should inform existing and next climate action plans known as “nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs, for each signatory country of the Paris Agreement to set out its national plans for reducing emissions and climate adaptation to be put forward by 2025. 

Stumbling blocks and stalemates: the Loss and Damage Fund

The COP chief called for global action to boost climate finance in areas of loss and damage, and the request was met with silence remarkably as wealthy nations have not fulfilled their promise to mobilize £100bn of financing to climate-vulnerable countries, raising a warning that these climate negotiations are not going to be straightforward. According to Al Jaber, expectations are high, but trust is low.

The Paris Agreement did not set firm standards for financial and technological assistance of wealthier countries like the US to the developing world; with no enforceability, they didn’t stick to the pledges and promises. At COP27 in Egypt, a hard-fought agreement was reached to create a loss and damage fund to assist developing countries most vulnerable to climate change. In the run-up to COP28, a transitional committee faced contentious rounds of talks trying to operationalize the loss and damage fund, failing to reach an agreement, providing an early indication that those talks may not progress smoothly. The Global South’s vulnerable countries demanded accessible climate financing. They urged COP28 to lay the foundation to strengthen international cooperation on the loss and damage fund, technology transfer, and capacity building needed for local action on climate adaptation and mitigation.

Climate change disproportionately impacts vulnerable groups; the uneven distribution of burdens is immensely felt in the Global South. The Pacific Small Islands States (PSIDS), who are least responsible for climate emissions, have been bearing the brunt of the climate crisis and campaigning for recognition of loss and damage in international negotiations for decades to no avail. In a PSIDS gathering ahead of COP28, officials demanded the big greenhouse gas emitting countries take responsibility for climate finance to deliver promises on climate justice. They reiterated the heightened frequency of natural disasters, exposure to economic shocks, displacement, and migration of the frontline communities; the lack of recourse to adapt to these challenges exacerbates the problems and wastes valuable time for PSIDS to build resilience. The world cannot overlook the historical contributions of the powerful industrialized countries, including the US, Canada, the UK, and now China, to current warming and emissions, which means they have a responsibility to lead, not only in terms of cutting their own emissions but also in supporting the climate response in less developed countries.

Shifting the landscape of corporate fossil fuels in climate policy

Businesses were also called out in the GST’s Net-Zero Transition Charter for accountability mobilization for the private sector to take meaningful climate action and commit to producing a credible net-zero transition plan, reporting annual progress, and committing to robust validations processes simultaneously investing in the low carbon transition, focusing on people, lives, and livelihoods, and underscoring everything with full inclusivity. The uncertainty about the future regulatory landscape and the lack of political will to enforce change across sectors would risk the GST becoming an information-sharing exercise coupled with broad, unactionable recommendations. 

COP28 was mired in controversy before it even began due to the participation of oil and gas businesses and the UAE being a petrostate. Climate campaigners raised concerns about the sincerity of the commitment of the fossil fuel companies. Despite the mounting evidence of the detrimental impact of fossil fuel emissions on the planet, these companies continue to prioritize short-term profits over long-term environmental sustainability. Fossil fuels have infiltrated climate talks since COP9 in 2003, and their only contribution was blocking progress, opening floodgates, and opening floodgates of greenwashing and oil and gas deals to keep exploiting fossil fuels and hamper climate efforts. Many questions on social media platforms, especially from younger groups wondering about the paradoxical notion that oil and gas companies can rectify the climate problem they played a pivotal role in creating and that no industrial group in modern history has ever been part of the solution to the problems they have caused, except when accountability has been enforced, demanding COP28 to enact the measures to rein in these companies and ensure a radical shift towards renewable energy and change in their business model.

Embracing the challenge with hope for a better future

Despite the storm of criticism these negotiations face, COP28 presents a pivotal moment to match the skepticism about the event with tangible actions to reestablish trust and foster greater transparency and accountability. These conferences are a vital and unique opportunity for nations to come together and collectively address the pressing issue of climate change. While criticisms may highlight shortcomings, they also spotlight the urgency of the matter, compelling stakeholders to reassess and strengthen their commitments. 

Nations and corporations should be held to stringent, measurable targets, and progress should be regularly reported and scrutinized. Additionally, there is a need for a more inclusive and equitable approach, ensuring that the most vulnerable nations and communities have a meaningful voice in shaping climate policies. Collaboration on technological advancements and sharing best practices could further enhance the effectiveness of climate actions. Furthermore, COP28 should prioritize concrete steps toward transitioning to renewable energy sources, coupled with stringent regulations to curtail emissions from fossil fuels. Establishing a robust framework for financial support to developing nations for climate adaptation and mitigation is essential, reinforcing the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. By addressing these crucial aspects, COP28 has the potential to not only regain trust but also spark meaningful change towards a more sustainable and resilient global future.

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

Yousra Salem is a sustainability professional specializing in supply chain and energy. Yousra started her career in oil and gas, working globally in 8 countries. After seeing the ecological crisis with her own eyes, Yousra decided to move to sustainability and work to overturn socio-environmental injustices.

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