COP28 Missteps: Climate Justice and Undelivered Commitments 

Author: Anusha Arif


The recent COP28 Climate Summit was held in the United Arab Emirates from November 30 to December 12, 2023. More than 200 countries attended the summit, where leaders from governments, business and civil society organisations participated in negotiations & discussions on various themes to strengthen collective action to stop climate change. The COP28 was also accompanied by various side events that focused on disaster management and promoting community mental health, education campaigns for climate change mitigation and mobilising the power of the youth. 

The current presidency has announced that negotiations will focus on four pillars of climate action. These include fast-tracking energy transition and slashing emissions before 2030, climate finance promises, setting new framework deals, and focusing on climate action with a spotlight on nature, people, and livelihoods. In its letter to the parties, it also set an agenda to host an inclusive climate summit in July 2023. The UAE presidency had faced backlash from the global community based on their stand on fossil fuel usage as a country and recent plans to expand oil & gas.

Negotiations & Agreements at the COP28

On the first day of the conference, the parties agreed to a landmark deal to help the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries through a Loss and Damage Startup Fund to pay for the irreversible damage caused by climate disasters. The initial funding is nearly US$429m (INR 42.90 crore), of which the European Union pledged a large sum of $245m (INR 24.50 crore), including $100m (INR 10 crore) from Germany. The COP28 is also an important milestone because it marks the first Global Stocktake of the Paris Agreement established under Article 14. The Global Stocktake is an extensive assessment of global action on climate change to date, which has long been considered lacking across all areas.

Lowering the emission intensity of economies has been one of the most discussed matters at many previous COP meetings. Developing countries, including India, have voiced concerns about binding all countries to commit to the “phasing-out” of fossil fuels due to their growing economic needs. More than 100 countries already support a phase-out of fossil fuels; India has opposed the “phase-out” and alternatively proposed a “phase-down” to support its energy transition. 

At the COP28 negotiations, the developed countries, including the United States (US), the European Union (EU) and civil society groups, have opposed the exclusion of phasing out of fossil fuels from the global stocktake (GST) text. Developing countries face a major setback because of the latest GST draft and its strong opposition to coal dependency. This group of developing countries argue that developed countries must be held to a higher responsibility due to their historical contribution to climate change based on the common but differentiated responsibilities principle. The GST draft also gives various options for energy sector decarbonisation; however, it does not make any mandatory provisions. It also misses out on making any phasing out or phasing down of oil & gas and only focuses on coal, omitting any mention of the term “phasing out.” 

The draft has already received criticism for diluting many of its actionable items. It also gives a relaxed timeline of 2050 for reducing the use of fossil fuels. Many countries, including Finland, Austria, Iceland and Germany, had earlier made net-zero pledges before 2050. The new draft thus eliminates the difference between historical emitters and developing countries such as India. 

Some declarations unlocking crucial areas of funding, health, relief, recovery, agriculture, food and energy efficiency were also discussed. The COP28 UAE Declaration on Climate and Health stresses the importance of addressing the interactions between climate change and human health. It emphasises the need to build & transform the health system to be more pro-climate and climate-resilient. 143 countries have endorsed it; however, India is not a signatory to the declaration yet, owing to its concern about fulfilling the terms of the declaration in a short period. The country officials said in a statement that it is not practical for the country to curb its GHG emissions for cooling in the health sectors as vaccines & other drugs require cold storage rooms. 

Similarly, the Declaration on Energy Efficiency signed by 15 countries commits to triple the world’s installed renewable energy capacity to at least 11,000 GW by 2030. Additionally, the Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action pushes for scaling up adaptation and resilience activities while recognising the profound potential of agriculture & food systems to drive a powerful and innovative response to climate change. It also declares its intentions to support workers in these sectors in building climate-resilient agriculture practices, diversifying incomes, and strengthening integrated water management. 

Little progress and weaker ambitions 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has continually warned the global community that climate commitments must be driven up to avoid breaching the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold as committed under the Paris Agreement. Yet, the international community seems hesitant to make any concrete progress in reducing the impacts of climate change.

Since the COP27 in Egypt was held in 2022, many countries have faced an increase in the challenges faced by the urgency of climate change. Yet, it is not reflected in the agreements and negotiations at international forums. In the two years since the COP26, where the draft statement mentioned ‘phasing-out’ (which was changed to ‘phasing-down’ on India’s push) about the global use of coal, the GST draft uses vague and ambiguous language to address critical issues of fossil fuel dependency, decarbonisation & climate financing and yet the global south expresses criticism. The push from the developing countries is to call on the rich nations to vacate the carbon space by achieving negative carbon emissions and not merely to reach net zero by 2050. This, in turn, allows all countries to continue their fossil fuel dependency for the next few decades to fulfil their development promise. The COP28 also failed to push for the developed countries to vacate carbon space successfully. It made no sufficient provisions for decarbonisation by only giving countries various ‘options’ to make domestic efforts.

However, the final decisions on the GST draft will likely be delayed, and the countries will continue negotiations through extended talks over the next few months. Yet, the urgency of the climate crisis has been watered down, and COP28 has yet to deliver on the promises of finding more rapid solutions to the crisis.