Science & Tech

Why I’m (Cautiously) Optimistic About COP28-TGN

The most obvious demand is for countries to close the gap between their targets and policies. Empty promises mean nothing. Countries need to put real, tangible policies in place to drive down emissions.

Ambitious targets to scale up low-carbon technologies will be a key pillar. In its 2023 “Roadmap to Net Zero by 2050” report, the International Energy Agency called for a tripling of renewable energy capacity by 2030. Nearly all of this will be solar and wind. If the world wants to peak and reduce global coal production, this is essential.

This target looks like it will be spearheaded by the European Commission. Earlier this fall, it laid out its COP28 position, and a tripling of renewables was central to its negotiating position. Rapid scale-up of renewables is unlikely to be a point of controversy (although the rate might be).

What will be much more contentious is the call for a global phaseout of “unabated” fossil fuels—fossil fuels burned without carbon capture and storage. That reduction is what the European Commission is asking for. Two years ago, there were fiery debates over a phaseout of coal. In the end, a watered-down agreement was made for a “phasedown of unabated coal”: Coal consumption was to be a smaller part of the energy mix, but not eliminated completely.

Last year India called for this phasedown to be extended to all fossil fuels. Eighty countries—including those in the European Union—backed this proposed extension to oil and gas, but with strong resistance from others. The same dynamic can be expected this year, with some countries in fierce opposition. I am reasonably optimistic about an ambitious target for renewables, but I’m skeptical about the likelihood of a global agreement on phasing out (or phasing down) fossil fuels.

This is concerning because growing low-carbon technologies won’t be enough to stop climate change. Real commitments to drive down fossil fuels will be essential; they need to be actively pushed down as we charge up solar and wind.

Fundamentally, the climate talks are about money. This year will be no different. There will be increasing tension between developed and developing countries, as rich countries have fallen short on their previous commitments to provide $100 billion per year in climate finance to help low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) invest in low-carbon technologies and adapt to climate impacts. Exactly which LMIC countries should receive climate finance, and how this should be spent, has remained contentious.

Once again, talks on a “loss and damage” fund—where rich countries that have contributed the most to the problem pay for climate damages in lower-income countries—will be top of LMICs’ agenda. Some countries have agreed to a blueprint proposal in the past few weeks, but that will need to be finalized next month. The fund will initially be housed at the World Bank, and how much countries should pay into it is still undecided. I expect those conversations to be heated.

Arguably the most progress happens away from the main stage, in side-room discussions. Private-sector investment and innovation are crucial, whether that’s financing low-carbon projects, implementing adaptation measures, or building new technologies. Reaching net zero will require solutions from every sector—not just electricity and transport, which dominate the headlines—but cement, steel, and agriculture too. It’s in the corridors that these solutions are built and partnerships are made.

I expect COP28 to leave me in the same pessimistic-optimistic state I’m in today. There will be positives that move us further forward, but this progress will leave us short of where we urgently need to be.

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