COP28: Hot air or real climate progress? Yes and yes

Photo by: International Labour Organization via Flickr

Much has already been opined on the outcome of COP28, and while the world’s foremost climate conference is known for spawning tension and frustration, this one seemed especially fraught.

It’s not surprising. This is the first COP where we are face-to-face with the reality of breaching the 1.5C warming limit that was the central thesis of COP21. It was also the first to be chaired by an oil and gas executive, putting a crude spotlight on the conflicting interests that have become entrenched in the COP process.

Indeed, the gathering was mired in controversy before it even began, after it emerged that the United Arab Emirates had plans to use its position as host to do backroom oil deals. The tone wasn’t exactly improved when the conference president proclaimed that a fossil fuel phaseout would “take us back into caves.”

Despite seemingly unsurpassable differences, a deal was reached at the eleventh hour (another COP tradition). And not wanting to miss our chance to chime in on the outcome, we’re sharing our top takeaways from this year’s gathering:

The elephant in the room

The debate about oil and gas’s presence at the climate action table has reached new decibels. As many countries and industries pivot to embrace the economic opportunities that accompany the energy transition, oil and gas is arguably the last and largest elephant in the room. And this year’s COP finally looked it in the eye.

The final wording included a commitment to transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems “in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.” It represented a significant concession from the “phase out” language that over a hundred countries had pushed for. The lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States described the deal as
“an incremental advancement over business as usual, when what we really need is an exponential step change in our actions.”

And yet, as many commentators have been quick to point out, some progress is still progress. To borrow the words of writer Ketan Joshi, “COP’s consensus model will only spit out results that are the weakest and worst… (but) if the absolute basic bare minimum is shifting in the right direction, it’s likely the median is too.” The deal marks the first time that many oil- and gas-producing nations have been willing to even engage in a discussion about the future of fossil fuels—a move that some say would have been “unthinkable” just two years ago. 

Canada showed leadership

Going into COP, Canada’s reputation on the climate world stage had lost a little of its lustre. Canada was publicly called out at the UN’s September Climate Ambition Summit for being “one of the largest expanders of fossil fuels last year.” And during COP, the government of Alberta was awarded the satirical “Fossil of the Day” award by the Global Climate Action Network for being “the best at being the worst and doing the most to do the least.”

But during a week when many petrostates were fighting to delay action to reduce fossil fuels, Canada announced the world’s first oil and gas emissions cap along with important regulations to curb methane emissions. The cap, as we said at the time, is both necessary and fair and represents the last line of defence to ensure that Canada’s fossil fuel industry doesn’t put the country offside its climate commitments. As the Globe and Mail’s Adam Radwanski put it, “Ottawa has ostensibly taken the domestic fossil-fuel sector at its word that it’s both willing and able to extract oil and gas more sustainably than its international competition. The ball is now in industry’s court.”

In other less headline-generating (but nonetheless important) news, Canada made a number of agreements on industrial decarbonization. As part of its membership to the Industrial Deep Decarbonisation Initiative, Canada signed a new pledge to procure low-emission steel, cement, and concrete in public construction projects, cementing Canada’s leadership in driving the global decarbonization of heavy industries. In a similar vein, Canada co-led the Cement & Concrete Breakthrough Initiative to “enable countries to share best practices on a range of policies and other measures to decarbonize the cement and concrete sector.”

The dollars and cents

The conference kicked off with an agreement to pay loss and damage funds to developing countries that are battling the worst impacts of climate change. The initial commitment totalled a pretty meagre US$429 million, with Canada committing an even more meagre $16 million. The timeline and size of replenishing of the fund was also not clear, raising questions about the longevity and sincerity of the commitment. This loss and damage fund is separate to the yet-to-be-fulfilled climate finance commitments made in COPs past. 

These loss and damage dollars paled into insignificance next to a new US$30 billion fund announced by COP President Sultan Al Jaber in collaboration with global asset managers BlackRock, Brookfield, and TPG. The new fund, dubbed ALTÉRRA, aims to attract $250 billion of investment by the end of the decade to “steer private markets towards climate investments and focus on transforming emerging markets and developing economies.”

The world embraces renewable power

After the U.S. and China made a historic deal last month to triple renewable power by 2030, 110 countries—including Canada—joined in. The new pledge, co-launched by the EU and the UAE, saw countries commit to tripling global renewable capacity by the end of the decade. It’s indicative of the huge leaps forward in renewable power generation in recent years. The International Energy Agency has reported record-breaking amounts of renewables added to global electricity systems each year, while think tank Ember recently suggested that worldwide emissions from power generation may have already peaked.  

But, as we wrote in a recent op-ed, this sort of endorsement for variable renewables like wind and solar hasn’t been common in Canada over the last several years. Only recently have we seen Nova Scotia, Quebec, B.C., and Ontario lay plans for more wind and solar, and even then, there have been stops and starts. Alberta, the solar capital of Canada, slapped a moratorium on new renewable development, putting at risk both jobs and investment. With the global winds powering a shift to renewable energy, it’s high time Canadian political leaders shed any outdated ideas about renewables. 

At the end of another tumultuous gathering, there is perhaps one significant piece of common ground to be found. In his closing remarks, COP President Sultan Al Jaber said, simply, “We are what we do, not what we say.” For the first time, the world has agreed to transition away from fossil fuels. Now, we must do it.

This post was co-authored by Keri McNamara.

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