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Delegates walk past a logo of the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December10 2023. Picture: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS
Delegates walk past a logo of the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December10 2023. Picture: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS

The UN climate negotiations (COP28) that took place in Dubai at the start of December concluded with a package labelled the “UAE Consensus”.

Key elements of the package adopted are decisions on the global stocktake (a collective assessment where the world stands on climate action and support), a fund for loss and damage through which vulnerable countries will be provided with financial assistance to deal with the effects of climate change, a framework for better understanding progress on adaptation, and just enough progress on finance.

Much of COP28 was about keeping the goal to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C alive. The world is now dangerously close to this limit set as part of the Paris Agreement reached in 2015. Whether COP28 in Dubai kept the 1.5°C limit in reach depends on what happens next in terms of reducing emissions, adaptation to the impacts of climate change, recovering from damage, and mobilising climate finance.

Stocktaking

The first global stocktake (GST) was the major outcome from Dubai. The GST is popularly known as the Paris ‘ratchet mechanism’. We know that when you add up the contributions by countries to cutting global greenhouse gas emissions, which are “nationally determined” by each country, these contributions do not add up to enough in reducing emissions, in responding to impacts, recovering from loss and damage, or finance.

The GST is about how we all do more, collectively. It needed to succeed to show that the Paris Agreement can work. While the GST decision is a product of compromise, and far from perfect, it takes important steps forward. Further than any other COP since Paris. The UAE COP28 sent strong signals. It’s up to all of us to hear them and act, and support each other.

Transition from fossil fuels

For the first time in three decades of climate negotiations, there is a clear statement that the world needs to move away from all fossil fuels. Not only coal, but also oil and gas. 

Paragraph 28d of the GST decision is worth citing in full, calling for: “Transitioning 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”.

The science is assessed by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its latest assessment of what is needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C indicated global average emissions reductions to 43% below 2019 by 2030, 60% by 2035 and net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. The GST decision puts these findings into policy.

Yet global targets do not mean every country has to get there at the same time. That’s why the text emphasises that the shift must be just and equitable. That’s a key message for SA. What is needed are “deep, rapid and sustained reductions” in emissions, including from SA.

Such reductions are not possible without reducing consumption and production of fossil fuels. Yet even that is not a silver bullet. The GST outcome also calls for tripling of renewable energy and doubling of energy efficiency by 2030.

Another paragraph has a veritable smorgasbord of technologies — renewables and nuclear; carbon capture and storage (unproven at scale, yet it had to be there for fossil producers to agree), and green hydrogen.

The decision notes that renewable energy technologies and storage technologies have declined dramatically in price over the past decade. All said, the elephants in the room — all three fossil fuels — have been named. And they are on their way out.

Climate finance

Finance always is central to COP outcomes negotiations and in practice, it remains a key enabler for more ambitious implementation by developing countries, together with technology transfer and capacity building.

International public climate finance remains important  — that is developed countries providing finance to developing countries. The importance of public finance lies not in absolute amounts but in setting direction, providing grants and buying down costs of capital.

The GST decision complements this with an agreement to continue talking about the broader finance flows, which must support lowering emissions and climate-resilient development. The outcome is about public and private finance. However, on delivering actual finance in general, there was not much progress in the UAE but parties did agree on a fund for loss and  damage (L&D), and support for adaptation.

The decision on the L&D fund was adopted on the first day of the COP. Establishing a fund is a significant victory for developing countries and communities vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Some initial contributions were made, but these are in the millions of dollars, far short of the multiple billions of dollars needed. All depends on the process to capitalise the fund that will follow.

It is clear that financial support for support adaptation should also grow. Developed countries had previously agreed to double adaptation finance, but starting from small amounts. The GST makes clear that such doubling is not sufficient to meet existing needs. The costs of adaptation will increase as temperature increases. Support is thus needed to implement the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) set by countries to reduce emissions , and national climate adaptation plans — this will require a much larger increase in adaptation finance.

In 2024, the amount of a new finance goal, higher than the existing $100 billion per year, will be set. More of that should go to adaptation, whereas donors prefer to fund mitigation at present.

Adaptation

The adaptation section of the GST decision is relatively weak, less concrete on action than mitigation. Critical ways of strengthening information were agreed, early warning systems and inventories of impacts. The saving grace for the UAE Consensus is a framework for the global goal on adaptation (GGA).

The GGA is primarily a recognition in the Paris Agreement that adaptation is a global responsibility and that countries and people which will be most affected by climate change, contributed the least to its cause and are least able to adapt.

The framework is a culmination of a two-year work programme, and a far longer struggle by developing countries to set clear parameters to define needs, to assess progress in implementation, and to provide a detailed picture of the support needs of developing countries.

COP28 set some global targets, for water, health, agriculture and other key themes. Further work was set up in the UAE to develop indicators to track progress — and this will keep adaptation on the agenda.

Just transitions

Much of the public debate on climate in SA is about our just energy transition. It is crucial for SA to address any negative impacts the energy transition away from coal and towards more renewable energy will have on communities or workers. The GST “underlines that just transitions can support more robust and equitable mitigation outcomes, with tailored approaches addressing different contexts”.

Just transitions are different in each country. COP28 adopted a UAE Just Transition Work Programme. Two dialogues will be held each year and create an important space in which countries can learn from each other, share lessons from their successes and failures, and seek international support as required.

The UAE Consensus took significant steps forward. The package went much further than the agreements reached in Glasgow in 2021 during COP26, on almost all counts. The GST as the centrepiece showed that the Paris Agreement can still work. However, the definitive test will be whether the outcomes of these annual UN climate negotiations are implemented.

Next steps

In response to the GST, countries will now prepare their next NDCs, due in early 2025. And this time countries must take into account the outcome of the GST. SA, and all other countries, need to show how we will do more.

The COP processes are an unparalleled attempt by humanity to solve a complex, high-stakes problem of the global commons. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change does this through collective action, by consensus, without voting. In a world riven by wars and fragmentation, the UAE Consensus helps to restore some faith in multilateralism and th eability of people to come together for the common good.

• Winkler and Marquard are at the University of Cape Town. They write in their personal capacity. 

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