Chart: The Conversation/CC-BY-ND Source: Saunois et al. 2020

World - COP28 begins: 4 issues that will determine if the UN climate summit is a success, from methane to money

The United Nations climate conference is underway in Dubai, and representatives from around the world will be confronting an extraordinary array of challenges over its two weeks. They carry with them some long-held – and new – grievances, and strong expectations.

Framing the agenda is a “global stocktake” – an assessment of progress toward the 2015 Paris Agreement to keep global warming in check. Unsurprisingly, as record-breaking extreme heat has underscored so powerfully in 2023, the world is not on track.

To cut emissions, progress is needed on national economic and fiscal policies, such as taxing pollution and ending subsidies for fossil fuels that are even higher today than before the pandemic, and on funds and commitments to speed a global energy and economic transformation. Funding for adaptation and disaster recovery is also high on the agenda.

A chart shows current trajectories leveling off but still far from the goals, which require a drop in emissions.
The United Nations’ 2023 Emissions Gap Report shows current national plans would produce levels of greenhouse gas emissions far above the trajectories for keeping global warming under 2 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial times. NDCs, or Nationally Determined Contributions, are countries’ pledges to reduce emissions. UN Environment Program

There is an undercurrent of deep skepticism in some quarters about the leadership of this year’s COP28 president, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, who also heads the United Arab Emirates’ national oil company. Recent news reports suggest the UAE may have muddled its roles by seeking oil and gas deals with countries while at the same time presiding over negotiations of when – not if – to phase out fossil fuel emissions. Al-Jaber has denied the allegation.

I have been involved in climate negotiations for several years as a former senior U.N. official. Here are four issues I’m watching that will indicate whether COP28 makes material progress.

Stopping methane emissions

In 2021, 149 countries signed the Global Methane Pledge, with a vow to cut methane emissions 30% by 2030. Now, the world needs to see action, from everyone.

Durwood Zaelke, a veteran of multilateral environment negotiations, describes methane as global warming’s “blow torch.” The greenhouse gas – and primary ingredient in natural gas – traps about 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide over the short term. But since it only lasts about a decade in the atmosphere, stopping methane emissions can have an immediate impact on global warming.

There is reason to expect progress on methane at COP28. Chinese and U.S. officials announced in November that they would host a methane summit during the conference. And all eyes are on the UAE to see if it can flex its diplomatic muscles and bring remaining oil- and gas-producing countries – such as Turkmenistan, Iraq and Iran – to the table along with national oil and gas companies across the world.

Human activities account for about 60% of global methane emissions, with about a third of that coming from leaking fossil fuel equipment, gas flaring and abandoned oil and gas wells and coal mines, and another third from agriculture. This year, for the first time, agriculture’s role in climate change is a key focus of the conference. But fossil fuels are the best target for cutting methane emissions quickly.

The International Energy Agency estimates methane emissions from fossil fuels will have to fall 75% this decade for the world to stay within the internationally agreed limits of the Paris climate agreement.

The pressure is on the UAE to broaden the industry’s commitments to stop the leaks, to ensure that industry players make substantial financial contributions to fund technical help in developing countries, and to turn pledges into the foundation of a binding international agreement to zero out methane emissions.

Paying for loss and damage

During the 2022 climate conference, nations agreed to establish an international Loss and Damage Fund to channel financial support to vulnerable and low-income countries that are facing compounding climate disasters, despite having done little to cause the climate crisis.

A proposal for how to design that fund is now with negotiators at COP28 for adoption, and no one is entirely happy with it.

The proposal has a broad definition of who would be allowed to draw from the fund, describing recipients as “developing countries that are particularly vulnerable.” Countries that were formally considered “developed” when climate negotiations began in the 1990s would be “urged” to pay into the fund, while other now-wealthy nations would be “encouraged” to contribute.

The proposal also names the World Bank as the trustee for the fund’s first four years, a choice that some developing nations argued puts too much power in the hands of wealthy nations.

The Loss and Damage Fund is just one stream of financing for developing countries. The conference needs to make progress on funding adaptation more generally, as well as driving investment in mitigation.

Restoring integrity in carbon markets

There has been growing interest in the potential of voluntary carbon markets – now worth about US$2 billion – to fund mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.

Voluntary carbon markets allow companies to invest in projects such as protecting forests or installing renewable energy and then count the expected emissions avoided as a drop in their own emissions. But these markets have come under fire as investigative reporting showed that many forest projects couldn’t deliver carbon credits as promised and the companies that bought the credits weren’t cutting their emissions.

Many groups are working to fix the problems, in particular by establishing principles and a code of practices for “high-integrity” markets. Under these voluntary rules, companies would commit to develop their own plans to transition to net-zero emissions and only use projects to offset the residual emissions they cannot reduce on their own.

The UAE is keen to show how voluntary carbon markets can get more finance flowing to developing countries. At the same time, however, no oil and gas company has a credible pathway to net-zero emissions, so there will be intense scrutiny of the quality of any announcements.

Finding innovative ways to finance everything

Several proposals are being floated to help fund projects and recovery funds related to climate change.

One is to charge fees for “overconsumption” that drives greenhouse gas emissions, or international solidarity taxes. For example, French President Emmanuel Macron has signaled a willingness to explore international fees on business class air travel, international financial transactions, bunker fuels in shipping, and excess or windfall profits from fossil fuel companies. While supported by Kenya, Barbados and others, this potential new stream of financing has yet to be embraced by the U.S. or other advanced economies.

The UAE has worked hard to galvanize the international community to triple renewable energy capacity and double energy efficiency by 2030. Look for announcements from the UAE of new investment funds to ramp up renewable energy.

In the last year, there has been an uptick in efforts to blendphilanthropic capital with public development finance and private investment to increase investment. I expect to hear announcements of new investment funds, not just for energy, but also for nature protection and improvements in food systems.

The UAE’s last dash of diplomacy before COP28 focused on securing commitments to big announcements and breaking the impasse between developing countries that need investment and developed countries that haven’t upheld their promises. But the scale of investment needed requires a whole of economy approach this decade.

It is the COP president’s role to get everyone to raise their ambition and act on it without delay. The result will determine whether COP28, beyond splashy announcements, is a win for the world.

Read more.