Nov 30, 2023 - Energy & Environment

COP28 shows need for "ambition" to match reality

Illustration of a pen sitting in the weighing area of a scale surrounded by abstract lines and circles. The background is overlaid with a smoke texture.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

COP28 talks in Dubai spotlight a tricky question: whether ubiquitous calls for greater "ambition" can drive faster on-the-ground action to slash emissions.

Driving the news: The summit's "global stocktake" will set up the next national, non-binding pledges covering 2025-2035.

  • Look for more ad-hoc target-setting around clean energy, forests and more alongside the formal talks.
  • Also, you'll hear more about the importance of 2050 net-zero goals.

The big picture: How strong is the link between pledges, targets and actual deployment progress?

  • The voluntary 2015 Paris architecture has produced results.
  • Per UN analysis last week, policies when Paris was signed would have brought a 16% emissions rise by 2030. Today's projected rise is 3%.

Yes, but: It's tough to tease out precisely how Paris pledges, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), are changing emissions trajectories.

  • There are countless variables, like renewables costs declines and deployment growth outpacing forecasts.

And that UN report is stuffed with sobering data points like this: emissions would need to fall 42% by 2030 to hit the Paris deal's 1.5°C target, and 28% for its 2°C fallback.

  • Yet most nations aren't on track to meet existing 2030 pledges, despite some promising signs.

What they're saying: "My view is that the overall ambition has become disconnected from reality," David Victor, a UC-San Diego climate policy scholar.

  • He argued the world will not hold warming to 1.5°C or 2°C. Victor said firms and governments are doing a lot and must do more.
  • Still, "setting targets to align with 1.5°C doesn't help them do more because those targets are no longer economically and politically feasible," Victor said via email.
  • He'd prefer more focus on gleaning lessons from what's working on the ground.

The intrigue: Tufts University's Kelly Sims Gallagher argues action under NDCs has helped lower projected warming levels from a 4°C-5°C range.

  • Now the UN sees 2.5°C-2.9°C, which would still bring immense harms, if nations fully implement their pledges.

What's next: Sims Gallagher, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts, said stronger pledges can work in concert with tangible steps.

  • "The global stocktake should trigger a new round of target setting for the post-2030 period, but it is also an opportunity to create new systems to support the process of implementation and capacity-building," she said via email.

The bottom line: "We need both: increased ambition and a greater focus on implementation," Gallagher said.

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