Dec 4, 2023 - Energy & Environment

In Dubai, COP28 brings cash, pledges and doubts

Photo illustration of COP28 banners in Dubai, smog in India, money and abstract shapes.

Photo illustration: Maura Losch/Axios Visuals. Photos: Sean Gallup/Getty Images, Sunil Ghosh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.

The super-sized climate summit unfolding in Dubai steadfastly defies any single narrative, but big themes are already emerging.

The big picture: These two-week events move on two fronts.

  • One is the kaleidoscope of pledges from ad-hoc clubs of nations and the private sector.
  • The second: formal diplomatic talks that typically bring drama and then compromise at the 11th hour. The following breaks down the early takeaways:

Oil companies are at the table: Big oil CEOs attended and COP28 head Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber launched the "Oil & Gas Decarbonization Charter," with dozens of firms signed up.

  • They're committing to tackling emissions from their own operations, specifically aiming to nearly stamp out methane by 2030.
  • Members together make up 40% of global oil production and include state-owned giants like Saudi Aramco and corporate giants like Exxon.

Climate groups fear a desert greenwash: That new oil club drew quick pushback.

  • Activists point out that Paris Agreement temperature targets mean getting away from burning fossil fuels, not just cleaner production.
  • Critics include UN boss António Guterres, who said "promises made clearly fall short of what is required."

The scale of new commitments is huge: The cash-and-pledges portion this year includes:

  • Host UAE announced a $30 billion climate fund alongside, working with financial heavyweights like BlackRock.
  • A very partial list of others: Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners unveiled its $3B Growth Markets Fund II, and a $2.5B EU pledge to help fund energy transition.
  • Meanwhile, many countries are endorsing a tripling of nuclear energy by 2050, and over 100 endorsed tripling renewables capacity by 2030.

Yes, but: These promises come with plenty of asterisks. None of these pledges and targets force anyone to do anything, and mileage may vary.

  • One example: VP Kamala Harris pledged $3 billion to the multilateral Green Climate Fund, but Capitol Hill Republicans are unlikely to agree.

The formal negotiations are fairly smooth so far, with an early breakthrough on the "loss and damage" fund. But heavy lifting remains.

There's new meat on the bones of some important existing initiatives.

  • The Al Gore-launched Climate TRACE, which provides granular emissions tracking, said it's now tallying 352 million separate assets (!).
  • That's important because on-the-ground emissions-cutting requires detailed understanding of specific sources. Full announcement.
  • Meanwhile the Energy Transition Accelerator — a carbon credit and finance platform the U.S. and philanthropic giants unveiled at COP27 — produced a detailed "core framework" for how it will actually work.

Splashy announcements and huge attendance at events outside the formal negotiating rooms are reaching new levels this year.

Zoom out: The mammoth summit is the latest phase in the multiyear evolution of UN climate summits. They've expanded from just wonky diplomacy into Davos-esque gatherings that feature tons of pledges.

What they're saying: "[T]he messy, complicated work of decarbonization happens in the real world and across industries and sectors in the real economy, one step at a time,"Daniel Firger of Great Circle Capital Advisors, said via email. It won't happen "through the stroke of a United Nations pen or the careful wording of a diplomatic decision," he adds.

  • But the challenge is "distinguishing the signal from the noise," he said, adding this doesn't happen in real time and that dust needs to settle.

Nathaniel Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said sideline deals at COP are hardly new.

  • But they have "grown in importance over time, as the role of 'coalitions of the willing,' public-private partnerships, and voluntary climate action by companies has grown."
  • It takes a suite of actors to keep Paris Agreement goals possible, he said over email.

Yes, but: Don't forget what's happening in the negotiating rooms, climate vets warn.

  • "We need to remember #COP28 is not a trade show & a press conference. It's an international negotiation & that is still the most important part," Mohamed Adow, head of the NGO Power Shift Africa said on X.
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