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Progress and limitations

What Happened at COP28, and Should I Care About It?

Kailey Luzbetak
December 15, 2023

It’s December, which means holiday shopping, turning the heaters on, and… hearing about the world’s biggest climate change conference on the news?

This year’s United Nations climate change conference – arguably the single most important in the world – marks the 28th COP. COP stands for Conference of the Parties, and one has taken place every single year in late fall (except, of course, in 2020). The first COP was held in Berlin, Germany in 1995, and this year, attendees met in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The decisions and agreements made at COP28 shape our immediate and long-term future. Past commitments to expand green energy, for example, have led to key subsidies for renewable industries, making solar and wind more affordable for many. On the other hand, inaction and failed commitments have contributed to the rapidly warming planet that we are all living on today.

Clearly, COP28 is relevant to all of us. But the conference itself is massive – an estimated 70,000 people will attend this year’s gathering – and it can be hard to follow what is going on there. Here, we’ve compiled a few of the conference’s highlights to help you make sense of what exactly happened in Dubai and what the implications are for citizens and energy users in the United States.

Misinformation and the Power of Fossil Fuel Supporters

The influence of the fossil fuel industry at this year’s conference became quickly apparent when the president of COP28, Sultan Al Jaber, claimed that there was “no science… that says that the phase-out of fossil fuels is what’s going to achieve 1.5 degrees C.” While the brazenness of this comment is shocking, he is not the only one denying basic climate science at this year’s conference. In fact, by one investigation, there are more fossil fuel industry lobbyists at COP28 than any previous COP.

COP28 is the first year that the U.N. required participants to disclose their employers. And this requirement proved what many scientists and advocacy groups have worried to be true: there are more delegates representing the fossil fuel industry at COP28 than any single country delegation besides Brazil and the UAE.

So why would so many fossil fuel delegates go to the conference where nations are ostensibly working to phase out fossil fuels? There are a few reasons. First, and most obviously, oil and gas companies are interested in downplaying the role that fossil fuels play in warming the climate. But they also have something to gain from the way nations try to reduce emissions, too.

At COP28, many countries are negotiating carbon credits. Carbon credits are like environmental “points” given to companies for emitting less pollution than is allowed. Companies can sell and trade points to other companies that might be exceeding their pollution limits. In theory, this creates an incentive for everyone in the market to reduce their overall carbon emissions.

But, as fossil fuel companies are well aware, carbon credits don’t quite work so simply. As some scientists have pointed out, there is potential for carbon offset projects to offer a false sense of environmental accomplishment, allowing companies to continue emitting greenhouse gases instead of making genuine efforts to reduce their overall carbon footprint. This is exactly what fossil fuel advocates hope for. Recent studies have also raised concerns about the effectiveness and reliability of certain offset projects.

All that said, by the end of the conference, 200 countries agreed to a commitment to transition away from fossil fuels, the first time they’d actually used that language. While it’s not the wording many wanted of ‘phasing out fossil fuels,’ it is still a step in the right direction.

Expanding Nuclear Power

Another one of the biggest take-aways from this year’s COP is a widespread commitment to expanding nuclear energy production. As many experts have highlighted for years, nuclear energy will be a key way that countries transition away from the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. 22 nations, including the United States, have signed a declaration that plans to triple the amount of nuclear energy produced globally by 2050. The representatives argue that the only way to limit total warming to 1.5 degrees celsius is to dramatically expand nuclear production. This is a huge and unprecedented political commitment to nuclear energy!

So, why talk about nuclear now, but not in the past? For starters, nuclear energy has historically been a bit taboo – and not just at COP conferences. Because of devastating historical incidents (including, most famously, Chernobyl), many civilians are understandably skeptical of nuclear power and worried about safe storage. On top of that, nuclear facilities tend to have a big price tag, making states hesitant to invest in them.

However, there are some sectors that are stubbornly difficult to reduce their carbon footprint, such as hydrogen production and petrochemical processing. Nuclear energy is a cleaner alternative. It can also help support other green energy production by stabilizing electricity grids. For this reason, many experts see nuclear energy as complementary to renewable energy options like solar and wind power.

Climate Justice

One of the more contentious parts of the annual U.N. climate conference is the division between developed countries, which have already moved through their industrial revolutions and contributed significantly to climate change in the past, and poorer, vulnerable countries that are juggling developing with keeping their emissions low. To make matters even more complicated, many of the countries that have historically emitted the most – including the United States – will not bear the worst consequences of a warming planet. On the other hand, small island nations and countries throughout the global south have contributed virtually nothing in emissions, but will now be faced to bear the brunt of climate change’s looming impacts (from sea level rise to droughts).

At COP27, history was made when parties agreed to the establishment of a Loss and Damage Fund, which committed money to countries that will likely suffer the worst and most immediate impacts of climate change. While experts agree this move was long overdue, many worry that the financial commitments were not enough to keep vulnerable countries safe. Others have critiqued the slow pace of the funding disbursement.

This year, the parties agreed to adopt a new Loss and Damage fund, starting at a pool of $429 million. Some outlets are heralding this as a victory, likely in part because for the first several decades of the conference, developed countries were unwilling to budge. However, some of the countries receiving those funds argue it is far too low to meaningfully address climate impacts.

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