COP28: every fraction of a degree counts!

The climate summit in the United Arab Emirates (30 November to 12 December 2023) will revolve primarily around the Global Stocktake: an inventory of where we stand in our efforts to combat climate disruption. This needs to form the basis for a thorough course correction. We asked Ulrik Lenaerts (FPS Foreign Affairs), deputy head of the Belgian climate delegation, to explain more.

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Photo of a forest fire

This year, fierce forest fires raged in British Columbia (Canada) (© Shutterstock).

The climate summit in the United Arab Emirates (30 November to 12 December 2023) will revolve primarily around the Global Stocktake: an inventory of where we stand in our efforts to combat climate disruption. This needs to form the basis for a thorough course correction. We asked Ulrik Lenaerts (FPS Foreign Affairs), deputy head of the Belgian climate delegation, to explain more.

This year, we in Belgium were spared major climate-related disasters, while doom was raining down elsewhere, including in Europe. Scorching forest fires ravaged not only Canada, but also Cyprus. Slovenia was hit by deadly storms and flooding. Spain experienced exceptional temperatures of up to 38.8°C as early as April. It seems the climate is changing faster than expected. Last October was by far the warmest October on record worldwide. Never before has there been so little sea ice in Antarctica.

Yet massive subsidies continue to fund fossil fuels. Mega-corporations continue to invest in oil and gas, and even coal, because – so they say – fossil fuels will be needed for a long time to come. While a country like China may install massive amounts of solar panels, the volume of fossil fuels there has continued to grow in recent years. Global carbon emissions are also rising. Growth is levelling off but there is still no sign of a bend in the curve

Countries around the world now have climate goals, but the increased demand for energy means that these efforts need to be stepped up further. We are way off course. A combination of energy saving, ramping up investments in renewable energy and phasing out fossil fuels is necessary to limit heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Photo of solar panels with some apartment buildings in the background

Solar panels on a wastewater treatment company in Fujian province (China). The country is installing a massive number of solar panels, but it also continues to use more and more fossil energy (© Getty Images).

An oasis in a desert

Against this backdrop, climate negotiations continue relentlessly. 'We can rightly regard them as an oasis in a desert of geopolitical tensions,' says Ulrik Lenaerts (FPS Foreign Affairs). 'Even though we are making slow progress, all the countries remain motivated and are cooperating quite well.' Lenaerts negotiates for Belgium within the EU and the UN and knows the internal workings inside out.

We should also not lose sight of the fact that much progress has been made already as a result of the Paris Climate Agreement. 'Before the Paris Agreement, we were facing a scenario of 3.8°C heating by the end of the century,' explains Lenaerts. 'Based on the very first country contributions to reduce emissions – the Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs – we had reduced that scenario to 2.8°C heating. Today, calculations with the new NDCs are around 2.1°C to 2.3°C.' (editor's note: according to a report by the UN Environment Programme UNEP that appeared after the interview, we would still be heading for a warming of 2.5°C to 2.9°C).

Every hundredth of a degree counts

And this makes a huge difference: 3.8°C would be an absolute disaster scenario. But even 2.1°C heating remains drastic, as we reported last year, and even 1.5°C heating will have far-reaching consequences. Just consider the extreme weather phenomena and disappearance of coral reefs and glaciers we are currently seeing at 1.1°C to 1.2°C heating.

'If we continue to emit 40 gigatons of carbon every year, the remaining carbon budget leaves us 6 to 7 years to meet the 1.5°C target,' says Lenaerts. 'That's extremely tight, because that means practically halving global emissions by 2030 and then having net zero emissions by 2050. But perhaps we should not fixate solely on the feasibility of the 1.5°C target and just do everything we can to limit heating as much and as quickly as possible. Every fraction of a degree, even every hundredth, counts! After all, every fraction of a degree makes a world of difference.'

Photo of the river the Yser, with some houses, trees and a windmill in the background

At the time of writing this article, there were floods in the Westhoek. Due to climate disruption, these types of disasters can occur more often (© Getty Images).

Global Stocktake

COP28 in Dubai (United Arab Emirates or UAE) offers a unique opportunity for another chance. Lenaerts: 'COP28 will be much more important than COP27 in every way. After all, the Global Stocktake is being completed in Dubai. Then we'll assess the collective progress made towards the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement, based on science and equity. What are we achieving and what aren't we achieving? On that basis, we should then chart paths to meet the goals, by 2030 and beyond. In short, COP28 needs to show a strong commitment to still meet the Paris goals and send a clear signal that a change of course is needed.'

What change of course are we talking about?

The Paris Agreement on climate stipulated that global heating had to be limited to well below 2°C compared with the pre-industrial level, preferably 1.5°C. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has calculated that we can only achieve this if we halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and become climate neutral by 2050. The latter implies a net elimination of greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, what we inevitably still emit must be absorbed by forests, land and oceans, and by capture technologies. Since current country contributions are insufficient, all countries need to formulate new efforts in 2025 for 2030 and 2040 to still be climate neutral by 2050.

That will require a serious but not impossible change of course. The COP28 presidency is proposing four 'paradigm shifts' to grow into a society that combines low greenhouse gas emissions with a sustainable economic model where no one is left out.

  1. Fast-tracking the energy transition and slashing emissions before 2030

    This requires tripling renewable energy and doubling energy efficiency by 2030, rapidly phasing out fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil), shifting to fossil-free transport including through electrification, and so on.
  2. Transforming climate finance, by delivering on old promises and setting the framework for a new deal on finance (see also box 'after COP27')

    Emerging and developing countries need more than $2.4 trillion in annual investments by 2030. This will require a reform of the financial architecture with stronger international financial institutions alongside innovative, holistic solutions to attract private capital.
  3. Putting nature, people, lives, and livelihoods at the heart of climate action

    The goals of the Paris Agreement are not possible without progress on nature, food and agriculture, health and water. Biodiversity but also ecosystems such as forests and oceans that store carbon must be protected. But we must also stand up for those on the front lines of such protection, such as women and indigenous peoples. Sufficient attention to adaptation and loss and damage entails mitigating the suffering of people and ecosystems (see box 'After COP27...').
  4. Mobilising for the most inclusive COP ever

    All stakeholders should be included: women, indigenous peoples, local communities, youth, sub-national players such as mayors and local leaders, and so on.

Decade of last chance

Where does it keep faltering? 'While there is a great deal of political goodwill around climate globally,' notes Lenaerts, 'the message that efforts so far have fallen vastly short is still not getting through. Progress is still not fast and large-scale enough. Countries still tend to point out others who need to do more or pay more. This is why it is so important to continue to meet multilaterally. After all, only if you sit down together and make agreements together will all countries get sufficient assurance that the other countries are also making enough efforts.'

Multilateralism is also crucial for the much-needed energy transition – more renewable energy and greater energy efficiency. After all, this transition is driven by macroeconomic laws and needs long-term political certainty. When interest rates rise, borrowing becomes more expensive and it becomes temporarily less attractive to invest. Plus, when a critical commodity such as lithium and nickel becomes too cheap, companies have less appetite to set up mines. But such aspects should not call the perspective into question. 'Commodity prices are always volatile. This is another reason why politicians must provide unwavering certainty about the goal of climate neutrality. It guarantees that investments will pay off.'

And this is exactly what this COP28 aims to accomplish: formulating much-needed renewed commitments that are tied into sound COP decisions. After all, this decade is the decade of last chance.

Ahmed Al Jaber: the 1.5°C target is the 'North Star'

The choice of the host country – the United Arab Emirates – has already attracted much criticism. Among other things, due to the fact that Ahmed Al Jaber – chief executive of the UAE's largest state-owned oil company – is also chairing COP28, which is intended to herald the phasing out of fossil fuels.

Still, Lenaerts shows satisfaction with the UAE presidency so far. 'Al Jaber is very much aware that fossil fuels' days are numbered and that the only growth sector is in renewable energy and energy efficiency. I did not find him expressing any opposition to an ambitious outcome during the preparations for COP28. On the contrary, he refers to the 1.5°C target as "the North Star'.'

'What is more, he has gathered a diverse and highly qualified team around him,' Lenaerts adds. 'Among others, an architect of the Paris Climate Agreement, a former head of IRENA – the renewable energy agency – and figures from COP26 in Glasgow... The major priorities of COP28 were quickly known and there is a real intention to take the reins of the negotiations. And you cannot reduce the UAE too much to an oil-producing country. As COP chair, they represent the entire Asia-Pacific region. And that includes many small island states for whom the water is literally lapping at the door sill.'

Furthermore, the UAE aims to make the COP as inclusive as possible where all strata of society will be covered. Climate activists will have ample space to gather and be heard. 'Inclusivity and transparency are essential for a sound climate policy,' Lenaerts believes. 'A good example is the EU's Fit for 55 package, which could only come about because of broad political and societal support.'

Fit for 55 remains agreed on

Lenaerts firmly denies rumours that climate is now a lower priority within the EU. 'The Fit for 55 package is the EU's biggest legislative package in 10 years. Except for a few details, it is completely finished. So the goals have all been agreed on. And that means reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% – compared to 1990 – by 2030. The package was even tweaked so that it can achieve a 57% reduction.'

An important task awaits the Belgian EU Presidency in the first half of next year, by the way. A new legislative proposal must be submitted with new targets by no later than six months after the Global Stocktake. Exactly within the period of the presidency, in other words.

Belgium participates in negotiations

As usual, the Belgian climate delegation will again be putting its best foot forward. The goal is the most ambitious change of course possible. Research institutions and companies are also getting on board, not to negotiate, but to represent the Belgian energy transition sector. They include Cockerill, Jan De Nul, VITO, Fluxys, to name a few. Finally, the competent ministers are also travelling to Dubai: Prime Minister De Croo, Climate Minister Khattabi, Energy Minister Van der Straeten and the regional ministers of Energy and Environment.

Our fingers are already crossed for a bold and united climate summit.

After COP27, what progress has been made regarding...

1. Loss and damage

The most vulnerable countries pressed hard for regulation on loss and damage at COP27; this refers to the damage caused to countries by natural disasters and slow evolutions such as rising sea levels, despite all the efforts to adapt or reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

To this end, they formed an alliance with the G77, a group now numbering 134 'developing countries', which (still) includes the major emerging economies with significant CO2 emissions such as China, India and Brazil. In the end, an agreement was reached with innovative elements on financing and a clear focus on vulnerable countries.

A transitional committee still needed to convert the agreement into a practical form afterwards. The negotiations were very difficult, but in the end the committee managed to work out a raft of recommendations. These clearly state that the funding base should be broader than just the typical donor countries. In other words, other countries that are financially able to do so, the private sector and innovative financing must also be able to contribute.

It is also essential that the full UN system is involved. Most of the resources should flow to the most vulnerable countries that are also strongly represented in the management bodies.

Lenaerts: 'Everyone had to make some major compromises, but both the EU and I assess the final result as positive. We expect the agreement to be adopted at COP28 without too much discussion.'

2. Climate funding

It was a difficult task, but the $100 billion will be reached in 2023 without issues. The rich countries promised to give that money annually to poorer countries to fight climate disruption, as agreed in the Paris Agreement. The poorer countries strongly pushed for this, and rightly so.

'Belgium is at least chipping in,' Lenaerts says. 'We increased our contribution from 100 million euros to 150 million euros annually. What's more, our country is extremely strict in calculating what qualifies as climate finance.'

'But we must not lose sight of the fact that the road to climate neutrality will require several trillions in investment,' he adds. 'And that in turn is a point that the EU is pushing: how to make broad investment flows coherent with the Paris Agreement. Developing countries interpreted this to mean that the rich countries wanted to divert attention from their promise to spend public money. More trust needs to grow in that area between developing and developed countries.

Regardless, the COP28 wants to go very broad in its ambitions, including stronger financial institutions (World Bank, International Monetary Fund, regional development banks, etc.), in addition to debt relief and alternative sources of financing such as climate taxes.

3. Adaptation

The poorer countries want to take a more quantitative approach to adaptation to the inevitable consequences of climate disruption. In other words, quantifying how much money can be put towards it. 'But a general, quantified adaptation target is highly complex; countries differ too much from one another,' says Lenaerts. 'For example, the Fiji Islands and the Maldives are having to adapt mainly to sea level rise and the salinisation of their fresh water, while a country like Austria, due to lack of snow and ice, mainly feels an impact on its winter sports activities. It's hard to capture that in a general measurement.'

This is why the focus has been on the policy cycle. 'That way we can have process objectives. Is there general coverage of early warning systems by 2030? Are there adaptation and monitoring plans in all sectors?'

However, the challenge remains to tie tangible aspects to those process objectives. 'Consider a drastic decrease in the number of people without access to potable water or an increase in food supply. In fact, these are goals very similar to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They should be formulated so that progress is measurable.'

4. Mitigation

The solid alliance of the most vulnerable countries with the G77 concerning loss and damage has stood in the way of progress on other issues. Certainly around mitigation, parties continued to tread water. Thus, COP27 provided no momentum to reduce greenhouse gas emissions faster to still meet the 1.5°C target. 'Temperature targets still remain crucial,' Lenaerts believes. 'If you don't do anything about that, you're just mopping up while the tap's still running.' The Global Stocktake at COP28 hopefully offers another chance.

What major country groups are involved in climate negotiations?

Broadly speaking, there are three key groups:

  1. The rich countries with EU, Norway, USA, Australia, etc.

    They stand for an ambitious climate policy, but think the other major economies should also do their part.
  2. Vulnerable countries with the small island states, Africa, some Latin American and Asian countries

    They also want ambitious climate policies, but strongly push for funding for adaptation and loss and damage.
  3. Arab group with Saudi Arabia, China, India, Venezuela, etc.

    They mainly invoke the historical responsibility of rich countries. They want to create scope for the emerging economies to fully commit to economic growth and put the brakes on new targets that apply, for example, on a sector-by-sector basis globally. They do accept national targets, however.