COP28, which kicks off in Dubai today (Thursday), could be the UN’s make-or-break climate summit if the world is to have any chance of getting close to the global warming goals agreed in Paris in 2015, but the challenges are daunting.

COP27 ended in Egypt one year ago without any firm commitments on phasing out fossil fuels and failed to tackle a growing gap in perspectives between developed and undeveloped nations, especially over the topic of financing.

Billed as the first global stocktake of the Paris agreement, COP28 will take place against a backdrop of record-breaking temperatures, extreme weather and rising emissions.

Tripling renewables

One thing that is already clear is that summit will be replete with commitments to increase investments in renewables after COP28 president-designate Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber said he will push for participants to reach a collective agreement to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030.

The US and China, whose greenhouse gas emissions account for about 38% of the global total, followed this lead with a joint declaration made during President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US earlier this month. Their agreement to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030 was described as part of the effort to displace fossil fuels and reduce emissions in electricity generation.

The pair reiterated their COP21 commitments to “hold the global average temperature increase to well below 2 degrees C and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees C”.

Scores more countries, as well as the EU, have pledged to triple renewables under an agreement entitled the Global Renewables and Energy Efficiency Targets Pledge.

On the other hand, rising geopolitical tensions and global concerns about energy security have served to muddy the waters when it comes to building any consensus over whether and how the world is to reduce and phase out its use of fossil fuels.

The duality of all this was in evidence last week when Brazil made the pledge to triple renewables capacity and its biggest oil company, Petrobras, earmarked $5.2bn for solar and wind but at the same time set aside $7.5bn for finding new oil and gas reserves.

Mistrust factor

Jaber’s status as boss of United Arab Emirates oil giant Adnoc arouses suspicion among climate campaigners. They fear that COP24 risks becoming a forum for oil states like the UAE and big oil companies such as Adnoc and ExxonMobil to promote carbon capture as a justification for continuing to find and develop fossil fuel resources.

In his letter to the Parties, Jaber described the UN climate summit as “an opportunity to fast-track the energy transition by building the energy system of the future, while rapidly decarbonising the energy system of today to keep 1.5C degrees within reach”.

His letter referred to mitigation aims such as halving the oil and gas industry’s scope 1 and 2 emissions, reaching near zero methane emissions by 2030, transforming heavy emitting sectors and scaling up the use of low-carbon hydrogen and carbon capture and storage, but it did not mention any phased reduction of oil and gas.

Jaber, who is also chair of Abu Dhabi renewables powerhouse Masdar, tried to meet these concerns head on last month when he told the Financial Times newspaper that the oil and gas industry must prepare for the inevitable “phase down” of fossil fuels.

But fault lines were exposed this week when a BBC report appeared to exposeUAE government plans to use the UN climate talks as an opportunity to negotiate oil and gas deals.

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, the head of the COP20 summit in Peru in 2014, told the BBC that mixing the climate and the business agenda in this way could destroy the element of trust that is needed to achieve progress on tackling climate change in Dubai.

"The president of the COP is the leader of the world in trying to build consensus on behalf of the planet," he said.

"If any president of the COP tries to bring a particular interest, [including] commercial interest, that could mean the failure of the COP."

North-South gap

The argument around the phasing out fossil fuels becomes more complex still when it mixes with growing gap in perspectives between global north and south.

Some developing nations, especially oil producers argue that richer nations should take the lead in phasing out fossil fuels. The African Energy Chamber, an interest group, has voiced opposition to COP deals that obstruct the continent’s capacity to develop fossil fuels as a route to economic prosperity and providing energy to populations.

Africa accounts for only 2–3% of the world's CO2 emissions from energy and industrial sources, according to UN data.

The chances of the 197 participants at COP28 arriving at a game-changing final set of decisions will also depend on an increasingly pivotal debate over the funding of loss and damage reparation payments and financing the energy transition in the global south.

The Paris agreement called on developed nations to mobilise $100bn annually in climate finance for poorer countries by 2020, but this target has not been reached so far.

The ascent of big economies like China, India and Brazil up global rankings also blurs the lines between who can and should pay for climate change,.

Some developing nations and activists have called for funding allocation to be based on need rather than country size and they want financing scaled up to trillions per year.

Despite the growing complexity of the debate, Indian finance minister Nirmala Sitheraman called for concrete action at COP28.

“Funding (mitigation and adaptation actions) is going to be a huge challenge… a lot of talks can happen but eventually COP28 should show that direction, both for transfer of technology and the actual funding,” she told a virtual forum on India, the Middle East in Africa held in Dubai this week.

Sitherman added that India will use COP28 to showcase what India has achieve with its own funds.

"The Paris commitment given by us has been funded by us. We didn't wait for the hundred billion.. a lot of talk but no money coming on the table. No pathways to show how technology is going to be transferred," she lamented.

Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International described COP28 as a ‘make-or-break moment’ that will determine the success or failure of the new fund and, by extension, wider agreements on climate commitments.

To make matters more complex still, there is are growing calls for at least half of the available funding to go toward adaptation rather than just emissions reductions.

While the agreement to set up a loss and damage fund to help compensate developing countries for the impact of climate change was one of the positive outcomes of COP27, “even this achievement was undermined by the fact that no actual pledges were made and no methodology for its use was established,” notes James Henderson of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.

“Many of the key issues were left for discussion at COP 28…. Financing for the developing world will again be at the forefront of discussions,” Henderson stated.

"As such, achievement of the four main goals set out by COP President Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber; to fast track the transition away from fossil fuels; to transform climate finance; to focus on the role of people and nature in the transition; and to ensure inclusivity for all participants, may be a struggle."

Where there is hope...

On a more optimistic note, observers have noted the growing importance of multilateral agreements and nationally determined contributions, amid hopes that the Parties can make enough commitments to close in on a peaking of global emissions predicted by the International Energy Agency (IEA) to take place in 2025.

A new report on China released by energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie this week also showed the benefits that can come if pledges to triple renewables capacity are fulfilled.

In China's case, strong and decisive government policies seem to have produced a virtuous cycle of declining costs and rising efficiency that has helped the country start to reduce its reliance on coal, the report stated.

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