The UN climate conference is the annual event attended by world leaders to agree policy to tackle the climate crisis. Here we take a look at the outcomes from COP28 and decide: was the 28th iteration a success?  

The 28th annual UN climate conference was controversial long before a single policy maker boarded a plane for the first day of the event. Taking place in the Dubai, there were questions over whether a historic petrostate could host a crucial climate event without substantial conflicts of interest. Especially with a COP President chosen to oversee the event, Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, whose day job is as CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. 

These questions looked to be very fair as the conference opened, as Al Jaber stated that there is ‘no science’ behind a phase out of fossil fuels to restrict global heating to 1.5ºC. A direct contradiction of the science produced by the hundreds of climate experts attending in Dubai.

But was the event just a mass exercise in greenwash by the fossil fuel industry? Or has some progress been made? The answer is complicated. Here are the key things you need to know.

Fossil fuel lobbyists far outnumbered frontline communities

COP is about reaching consensus on climate and you cannot achieve consensus without everyone at the table. This is the argument as to why big polluters should be involved — but the extent to which they were present at COP28 was telling. 

Research from human rights NGO Global Witness uncovered that COP28 saw record representation from the fossil fuel industry. At least 2,456 were granted access, outweighing indigenous communities — those whose lives are most likely to be impacted by climate change today — by seven to one. 

Young people continue to hold COP to account

In what will very likely be considered the defining moment of this COP, 12 year old climate activist Licipriya Kangujam took to the stage during a speech by COP28’s Director General Majid Al-Suwaidi to protest the lack of movement. 

Kangujam held a sign and shouted calling for an end to fossil fuels on the Monday of the second week, before she was ushered off stage. 

Several years after the youth climate movement exploded in 2019, it is clear that the ‘grown ups’ still need young voices to bring the reality of the climate crisis home. 

100 countries have agreed to triple global renewables by 2030

Going into the conference, the International Renewable Energy Agency called for a commitment to triple renewable energy capacity globally by 2030. This was heeded and signed by 100 countries — including the UK. 

The goal is incredibly ambitious, effectively adding 1000 GW of renewables every year until the end of the century, but it is necessary in order to keep the Paris Agreement goals in sight. 

Notable is the fact that two of the world’s largest economies in China and India did not sign the agreement. China is already the world’s biggest renewable developing country by some margin, and the IEA also forecasts that India will double its renewables capacity by 2027, so they should both be on course anyway. It’s suggested they did not sign this agreement as they opposed some anti-coal language in the commitment, and the financing details were not satisfactory for the two countries. 

Phase down, phase out, transition away

Phase down, phase out, transition away… these are not stage directions in a film script, but phrases which were hotly debated throughout the conference. 

Campaigners and many countries came into COP28 with one goal — to secure a worldwide commitment to stop burning fossil fuels in the final Global Stocktake text. Building renewables is great, and it does displace fossil fuel use, but for a full transition you need commitment to actively move away from fossil fuels too. 

This became the central argument in the development of the final texts from COP28. And in the first draft of the text it looked bad. The language did not contain the crucial line: ‘phase out of fossil fuels’ but an optional ‘could’ by mid-century. 

Fortunately policymakers had the opportunity to take another run at it. Given where they were negotiating from, the shift is positive, but the end result still mixed. The final text calls for a ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels — historic in comparison to previous agreements, but not as total as a ‘phase out’ or even a ‘phase down’. 

Good COP or bad COP?

Some commentators argue that we can pay too much attention to what is agreed at COP. As indicated by India and China’s abstention from the tripling renewables commitment, countries will take their own paths – and that often leads to the same result. Renewables are now proven beat fossil fuels on pure economic terms, and they will play a dramatically increasing role in energy systems worldwide. 

The final agreements from COP28 still contain multiple grey areas and loopholes – and don’t go far enough to secure the climate finance that developing nations desperately need. But the fact that world leaders have gathered in a country whose economy is built on fossil fuels, and have managed to agree to transition away from burning them for the very first time, suggests that we are at least moving in the right direction.