COP28 commits to a vague, eventual transition away from fossil fuels, but emphasises the importance of ending forest loss

10 January 2024

COP28 commits to a vague, eventual transition away from fossil fuels, but emphasises the importance of ending forest loss

The United Nations’ 28th Climate Conference (COP28) has concluded in Dubai, including the first Global Stocktake (GST) of the Paris Agreement. The Parties committed to equitably “transition away” from fossil fuels, and to halt and reverse deforestation and forest degradation by 2030. They also emphasised the importance of conserving, protecting and restoring nature and ecosystems. The agreed “UAE Consensus” package covers the Mitigation Work Program, the Global Goal on Adaptation, the Loss and Damage Fund, and the Just Transition Work Program.  

Reactions have been mixed: some are calling the first reference to fossil fuels in a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) decision text ‘historic’, but others have expressed disappointment about the failure to agree on the finance and technical support that would enable poorer economies to transition to fossil free economies.  

Despite scientific consensus on the need to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible to limit warming (a recent editorial in Nature said “it is a question of when, not if”), the GST lacks targets or dates for emissions cuts. It is also criticised for carving out significant roles for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), a technology unproven at scale, and for considering gas a “transition fuel”.  

Composed of countries that face inundation at a more than 1.5°C global temperature rise, the Alliance of Small Island States lambasted a “litany of loopholes” in the text, saying it is not transformational but incremental, and that the reference to “accelerating abatement and removal technologies” will underwrite fossil fuel expansion. While Brazil, the United States (US) and other countries supported the outcome, Bolivia’s lengthy intervention in the final plenary expressed concern that the countries responsible for the expansion of fossil fuels are also the ones now championing the 1.5°C goal, thereby strengthening pathways of neo-colonialism and carbon colonialism. Bolivia stressed the need for a paradigm shift among developed countries on issues concerning colonialism, procrastination, and climate and social injustice. 

The GST decision was also a focal point for groups wanting to see better alignment of biodiversity and climate goals, particularly ahead of the Brazil-hosted COP30 in 2025. The text contains, for the first time a commitment to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030, as well as a reference to the 2022 Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, making explicit the important links between climate and biodiversity goals. However, a key concern is that the target for tripling renewables does not caution against the use of bioenergy – which often amounts to burning whole logs for energy – with potentially devastating effects on forests. 

In its statement, the Indigenous Peoples Caucus reminded the final plenary that “we cannot compromise for our Mother Earth, we cannot compromise with protecting all living beings, we must act respectfully and reciprocally for the very being that provides us all life.” They noted that, although they are rights holders under the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and must be at the decision-making table, Indigenous Peoples are outnumbered seven times over by Oil and Gas lobbyists. “The just transition cannot be an excuse for the extraction of minerals on our lands. We will not allow our rights to be diminished, undermined, combined, or confused in any way.”  

Article 6: The carbon market threat remains 

Negotiations surrounding Article 6 of the Paris Agreement are of key interest to forest enthusiasts. This Article covers voluntary cooperative approaches (including trade between countries) (Article 6.2), the establishment of a new “Sustainable Development Mechanism” (Article 6.4), and incentives for non-market approaches (Article 6.8).  

Continuing the long-standing stalemate between countries on whether and how to engage in international carbon trading, no consensus was reached on core issues for the establishment of new trading mechanisms (Art 6.2 and Art 6.4). Agreement was reached, however, under Article 6.8’s non-market approaches (NMA), and will now move to implementation.  The discussions also offered other telling insights: 

Article 6.2 negotiations centred around the sequence and timing of the process to authorise units to be transferred to an international registry (at which point they become Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcomes, or ITMOs). The final draft text – ultimately not agreed – did not clarify whether cooperative approaches should be reviewed before ITMOs are authorised; did not require any justification for, or limitation to the extent of information that countries could keep confidential during the review process; and allowed countries to cancel credits after they have been issued, for instance to meet their own national climate goals. 

A division arose between countries and blocks such as the US and the Like-Minded Developing Countries (representing more than 50 per cent of the world’s population) who want bilateral trade to be largely governed by involved parties, and countries wanting more stringent standards for international carbon trading (the EU, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), and the Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean). Other countries, notably Bolivia, called for a moratorium on carbon markets altogether.  

Article 6.4 discussions focussed on how to approve standards on methodologies and removals guidance. Again, divisions related to the stringency of guidelines and safeguards to govern offset mechanisms. Stumbling blocks included the definition of removals, the lack of a safeguard or grievance mechanism, and whether to include avoided emissions in trades. 

The EU said that offsetting must not be substituted for emission reductions. AOSIS stressed that removals must be guided by the best available science, which means distinguishing emission reductions from removals. Ukraine said that the draft guidelines already raise too many barriers to market entry saying “we need more carbon markets, not less”. This is based on the misconception that carbon markets are the only form of climate finance available for countries in need, when in fact carbon markets are a trade deal and therefore do not qualify as climate finance.  

Ultimately, it could be considered positive that the final draft text was not adopted as this would have meant the 6.4 mechanism would have been operationalised with no grievance process or human rights safeguards in place, and while the reversal risk assessment tool is still in development. It was also positive that the inclusion of emissions avoidance under Article 6.4 was effectively ruled out, although this is scheduled to be revisited in 2028. 

After a tense stand-off over what constitutes an NMA, the final text avoids definitions, but “encourages parties to continue identifying opportunities” to use NMAs. The decision notes the “importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems […] recognised by some cultures as Mother Earth”, which reflects the strong interest of Bolivia in advancing NMAs. 

Outside negotiations 

A plethora of announcements, new initiatives and funding opportunities were announced on the sidelines of negotiations.  

Of particular note was the Joint Statement on Climate, Nature and People, by COP28 president - UAE and COP15 president - China, which acknowledges the interconnected nature of climate change and biodiversity loss. It was signed by 20 countries.  

Brazil packed the small venues, with queues backing up into the walkways, when its Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Marina Silva, announced a proposed $250 billion “tropical forests forever” fund. 

The Forest and Climate Leaders Partnership (FCLP) also announced a series of country packages, including with Papua New Guinea, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo. 

The Climate, Biodiversity & Rights daily bulletin has compiled a list of forest-related announcements, and provides a wealth of information on the issues discussed in the COP process. 

All eyes are now on Brazil, with their Amazon Roadmap and pledge to end deforestation by 2030, COP30 in the Amazonian capital of Belem in 2025 will be a critical milestone in efforts to halt and reverse destruction of the world’s remaining primary forests – a key contribution to addressing the climate and biodiversity crises. Part of that effort will be for wealthy nations to act on the GST outcome that notes the need for enhanced support and financial resources for halting and reversing deforestation and forest degradation by 2030. 

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