COP28 Is Where People Go to Make Promises They Don’t Intend to Keep

Just a few days into COP28—the U.N. climate talks happening now in Dubai—world leaders have made a dizzying number of pledges. Some of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies have pledged to curb methane emissions and eliminate emissions from their operations. Sixty-three countries have vowed to limit emissions from cooling systems, like refrigeration and air conditioning. Twenty-two countries have promised to triple nuclear energy capacity. The U.S. has said it will deliver $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, a U.N. pot to finance mitigation projects. You probably shouldn’t take any of these too seriously.

Such pledges are designed to make it look like this year’s climate talks are off to a roaring start, despite headlines suggesting COP28 is more like a retreat for fossil fuel executives. In reality, unenforceable pledges have relatively little bearing on what negotiators are there to do—and paint a much more optimistic picture than the one being discussed in negotiating rooms. The main prize of this year’s talks is something called the global stocktake, wherein world leaders every five years look at the cold hard facts of how far off we are from the goals of the Paris Agreement and try to get back on track to limit global warming to “well below” two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). By the end of this year’s talks, negotiators are meant to reach agreement on a final text that will ideally “ratchet up” ambition for global emissions reduction.

Results from the stocktake analysis—data on progress toward Paris goals compiled over the last two years—was released in September. They’re significantly grimmer than the spate of high-profile announcements that have blanketed headlines the last few days. The report noted that the “lifetime emissions from existing and planned fossil fuel infrastructure will exceed estimates for limiting global warming to 1.5 °C within reach.” Meeting that goal would require slashing global emissions 43 percent below 2019 levels by the end of this decade, the analysis notes. If all the countries signed on to the Paris Agreement fully implement their commitments to that pact, the world will still be on track to warm by between 2.5 and 2.9 degrees Celsius, the U.N. Environment Program’s 2023 Emissions Gap Report finds.

This year’s Global Carbon Budget—an extensive peer-reviewed report—found that emissions from coal, oil, and gas rose by 1.1 percent over last year, reaching record highs. “If current CO2 emissions levels persist, the remaining carbon budget for a 50% chance to limit warming to 1.5°C could be exceeded in 7 years, and in 15 years for 1.7°C,” the report states.

The stocktake analysis emphasizes that keeping even less ambitious climate goals within reach will require “systems transformations across all sectors and contexts, including scaling up renewable energy while phasing out all unabated fossil fuels, ending deforestation, reducing non-CO2 emissions and implementing both supply- and demand-side measures,” authors write. “Scaling up renewable energy and phasing out all unabated fossil fuels are indispensable elements of just energy transitions to net zero emissions.”

A draft negotiating text released Tuesday morning UAE time shows that such a phaseout is indeed being considered by countries currently haggling over what the final, codified takeaways from the stocktake will be. “An orderly and just phase out of fossil fuels” is listed as “Option 1.” Option 2 calls for accelerating “efforts towards phasing out unabated fossil fuels and to rapidly reducing their use so as to achieve net-zero CO2 in energy systems by or around mid-century.” Option 3 is to include no text along these lines at all. The other proposed action items—e.g., phasing out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies and increasing the deployment of zero-emission vehicles—are structured similarly, with one option calling for some kind of action in that category and another calling for nothing at all.

On some level, the Paris Agreement has always been about pledges. Inspired largely by America’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocols—an earlier, binding climate pact—the Paris Agreement was structured as an accumulation of voluntary and periodically updated commitments by each country that signed onto it, known as “nationally determined contributions.” That voluntary, “bottom-up” structure meant that a new pact wouldn’t need to be ratified by the U.S. Senate, which unanimously resolved in 1997 never to ratify a binding climate treaty if it would harm the U.S. economically or if it wasn’t sufficiently strict for developing countries. The United Nations, moreover—out of which the Paris Agreement grewlacks the kind of enforcement power enjoyed by nation-states and their regulatory regimes, and the financial might of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

But in the past two years, headline-grabbing pledge announcements made outside of the formal United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process have gotten bigger and goofier—exactly as you might expect from a conference that features a talk on “responsible yachting.” The COP announcement game kicked into high gear at the climate talks held in Glasgow in 2021, which the U.K. presidency organized into thematic days (i.e., “Finance Day,” “Youth Day”) intended to draw out flashy pledges from governments, corporations, and NGOs and spur positive news coverage. Some of the high-profile commitments from that conference (COP26) have fallen apart in the intervening years. The much-heralded Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net-Zero—meant to rally banks, asset managers, and insurance companies behind the cause of climate action—waned in influence once membership terms were set, and after oil and gas prices began to rise from their pandemic depths.

At least one man seems to believe that these kinds of covenants are written in blood. Asked by the Financial Times to explain how U.S. climate posturing in Dubai squares with record-setting oil and gas production at home, White House climate envoy John Kerry responded by saying, “We have signed up to the phaseout of unabated fossil fuels, we have signed up and we voted for it at the G7,” referring to an agreement to boost efforts to reach net-zero in energy systems by 2050. The U.S. has no policies in place to make good on that pledge.

Elsewhere, Kerry praised UAE-led fossil fuel industry pledges announced at COP28 to reduce some amount of certain types of emissions. “A lot of criticisms have been leveled at the UAE, but the fact is that this is the first time ever that those companies have come to the table,” Kerry argued, seemingly referencing COP28 and Adnoc chief Sultan Al Jaber’s recently reported statements against phasing out fossil fuels.

Hope, for John Kerry, springs eternal. Space in the global carbon budget does not.