(Editor’s Note: The author further discussed his analysis of COP 28 on The Just Security Podcast. Listen to the episode here.)

The annual United Nations climate conference, COP28, concluded last week in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) with nearly 200 nations signing a twenty-one page agreement, titled “Decision of the First Global Stocktake.” Simon Stiell, the U.N. Climate Change Executive Secretary, labeled COP28 a success, heralding the decision to transition away from fossil fuels as “beginning of the end” for the fossil fuel era. Other commentators were more critical. The Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board, for example, dismissed the decision as “phony climate promises” that merely created the illusion of progress. The lead negotiator of the island nation delegation stated that “this process has failed us,” critiquing the final text as riddled with “a litany of loopholes.” So which narrative hews closest to reality?

I would characterize COP28 as a muted success. The meeting found its footing after a rocky start and was ultimately able to deliver a substantive decision. This decision was achieved despite geopolitical realities outside the conference negotiators’ control. Getting 195 nations to agree to transition away from fossil fuels is no small feat. But serious questions remain about nations’ willingness to match follow-on action with lofty written commitments.

In some respects, it is amazing that any substantive agreement was achieved in light of some early miscues by the UAE and its appointed head of the COP28 climate talks, Sultan Ahmed Al- Jaber. An oil tycoon himself, Al-Jaber reportedly hosted private meetings with fellow oil and gas executives as COP28 kicked off. 

Along with the Al-Jaber criticism, COP28 faced sharp geopolitical headwinds stemming from ongoing conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine. These wars – and the geopolitical fissures that continue to rock the world – could have derailed the entire conference as nations retreated and chose sides (for example, on the final day of COP28, the U.N. General Assembly held an emergency session and approved a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza). Despite this contentious issue, nations with wildly differing views on both conflicts were able to compartmentalize their views and sign a substantive COP28 agreement.  

Two events helped change the COP28 narrative and provide impetus for action. 

First, the leaders of China and the United States met in Sunnylands, California, prior to the COP and signed the Sunnylands Statement. The Statement renewed climate cooperation between the largest historic emitter of greenhouse gasses (the United States) and the largest current emitter (China). Any substantive action on climate change requires joint U.S. and China leadership, a proposition that was far from certain given the tensions between Washington and Beijing on climate and a host of other matters following Representative Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan last summer. Second, the first day of the conference saw progress on operationalizing a fund to pay for loss and damage, one of the key outcomes of COP27 held last year in Egypt. This early victory helped change the conference narrative. Developed nations promised to contribute to a loss and damage fund, which is designed to aid developing nations meet climate change’s unavoidable impacts. Still, much more needs to be done to fill the Loss and Damage Fund’s coffers. One estimate places loss and damage facing developing countries at $400 billion per year. So the $700 million pledged at COP28 is welcome, but is somewhat akin to fighting a wildfire with a garden hose. 

Setting the Stage: The Conference of Parties and the First Global Stocktake

The annual Conference of Parties takes place under the auspices of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the key international climate agreement that entered into force in 1994. Under Article 7, the UNFCCC established the Conference of Parties to “review the implementation of the Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of Parties may adopt.” For nearly thirty years, nations have come together (with the exception of a pause during COVID) with the goal of building on efforts to address climate change. The Framework Convention started as very mitigation-centric (reducing greenhouse gas emissions), but climate change is a uniquely complex collective action challenge that has been described as a “super-wicked problem.” In turn, successive climate conferences have widened the aperture to encompass adaptation, climate finance, loss and damage, and myriad other issues, such as food security

In 2015, COP21 culminated in the signing of the Paris Agreement, which requires each State Party to reduce its emissions via “nationally determined contributions.” These nationally determined contributions would, ideally, ratchet up over time with wealthier nations’ leading the way on emissions cuts. Further, the Paris Agreement calls on all nations to “take stock of the implementation” of the Paris Agreement (a “global stocktake”). COP 28 in Dubai marked the first such global stocktake – a critical test to assess the progress in meeting the goals of keeping global temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius with the ultimate goal of limiting the rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Transitioning Away from Fossil Fuels 

The final decision in Dubai did achieve one notable breakthrough: all 195 nations committed to transition away from fossil fuels. The key language calls on Parties to start:

Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.

There are three points worth highlighting on this critical text. 

This is the first international agreement that explicitly calls for moving away from fossil fuels which, in theory, will shift the global economy away from coal, oil, and gas energy sources. This is not insignificant. After all, it has taken 28 COPs to reach this point. The Framework Convention’s negotiation process requires universal endorsement by all 195 countries, so any one country can block consensus and stymie progress. 

Second, the Dubai language leaves many questions unanswered. The text does not call for the immediate phase-out of fossil fuels, as requested by European leaders and nations most vulnerable to climate disasters. 

Instead, negotiators settled on softer language and the need to “transition away” from fossil fuels. This language – and the goal of achieving net zero emission by 2050 – is a bit stronger than the Glasgow Climate Pact negotiated two years ago at COP26, which called for the phase-down of coal and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, language that was insisted upon by China and India – two nations whose economies are dependent on coal power for economic growth.

The Dubai language reflects incremental action where transformational action is needed. For some island nations, climate change is an existential threat to their territorial integrity, sovereignty, and very existence. Delaying action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions may act as a “death warrant” for four atoll nations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Alliance of Small Island States, a partnership of 39 small island and low-lying developing States, criticized the decision as riddled with a “litany of loopholes.”

Under the decision’s text, the fossil fuel transition will be a just and equitable transition – but what exactly does this mean? The terms are left undefined in the agreement, presenting petrostates with room to interpret these key phrases and maneuver accordingly. Nations are already signaling that they will reduce greenhouse gas emissions through “common but differentiated responsibilities.” It is unclear how each nation will operationalize its commitments and interpret the just and equitable transition language. 

The decision also calls for the phasing out of “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” while recognizing that “transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security.” Transitional fuels are widely understood as a euphemism for natural gas. It will be interesting to see how nations attempt to square this pro-natural gas carveout with the overarching goal of transitioning away from fossil fuels. And what, exactly, is an inefficient fossil fuel subsidy? Aren’t all fossil subsidies inherently inefficient?

The Glasgow Climate Pact offers a somewhat cautionary tale. While the Glasgow Pact called for the phase-down of coal power, the United Kingdom approved a new coal mine the very next year and global coal demand has never been higher. In fact, India and China are building new coal-fired plants with decades-long lifespans. The coal phase-down seems more like a ramp up.

Third, there is an emerging convergence of interests between petrostates (such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq) and other fast–growing countries (such as India and China) who are fighting rapid fossil fuel phaseout. It is not surprising that petrostates will fight decarbonization efforts – a reality highlighted in the 2021 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). The NIE explicitly stated that petrostates fear transition risks in international decarbonization efforts. The NIE continues: 

We assess that most countries that rely on fossil fuel exports to support their budgets will continue to resist a quick transition to a zero-carbon world because they fear the economic, political, and geopolitical costs of doing so. 

Petrostates are now joined at the hip at the climate negotiation table with China, India, and other fast-moving economies as they fight efforts to quickly phase out fossil fuels. 

A Nuclear Rebirth?

The Dubai agreement highlighted the need to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030, while also spotlighting nuclear power’s role in low carbon energy solutions. This marks a shift for nuclear energy, which has historically not been embraced by climate and environmental policymakers. For all its potential, building nuclear power plants at scale poses challenges. European nations accelerated the closure of nuclear plants following Japan’s Fukushima disaster. Meanwhile the United States just built its first new nuclear reactor power plant in 30 years – the Georgian Vogtle nuclear reactors were supposed to signal a new era of nuclear energy for the United States, but the plants arrived seven years late and $17 billion over budget, dashing the hopes of even the most pro-nuclear advocates of a rapid nuclear revival. Permitting reform for renewable energy and nuclear projects alike will be needed in the United States and elsewhere to accelerate this clean energy transition. 

What Happens Next?

The focus will now shift towards transparency and implementing written commitments made at COP28. If history is any guide, implementing existing commitments is where the true work begins. Enforcement is a consistent issue with international climate governance.  

Whether COP 28 is characterized as a success or a failure serves as a bit of a Rorschach test for how to perceive the effectiveness of international climate governance more generally. The Conference of Parties has expanded to include a wider diversity of stakeholders – this COP had 84,000 attendees, twenty times the number (4,000) that attended the first COP. And it is not just diplomats who attend these annual climate conferences. Business interests, academics, students, activists, journalists, mining executives, and civil society organizations also play a prominent role. Harvard Professor Robert Stavins labeled this a “circus in which the main event is being eclipsed by the sideshows.” Still, there is inherent value in bringing together diverse stakeholders and interests from around the world every year. 

To be sure, the annual climate conference is not a silver bullet to solve the climate challenge. Nations and individuals should demand substantive action and progress but should also be realistic about the sheer magnitude of the climate problem and the sheer difficulty of finding unanimous agreement around the text. A better framing to address the climate problem may be “silver buckshot” that embraces an “All Hands on Deck” climate effort. This includes using a variety of legal, technological, and innovative tools to address the problem. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy launched the Carbon Negative Shot, an effort to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Finally, the next COP is scheduled to take place in Baku, Azerbaijan where the oil and gas industry is responsible for two-thirds of the country’s GDP. It would have been far more preferable for COP29 to take place in a part of the world – such as the South Pacific – that is on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Including the last climate conference held in Sharm-el-Sheikh Egypt, COPs 27, 28, and 29 will have all taken place within a couple thousand miles of each other. 

Regardless of where you stand on grading COP28’s performance, this much is clear: transformational action is needed to avert climate catastrophe. By one estimate, 2030 greenhouse gas emissions must fall by 42 percent to have a chance of meeting the Paris Agreement’s goals of keeping global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees Celsius. We are nowhere close to achieving that objective. Global emissions are actually increasing

COP28 is over. Now comes the hard work of ensuring that each nation follows through with actions to match textual commitments. In the absence of a binding climate enforcement mechanism, implementation is key.

IMAGE: Delegates applaud after a speech by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber (3L), President of the UNFCCC COP28 Climate Conference, during a plenary session on Dec. 13, 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Fadel Dawod via Getty Images)