Unpacking COP28: Successes, setbacks, and the road ahead

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Last month, COP28 kicked off with a big announcement from the World Meteorological Organization: 2023 will be the hottest year on record. At a time when we're increasingly feeling the impact of climate change, summits like COP28 are more important than ever.

COP, or the Convention of the Parties, meets annually to discuss progress and create strategies for mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change. It includes almost 200 countries representing both the world's wealthiest and least developed nations. The 28th climate summit, COP28, wrapped up in mid-December following two weeks of negotiations. 

COP28 included some big wins but wasn't the resounding success we at EnergySage hoped for. "I'd give it a six out of 10," stated Spencer Fields, Director of Insights at EnergySage. "There were certainly elements of COP28 that I would deem successful, but they didn't go as far as they needed to in terms of drafting binding commitments to phasing out fossil fuels that are necessary at this point."

Here's what stood out at COP28–and what we're still waiting to see in future summits.

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One of the biggest successes of COP28 came out of day one. Wealthier nations pledged over $500 million to set up a loss and damage fund to help developing nations deal with the impacts of climate change. Climate change hits the least developed countries the hardest and the fastest, despite them contributing the least to it. 

Since the 1990s, developing countries have been asking for these funds to mitigate damage from climate change. It's something Fields is particularly passionate about. He attended COP17 back in 2011 to support the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group, a nonprofit geared toward helping developing nations negotiate at COP to secure these funds. Last year's COP put a framework agreement in place, but nations didn't formally agree to it until this year.

The funding is long overdue. Loss and damages in developing countries are already estimated at several hundred billion dollars annually. "To see COP starting off with commitments to funding was a big win," said Fields, "but I can't believe it took so long to get to this point." 

Despite recently passing the country's largest climate spending bill in history, the U.S. pledged a meager $17.5 million to seed the fund. This falls far short of many other wealthy nations like  Germany and the United Arab Emirates, which each pledged $100 million. Much more is needed to combat the loss and damage already associated with climate change. We hope to see the U.S. contributing more money at future summits.

Despite being an event geared toward mitigating climate change, the fossil fuel industry participated more in COP28 than in any prior summit. Sultan al-Jaber, the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, chaired the meeting. It also included a record 2,400 fossil fuel lobbyists, according to reporting from Grist. 

Ahead of the summit, the Centre for Climate Reporting accused the United Arab Emirates of planning to use the summit to broker oil and gas deals instead of climate deals, though al-Jaber denied those claims. 

While we hope the fossil fuel industry's involvement in this year's summit suggests it's looking to learn and change, Fields isn't convinced. "What it shows me is that those companies are fighting for their future," stated Fields. "The fact that those countries sent so many fossil fuel representatives to COP28 indicates that they fear a future in which they're no longer relevant."

The biggest announcement from COP28 was a global pact, agreed to by almost 200 countries, calling for "the transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly and equitable manner." 

Since the summit's inception in 1995, the COP has failed to explicitly demand a phase-out of fossil fuels, making this the strongest agreement to date. The pact calls on nations to triple renewable energy capacity and double energy efficiency improvements by 2030. However, it's nonbinding, so many climate activists aren't convinced it will effect real change. 

Spencer Fields doesn't think it will spur much government action but believes it could drive industries to make more sustainable decisions. "Because it's nonbinding, the best we can hope is that it sends a clear signal to private investment that there is a future for clean energy and zero carbon technologies, not fossil fuels."

We'll be watching the next two COP meetings closely to see if binding agreements and strategies are put in place by nations to ensure we make progress towards this goal.

There are victories to celebrate coming out of COP28. But without binding agreements, we must step up as individuals to combat climate change. 

According to Spencer Fields, the first step to mitigating your impact is examining your impact. "It's hard to reduce your emissions without understanding the primary drivers of your environmental impact," said Fields. He advises using carbon footprint calculators like this one from the Environmental Protection Agency to understand your footprint and compare it to other benchmarks. 

"Vote with your wallet and take the extra time and research to find and purchase sustainably produced products," recommends Fields. If you're committed to reducing your contribution to climate change, increasing your home's energy efficiency, switching to an electric vehicle, or installing solar panels will all make a big difference.

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