There is nothing quite like an “I’ll try” response to my requests for my family to help more around the house to set my blood on fire. While those two words acknowledge the problem—my husband knows a heater in an empty room drives our electricity costs higher, my daughter knows that laundry left to molder in the washing machine will smell, and they both have seen that plants left unwatered will die—the phrase is nonetheless wholly lacking in conviction and commitment. In our household, it has become shorthand for “not happening anytime soon, if at all.”
Fourteen days of tense negotiations over how the world should address the looming threat of climate change at the COP28 conference in Dubai concluded on Dec. 13 with a similar response. The 21-page “Global Stocktake” text lays out the pathway that nations must take to limit global warming to the previously-agreed-upon goal of no more than 2°C higher than pre-industrial levels—beyond which scientists say severe storms, floods, droughts, heat, and wildfires will increasingly surpass humanity’s ability to adapt. The document is noteworthy for finally acknowledging that countries need to “transition away” from fossil fuels. Nonetheless, it is riddled with loopholes and lacks clear goals and fixed timelines. Boiled down into three words, it says, essentially, “We will try.”
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For those most immediately threatened by climate change, such as island nations and low-lying coastal countries already suffering the effects of sea-level rise, the final deal was not good enough. "We have made an incremental advancement over business as usual when what we really needed is an exponential step change in our actions," said Samoan chief negotiator Anne Rasmussen, speaking on behalf of the 39-nation Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). Scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which informs the climate negotiations process, have long said that the only way to keep climate change in check is to rapidly reduce emissions from fossil fuels. Yet, Rasmussen said, the final text did not adequately reflect that advice. “We reference the science in this text … but then we refrain from an agreement to take the relevant action in order to act in line with what the science says we need to do.”
Still, the fact that fossil fuels got a mention at all is a triumph, says Ani Dasgupta, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute, a non-profit research organization focused on climate change. The draft text went through multiple iterations over the course of the negotiations, and one version, supported by oil and gas producing nations, dropped a reference to the root cause of climate change entirely. But pushback from the U.S., the E.U., and AOSIS saw fossil fuels put back in at the last minute, even though the final version lacked the concrete term “phaseout” that many nations, including Samoa, wanted to see. “Fossil fuels finally faced a reckoning at the U.N. climate negotiations after three decades of dodging the spotlight,” said Dasgupta, in a statement. “This historic outcome marks the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era.”
In a sign of incremental progress, the new agreement also calls for a tripling of renewable energy and a doubling of energy efficiency by 2030. But it failed to make any progress at all on coal, only repeating tired language dating back to COP26 in Glasgow, calling for an “acceleration of efforts towards a phasedown.” And in a turn of phrase that worries many climate scientists and activists, COP28’s final text also contains references to “transition” fuels that could be interpreted to mean natural gas, a potent source of planet-warming methane. There is also greater recognition of the need for adaptation measures to enable countries to adjust to climatic upheavals, but little on how such measures should be funded for poor and developing nations.
Like any good compromise, the final agreement contains elements guaranteed to both please, and piss off, competing factions. As such, the outcome will be seen as a win for the U.A.E., which hosted COP28, and this year’s conference president Sultan Al Jaber, who managed to bridge the gap between petro states and countries on the frontlines of climate change. But that doesn’t mean that the talks themselves can be deemed a success, especially when it comes to the final outcome.
The year 2023 has already been declared the hottest on record, with the earth’s average temperature briefly exceeding 2°C (3.6°F) above the pre-industrial average on Nov. 17. Thousands died this year due to extreme heat, floods, storms, and wildfires linked to climate change and nearly 2 billion people are currently impacted by drought. The Panama Canal is drying up, the oceans have never been hotter in recorded history, and glaciers in both the Arctic and Antarctic are melting at unprecedented rates.
The primary goal of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which held the first COP (Conference of Parties) meeting in Berlin in 1995, was to “stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses at levels that would prevent ‘dangerous’ human interference with the climate system.” Yet year after year, emissions have continued to rise, bringing the planet dangerously close to the tipping point. “A successful COP means that global carbon emissions will stop [rising] this year,” says oceanographer Enric Sala, who attended this year’s conference as an advocate for the oceans. “There has been significant progress. But unless we reduce emissions dramatically, phase off fossil fuels and replace them with renewables, while removing excess carbon from the atmosphere, then this COP has failed.”
Correction, Dec. 18
The original version of this article contained a quote from Enric Sala that did not accurately convey his stance on global emissions. He believes they need to stop rising this year, not stop entirely.