Halftime at the COP

With so many pledges made at the international climate talks, we need more action, fewer excuses

Banners announcing COP28 outside of summit building, Dubai


The climate crisis has reached a moment of unmeasurable urgency. Nations and negotiators at COP28 must commit to building the bridge to a livable climate future and bringing an end to the fossil fuel era. Send your message to world leaders at COP28.

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At the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, there are two weeks of negotiations and programming separated by a day of rest when the COP is closed. This year December 7th is the day of rest, which means that we're almost at the midway point for the proceedings. With over 100,000 attendees in the massive Dubai Expo Center, it's halftime at the Superbowl of climate change talks—but this is no game. Our fate as a planet hangs in the balance of what is happening here.

COP28 is turning out to be one of the more difficult conferences to get a handle on. What is proving exhausting about this COP is how fast and numerous the resolutions and announcements are emerging from the early days of the proceedings. On the first day the COP opened, 18 countries announced their pledges to contribute to the loss and damage fund, and the fund, long something that existed more in theory than practice, finally took shape. On the same day came the announcement that 140 countries had signed onto a food systems declaration to include emissions from agriculture and farming into their national plans to tackle climate change.

This first week, 123 countries signed onto another ground-breaking declaration, agreeing to triple renewable power generation capacity to 11,000 GW, and double energy efficiency this decade. The US pledged to fund the Green Climate Fund to the tune of $3 billion. The United Arab Emirates launched a $30 billion fund, Alterra, which seeks to mobilize $250 billion globally by 2030, though how much of it would actually go to countries in vulnerable areas was unclear.

Fifty oil and gas companies also made pledges—to reach zero-methane emissions by 2030, and to fund methane abatement projects in emerging markets and developing economies. While they did not agree to tackle their Scope 3 emissions which include the planet warming burning of oil and gas, cutting methane leaks is a key priority from an industry that accounts for 15% of global emissions from the production, transport, and processing of its products. 

And while it is easy to be dazzled by all of these massive commitments of action and dollars, keep in mind that these are pledges. One must not confuse pledging to do a thing with the actual doing of a thing. Especially at a COP.

With six years left in this decade, and a Global Stocktake that demonstrates we are nowhere near where we'd need to be to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, execution is everything. This week the PandaHub—the WWF event space at the conference—hosted a united front of some of the most prominent US-based non-governmental organizations and funders in our space—Bezos Earth Fund, Climate Works, World Resources Institute, NRDC, and E3G—who stood beside WWF in calling for a response to the Global Stocktake including specific actions by the Parties across mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage to send clear signals that COP28 is a turning point in climate action.

Even at the high-level proceedings in the first few days, we are seeing more emphasis on building collaborations that can create and replicate solutions. For the first time ever, as part of the high-level activities in the opening days of the COP, the COP President with the assistance of Bloomberg Philanthropies held a first-of-its-kind Local Climate Action Summit, highlighting the contribution of non-federal governments and entities in securing climate action. America Is All In, the subnational coalition managed by WWF, led a side event for US subnational leaders to discuss sector specific climate action with federal partners. All In also announced that it will be hosting a stakeholder engagement process to support the inclusion of state and local governments, and other subnational actors' input in developing the Biden Administration's next Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement.

The negotiations of the Global Stocktake and the overall cover decision will continue this week and next. Days and hours will be spent on what seem to be the smallest word choices and turns of phrase but actually have large implications. Will we actually agree to "phase out" fossil fuels or merely phase them down? Will we attempt to caveat the phase out by only agreeing to address "unabated" fossil fuels, thus leaving room for technologies like carbon capture and storage and direct air capture that are not proven yet as viable climate solutions?

UNFCCC COP Cover Decisions that are heavily negotiated between more than 190 nations rarely produce sweeping language mandating radical, rapid transformation. But the excruciatingly worked over language of a COP decision must at a minimum supply a window, however narrow, through which we can see our way to a livable climate future. As we enter the second half of COP, and enter the runup to the final decision, selecting the right words to support climate action going forward will be essential.

It's essential because the task in front of us is large and the time we have to finish it is short. Doubling energy efficiency and tripling renewable energy in a little over five years requires all of us to up our game considerably. We need more and better data, more effective community engagement practices, resources and support for both generation and transmission assets, and capital. Lots and lots of capital. None of this comes into being without intentional and rapid action.

And we need to be intentional not just about what we are going to do, but about what we are going to stop doing. The large number of countries committing to rapid scaling of renewable energy and energy efficiency is encouraging. Without the simultaneous phasing out of fossil fuels, however, it's going to be meaningless. We need to stop making excuses and hedging our bets with caveated language and continued propping up of fossil fuel usage. Ending the fossil fuel era means closing that door so we can fully enter a renewable-powered energy future. That has to be the priority the next week at COP if we are to get back on track and address climate change.