What to expect at the upcoming climate negotiations?

6 October 2023, 0014 EDT

A reporter asked me what we should expect from the upcoming climate negotiations, known as COP28, which will be held in the United Arab Emirates starting the end of November. This is my fairly off-the-cuff answer which may be somewhat pessimistic. I am more broadly optimistic that the clean energy transition is underway, though not at that pace required (yet) to stay below 2 degrees C of warming.

If you think I’m off-base, please comment or send a post to the Duck so we get more deeply informed perspectives captured here.

The Global Souring and the Global Stocktake
We are in a different moment in terms of global relations leading up to COP28 than where we were in 2015 when the Paris Agreement was negotiated. Then, the US and China were able to work together to set in motion a new global architecture based on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), country pledges of what they thought they could do.

The aim was to set in motion a virtuous circle of action and enhanced ambition. However, the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency took the US away from serious climate action for four years, and relations between the US and China have soured for a variety of reasons. 

Going in to COP28, I’m not especially optimistic that the moment is ripe for progress. The UN Secretary General’s recent Climate Ambition Summit excluded the U.S. and China from presenting, and the whole gathering to me struck me as somewhat desperate, rather than a strategically savvy move.

At this year’s COP, we now have the first Global Stocktake, an initial opportunity to assess the performance of the country NDCs in light of the goals to prevent global temperatures from rising 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and the more ambitious aspiration to prevent a 1.5C increase. The reality is, as the pre-cop Global Stocktake assessment report showed, that not enough progress has been made, and the 1.5 goal looks increasingly out of reach. 

I expect at this COP for there to be calls for more ambitious revised NDCs which are set to be revised by 2025 as well as more demands for finance for developing countries for mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage. I am not however all that optimistic that this year will yield much in the way of breakthroughs. Perhaps the biggest breakthrough is more prosaic and limited progress by fossil fuel producers to pledge to dramatically reduce methane leakage and flaring. Campaigners may seek more wide-ranging commitments to phase out fossil fuels but I’m not certain those will find consensus.

The Scene in the U.S.
The Biden administration has taken historic steps with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill to act on climate change. Those investments will take time to bend the curve of domestic emissions. In the meantime, Republican control of the House of Representatives means that there is no prospect for sizeable appropriations of climate finance for developing countries through overseas development assistance.

I think going in to an election year that it will be hard for the US to go beyond its current level of ambition on its own action or in terms of supporting climate finance. The Biden Administration may press for more financial support through the World Bank and other international financial institutions.

The Scene in China
China will be pressed to limit its use of coal, but even as it has expanded its deployment of renewables and electric vehicles, its use of and continued construction of coal plants has continued. China’s slower economic growth may diminish its appetite for more aggressive climate action. Advocates may press China to provide more debt relief to developing countries in exchange for climate action, but success on that front may happen outside the COP.

The core challenge for advocates going forward is how to make geopolitical rivalry between the US annd China work for climate protection rather than against it. Advocates have not yet found a way to successfully pressure either country to improve their domestic action and offer of international financial support for climate action.