What were the real successes and failures of COP28, and what does it mean moving forward?

Civil society arrived at COP28 with a clear litmus test for success – COP28 needed to operationalise the Loss and Damage Fund agreed at COP27 and agree to end the era of fossil fuels. Both were achieved, yet both fell short of the victories they should have been.

While opinion is divided as to whether to hail the outcomes as successes or failures, I leave COP28 with the sense of one very clear success story and one clear failure. For me, the real victory of COP28 was the power of people and civil society to finally deliver outcomes put off for 30 years, something unimaginable just two or three years ago.

But the clear failure is that of fairness; of climate justice for countries least responsible for the climate crisis who nonetheless suffer its worst impacts. COP28 did not deliver for low- and middle-income countries, it did not secure the assurances that countries with the greatest historical responsibility for climate change will go furthest, faster, and will generate the finance needed for a global just transition. At COP29 next year – the finance COP – we must see redoubled efforts to get fair financing for climate action.

Loss and Damage fund operationalised on day one

A lot about COP28 was highly unusual, from being presided over by an oil and gas executive to having pretty good provision of food, water, and toilets – surprisingly not a claim many COP can make. Particularly unusual was securing one of the most important outcomes on day one. The operationalisation of the Loss & Damage Fund was gavelled through in plenary on the first day, and was immediately followed by a flurry of pledges. First $100m from the host UAE, next the same from Germany, and third came the UK with $40m for the fund and a further £20m for related spending.

It has been the exceptional fight and hard work of countries on the frontline of the climate crisis, supported by civil society, that has been instrumental for the fund. Getting the impacts of climate change recognised and addressed alongside mitigation and adaptation has been an uphill battle. Just a year or two ago it would have been impossible to have imagined agreement on this fund, and with the UK at the front of the queue to contribute. This is the culmination of years of hard work, engagement and advocacy.

It was quite a moment – and in many ways a real success – but there are clear challenges and limitations that we must keep working to address. First, while the Fund will be governed by the UNFCCC, the Secretariat will be hosted by the World Bank, a questionable choice given the World Bank’s poor track record on climate change (it has invested more than $15bn in fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement) and negative impacts on communities, as well as high fee rates and the need for considerable governance reform and decolonisation.

Second, much of the finance pledged at COP28 – including from the UK – comes from existing ODA and climate finance commitments. It is a simple matter of fairness that finance to address the losses and damages as a result of human-made climate change is provided by those most responsible, and is not taken from the limited funding available for other poverty and climate change priorities. With climate change impacts escalating, there is an urgent need for genuinely new sources of finance to address the scale required, including through measures that adequately tax eye-watering fossil fuel company profit and repurposing subsidies, which can raise billions in the UK without unfairly costing households.

A global transition away from fossil fuels

In stark contrast to the swift business on the Loss and Damage Fund, the much awaited outcome on fossil fuels went down to the wire and well into extra-time. This was the moment to address the elephant in the room of the climate change negotiations for almost 30 years – that fossil fuels are driving climate change and must be phased out urgently. COP26 in Glasgow threw down the gauntlet but failed to deliver; COP27 risked a backslide, and the credibility of the petrostate COP28 rested on articulating clearly the reality of the situation.

It was unimaginable even a couple of years ago that at COP28 all countries of the world would agree to recognise the need to transition away from fossil fuels. This is historic and is entirely the result of people power. Across two days in September, more than 600,000 people in at least 60 countries got involved in more than 700 actions calling for a fast, fair, forever, and funded end to fossil fuels. But that was just one moment of many. People have been campaigning and taking to the streets all over the world in recent years to demand action. In the UK, three in four people (77%) think climate change is a serious global threat but only one in four (26%) think the government is doing enough according to polling by Ipsos.

While the outcome should have been stronger – a full and timebound phaseout – and the many loopholes are hard to swallow, this must signal the death-knell for fossil fuels. We must now demand governments and fossil fuel companies act to deliver this much needed transition.

Will it be a fair transition?

The question that COP28 did not answer is how will this transition away from fossil fuels be fair and funded. High-income countries with the historical responsibility for climate change, did not sign up to the level of action or finance needed to make this a fair global transition. Many of the countries calling for a phaseout of fossil fuels are however still expanding production – including the UK which has the dubious accolade of being one of five Global North countries responsible for the majority (51%) of planned expansion of new oil and gas fields through to 2050 – which left low- and middle-income countries wondering why they were being asked to forgo their own domestic fossil fuel opportunities without adequate finance on the table to make that fair and while fossil fuel profits are set to expand.

Until there is real world evidence of high-income countries ending fossil fuel expansion and real world increase in available finance for the energy transition, for adaptation, and for the Loss and Damage Fund, we cannot expect other countries to take on an unfair amount of the global action needed. This makes COP29 – the COP where the new collective quantified goal to replace the $100bn climate finance commitment will be agreed – crucial if these outcomes are to become reality.

The UK at COP28

At COP28 the UK was at the forefront of efforts to operationalise the Loss & Damage Fund and to secure a phaseout of fossil fuels. The UK must now walk the talk. This means establishing genuinely new and additional finance at scale for the Loss and Damage Fund that reaches communities impacted by climate change. It also means demonstrating the UK’s commitment to, in Minister Stuart’s own words at COP28, “ending the era of fossil fuels.” No further fossil fuel expansion in the UK can be acceptable in this context, and the government must now reverse the decisions to build Rosebank and to issue new North Sea oil and gas licences annually. Anything else would fail the spirit of the agreement, the UK’s stated climate goals, and the demands of small island developing states that the Minister stated in his closing remarks that we must listen to.

Now is the time to act to end fossil fuels – fast, fair, funded, and forever.

A short roundup of other issues at COP28:

  • Adaptation was the surprise failure of COP28. Agreement on the Global Goal for Adaptation and finance for adaptation fell far short of the mark.
  • Progress on nature was positive at COP28, securing important references to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Global Biodiversity Framework and to the importance of protecting and restoring biodiversity, ecosystem integrity, and ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation. However, elements of the text could open a door to substantially scaling up biofuels and bioenergy without safeguards, with huge implications for nature, people, and climate.
  • The need for food systems transformation gathered momentum at COP28 with the launch of a Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action that has now been endorsed by 158 countries, and “resilient food systems”, recognised as a key adaptation solution for the first time in a UNFCCC decision.
  • Inclusion and human rights had wins and loses at COP28, with some recognition of inclusion, human rights, gender, Indigenous People, children and youth, and people with disabilities, across various strands of the negotiations, but worryingly only one very weak reference to human rights in the core text. However the Just Transition Work Programme did recognise labour rights for the first time in the UNFCCC.
  • The host for COP29 was agreed as Azerbaijan, making that three COPs in a row in contexts where civic space and human rights are restricted.