Global Debate at UN Climate Conference: Reparations and Fossil Fuel Phase-Out

The United Nations’ 28th climate change conference will open on November 30 and run through December 12 in Dubai, where some 70,000 or so government officials, journalists, and activists are expected to participate. Expect vicious fights over climate reparations, hand-wringing about global temperature trends, and furious activist demands to ban fossil fuels. In other words, a now almost routine political exercise in climate drama.
At this Conference of the Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, delegates from nearly 200 countries will engage in the first-ever “global stocktake” that will supposedly “assess the collective progress” towards meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Specifically, the Paris Agreement calls for mitigating man-made global warming by “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”
So where do current global temperatures stand with respect to those goals? The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported on November 15 that October ranked as the warmest on record at 2.41 degrees Fahrenheit (1.34 degrees Celsius) above the 20th-century average. The agency calculated that “there is a greater than 99% chance that 2023 will rank as the warmest year on record for the world.” On November 10, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service noted that so far 2023 is “currently the warmest calendar year on record, and 1.43°C warmer than the pre-industrial reference period.”
The global stocktake will almost certainly conclude that the past eight years have not seen much in the way of “collective progress” with respect to reining in climate change. Earlier this month, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported that “heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere once again reached a new record last year and there is no end in sight to the rising trend.” In particular, the burning of fossil fuels has boosted the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide a full 50 percent above the pre-industrial levels.
The Paris Agreement is structured such that each country makes pledges called nationally determined contributions (NDC) that outline their goals for addressing climate change. For example, in its NDC, the U.S. sets an economy-wide target of reducing its net greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent below 2005 levels in 2030. As of 2022, U.S. emissions have fallen only 15.5 percent below 2005 levels. In September, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that implementing the climate and energy provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act would result in cutting U.S. emissions 35 to 43 percent below 2005 levels.
Earlier this month, the U.N. issued a report that calculated that the world would have to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below 2019 levels by 2030 in order to have a good chance of keeping global average temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. To keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, global emissions would have to be cut around 27 percent below 2019 levels by 2030. Making the heroic assumption that all countries faithfully honored their current NDC promises, the world is instead on track by 2030 to cut emissions by 2 to 9 percent below their 2019 levels. This projection does, however, suggest that global emissions will peak before 2030.
Given these temperature and emissions trends, the Paris Agreement’s aim of limiting the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is already out of reach.
The COP28 global stocktake is supposed to motivate countries to greatly increase their new NDC pledges to cut emissions which are expected to be issued and confirmed before 2025.
Wrangling over money is always a central concern at U.N. climate change conferences. Specifically, poor developing countries annually demand that rich developed countries provide them with financing to enable them to cut their emissions and adapt to climate change. Back in 2009, at COP15, the poor countries extracted a promise from rich countries to “mobilize” $100 billion per year in climate funding by 2020. The latest report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development finds that that financing amounted to almost $90 billion in 2021. In its 2019 report Financing a Global Green New Deal, the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) called for rich countries to supply $2.5 trillion in annual climate and development financing to poor countries.
The main money fight at COP28 will be over how to “operationalize” the new Loss and Damage Fund that was launched at COP27 in Egypt last year. Loss and damage generally refers to covering the costs related to climate change that countries cannot avoid or adapt to. Basically, poor countries are demanding the moral equivalent of climate reparations from the wealthy countries whose cumulative greenhouse gas emissions are causing them losses from rising sea levels and extreme weather events attributed to climate change. In its Taking Responsibility report earlier this year, UNCTAD argued that the new Loss and Damage Fund be capitalized initially at $150 billion rising to $300 billion annually by 2030. In negotiations prior to COP28, developed countries made it clear that all contributions to new funds would be voluntary. In particular, the U.S. delegation wants to make it plain that loss and damage do not involve any basis for liability or compensation.

In 2021, at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, an initial call for parties to agree to a “rapid phase-out of coal” power was watered down in the Glasgow Climate Pact. At the insistence of China and other parties, the pact merely called upon parties to accelerate “efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” Unabated means coal power generation in which carbon dioxide is not captured and sequestered underground or through forest growth.
Last year at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, a proposal backed by 80 developed and developing countries (including the U.S. and the European Union) calling for the phasing down of all fossil fuels was not adopted. In his welcoming letter to the delegates, COP28 president Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber (who is also the head of the UAE’s national oil company) declared, “Phasing down demand for, and supply of, all fossil fuels is inevitable and essential.”
At COP28, the European Union plans to encourage all parties to agree on phasing out all unabated fossil fuels. However, back in September China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua asserted, “It is unrealistic to completely phase out fossil fuel energy.” Russia also is against any global agreement to phase out fossil fuels. Major oil and gas producer Saudi Arabia more artfully argues for phasing out emissions by capturing and sequestering them while maintaining the production and use of fossil fuels. A global pact to phase out fossil fuels at COP28 seems unlikely since agreements reached at U.N. climate change conferences must be achieved via consensus of all of the parties.