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Climate

How the COP28 Negotiations Actually Work

With a deal on the global stocktake yet to emerge from Dubai, we asked an expert to fill us in.

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This year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP28, has been broadly defined by two facts. The first is that the conference is headed by the CEO of the United Arab Emirates’ state-owned oil company. The second is that this is the year of the first global stocktake, a document that should, in theory, set the world on a path to achieve the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement of 2015.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that combination has not produced tremendous results. The latest draft of the stocktake dropped language calling for a fossil fuel phase-out. The condemnation was swift: “We will not sign our death certificate,” said the Association of Small Island States in a statement. “We think there are elements in the text that are fully unacceptable,” Spain’s environment minister said.

I was curious: How, exactly, does a global stocktake come to be? To find out, I called up Tom Evans, a policy advisor and climate negotiations specialist at the climate change think tank E3G, who is currently on the ground in Dubai. Our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

Catch me up. How are things going on the ground?

It’s … going along. There’s a lot of discussions at the moment around the text that came out yesterday. Many, many parties are dissatisfied with the level of ambition in that text. It didn’t have the fossil fuel phaseout, it wasn’t strong enough on things like finance or adaptation, so that has triggered this big backlash. It’s all happening behind closed doors at the moment with ministers and politicians talking about the text, and the rest of us are kind of in a black box with regards to what’s going on. But it’s all really on a knife’s edge.

What is happening behind those doors, as best as you can tell?

The process is somewhat unclear. COPs don’t have any strict procedures; the presidency can choose how to do this diplomacy to get to the outcome it needs. At the moment, we’re in the phase of basically bilateral consultations being led by the UAE. The presidency is bringing people together behind the scenes. Everyone’s kind of slowly talking to each other.

What do you mean by bilateral consultations, exactly?

The UAE sitting down with a party — let’s say India, for example — and hearing their concerns and understanding what their red lines are, what they’re looking to change in the text. And then with that knowledge they’ll have another meeting, sitting down with, say, the U.S., having the same conversation and trying to map out where people sit based on these conversations.

They don’t have a big meeting room where everyone is at the table. They haven’t done a plenary yet. Last night they did a heads of delegation meeting, which brought all parties together. It was a closed meeting, and it started at 10 p.m. and finished at about 2 a.m. last night, which we hadn’t seen before.

Of course, at the same time, countries are talking to each other in different configurations. So there are different groups who will come together, such as the regional groups [who might have common goals]. And the U.S., I’m sure, is talking to China and Saudi Arabia.

The UAE has other tools at their disposal — earlier this week they hosted an informal ministerial circle where they talked about the issues together — but at the moment, they’re choosing to do this very closed or bilateral diplomacy, probably because the stakes are high and they need to act sensitively around what this next iteration of text looks like. Because an awful lot hinges upon it.

There must be some real power dynamics at play here. Are there some countries that the UAE is more inclined to listen to than others?

The UNFCCC is weird because some of the times those power dynamics are different from what you might expect. Small island states and other countries have an awful lot of power compared to [the regular UN framework], where they’re not the geopolitical shapers. But in this space, they have much more power because of their moral authority.

This word, “stocktake,” implies a kind of mathematical act. Is there an emissions reckoning happening?

Stocktake is definitely a bad name — we’ve already done a lot of the stock-taking. The past two years had the process of technical dialogues among parties and experts and non-party stakeholders, and we had reports including the IPCC which fed into that. Those conclusions were published back in September, and that report kind of tells us what we already know: Action is growing but inadequate, finance is not there at the scale needed, it’s not going to the right people in the right places at the right time. We think we know what we need to do, we just have to find the ways to do it. How do we commit [to] things here in Dubai that will bend the emissions curve and make sure that actions are implemented on the ground?

Before this COP, I had the impression that the stocktake is going to be some sort of big reckoning of past and future emissions. But it sounds like what’s happening now is similar to how past COP negotiations have gone. Is there something that makes the stocktake stand out from the agreements that were negotiated at previous COPs?

One big difference is that this is the central mechanism of the Paris Agreement, where we take stock and assess how to close gaps to meeting those goals. And that hasn’t happened in a formal way before.

The Paris Agreement was designed to have a stocktake so that we could make sure that our successive action, as the years go by, was ratcheting up, making sure that we’re not just coasting along but really delivering stronger and stronger progress. So that’s an important part of this. We are engaging with the Paris Agreement and saying, “okay, can we make sure it fulfills its goals in that formal way?”

The other part of it is that the stocktake, because it’s had this two-year process, has clearly identified the gaps. No one can deny that we’re not doing enough on finance and that adaptation is massively neglected. We’ve acknowledged that there’s been some progress on emission reductions, but it’s just an incremental push towards what's needed. Those conclusions have a certain weight that we can draw from.

What happens if there is no agreement? Is that an option?

I don’t think that is an option. No agreement would be a failure, a clear sign of an inability of the parties to rise to the challenge of what’s needed. There’s obviously a difficult question about what level of agreement is not good enough, but that’s the reason why the parties are working so hard right now to rescue this — because the deal on the table at the moment was clearly falling below that line. That’s why we saw the backlash.

The UAE certainly will be aware that that is what’s at stake. It’s their presidency, they need to deliver what they set out to do. They need to be able to show the final success. After a year of many pledges and announcements, new money, new initiatives — all of that is important, but it doesn’t count unless you negotiate this final outcome.

And every party has to agree to the final outcome?

It has to be consensus, though what exactly consensus means can be debated. Everyone would have to not object. The weird state of the UNFCCC process means that sometimes there have been things which aren’t necessarily fully agreed 100% but still reached consensus.

Consensus isn’t perfect. It’s a political call, it's not a mathematical number game where you tally up votes. For example, even this year, when the parties agreed [to] the loss and damage fund, the U.S. said in that meeting that they didn’t agree to it. But they said they weren’t in the room when consensus was reached, because the negotiator had left the room temporarily, so an agreement was reached and they approved it here in Dubai.

So there’s ways you can play with the system and survive. There have been instances in the past I’ve heard many years ago where decisions have been gaveled through despite objection because the presidency felt confident that the objections were not sufficient to obstruct the outcome.

This is the first stocktake process. Do you think part of what’s making it so hard is that there is no previous framework?

To an extent we’re creating something new, trying to do this for the first time. But I think also, it’s the politics. We are looking at the hardest issue, and for the first time in years getting on the edge of agreeing [to] something like a fossil fuel phaseout. And that brings up deep challenges for countries who are extremely dependent on fossil fuels. That’s true on all sides — not just producers, but also consumers.

We’re talking about initiating a model for the world which doesn’t have fossils in it. And that’s never been done — even in countries who have decarbonized to a great degree, they have not been able to show how that works at an international level.

So it is a huge ask, and there is no doubt that there can be challenges when trying to do that. And that’s what we’re seeing. We’re seeing the pains of trying to get something that’s useful. We’re no longer negotiating a treaty like we were in Paris. We’re no longer agreeing on a rulebook, which we did for five years up until COP26. We’re now really firmly talking about implementation. What does it mean to deliver the Paris Agreement? What does it mean to actually reduce emissions, not just pledge targets? So obviously it’s going to be a painful conversation, but it’s a difficult and important one.

Is there a misconception or something frustrating about this process that you wish people knew more about?

I think the biggest frustration is that this isn’t about just a technical exercise where you’re like, “oh, we need to phase out fossil fuels, because that's what is needed.” I mean, that’s true. But there’s a deeper question here of “how does the Paris Agreement work?”

The Paris Agreement works on the basis of a deal that if we have finance, if we have cooperation, if we have means to deliver action, [then] we can do more ambitious things, we can raise and accelerate action. That is what is at stake here. So when we’re talking about phasing out fossil fuels, we should also be asking, where’s the financial pathway to do that? When we’re talking about trying to make sure that countries have more adaptation, where is the money on the table to do that? And at the moment, we know it’s a drop in the ocean. These are the contours of the deal that we need to really examine.

And it won’t be all sealed here. It goes on and on until COP30 and after that. But the global stocktake is, I think, like a marriage vow renewal. You need to kind of renew the trust and the faith that that deal, that system’s working. And right now it’s looking like maybe a shaky marriage.

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan. Read More

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