SPIA at COP28: A 360-Degree View on Climate

Written by
Environmental Policy Associates
Jan. 29, 2024

COP28 was the largest UN climate conference to date, with more than 65,000 delegates from governments, businesses, universities, advocacy groups and lobbyists converging on Dubai over two weeks in December. A dizzying array of issues were discussed, both through the formal negotiations process and the panels, events and press conferences that filled the sprawling, mostly outdoor conference venue. The range of issues discussed demonstrates how these annual climate conferences have evolved, even since the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015. 

Back in 2015, negotiators focused on establishing headline temperature goals and emission targets that could be agreed upon by representatives while being ambitious enough to deliver an impactful global climate treaty that went beyond the original United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). At COP28 the focus, both in the negotiations and elsewhere, was on much more specific questions. Negotiators argued over specific commitments in the energy sector, the future of fossil fuels, and who would provide funding for the newly established loss and damage fund. Panels addressed the specific barriers to unlocking finance for the climate transitions, including in the most vulnerable small island developing states. Even Heads of State could be found discussing issues like the global goal on adaptation, agricultural resilience and methane reduction. 

Princeton’s COP28 delegation of students and faculty were engaged across many of these issues. The following sets out perspectives from ten graduate students, sketching a path across their various areas of focus in Dubai.

 

Two men dressed in whale costumes standing in front of signs that say "No More Fossils"

Photo Source: Environmental Policy Associates

Fuels: Powering the World

The future of fuels and other energy sources were central to the discussions at COP28. As countries become more focused on how the goals set within the UNFCCC process can be achieved, the world’s ongoing extraction and use of fossil fuels is a major concern for many. While the role of clean electricity from renewable sources in enabling deep decarbonization is now well accepted, other technologies, including green hydrogen, are still emerging as energy sources and storage options. Charles Fraser (MPA ‘24) and Wilson RIcks (PhD candidate in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering) looked at the battle to build consensus in this messy transition.

 

Charles Fraser: The Future of Fossil Fuels

Perhaps the most politically salient issue in the COP28 negotiations was about the future of fossil fuels. Negotiators in Dubai were tasked with concluding the first Global Stocktake, a comprehensive review of progress in the global response to climate change under the 2015 Paris Agreement. Countries were also meant to use the Stocktake to ratchet their ambition, agreeing ways to accelerate their actions and support going forward. It was through these negotiations in Dubai that over 120 countries called for a commitment to phaseout fossil fuels. Other countries, especially those heavily reliant on fossil fuel production and exports, were much more resistant. OPEC even sent a letter to its members calling on them to reject any language targeting energy or fossil fuels as a source of emissions. These deep and very public tensions meant all eyes were on the COP Presidency, the UAE (itself heavily reliant on revenues from its oil exports), to see how it would manage the negotiations process. A “Majlis” style meeting of ministers and heads of delegation took place to try to break through the brinkmanship, a hark back to similar formats used at the Paris negotiations and before.

In these discussions, as well as through many of the events, meetings and press conferences happening alongside the negotiations, it became clear that reaching political consensus on new sector- or source-specific mitigation commitments, which were almost unprecedented in the UNFCCC process to date, would require significantly stronger financial commitments and delivery from “developed” country governments. There was also widespread recognition that phasing out fossil fuel extraction and consumption would need to happen at different speeds for different countries, with concrete proposals about what this could mean in practice. In the end, countries did agree to the global aim of “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner”, alongside other goals like tripling renewable energy capacity by 2030. While significantly weaker than a full commitment to a fast and fair phaseout of fossil fuels, this was still a historic moment for the UNFCCC process.

 

Wilson Ricks: International Standards for Low-Carbon Hydrogen

As the global 'hydrogen economy' transitions from hype and commitments toward practical implementation, there has been a growing push to develop international standards for low-carbon hydrogen production. Because even 'green' hydrogen produced with electricity can be highly carbon-intensive if the sourcing of that electricity is not carefully regulated, there is a significant risk that the emerging global trade in hydrogen and hydrogen-derived products could be tainted by greenwashing. Countries with the high-quality renewable electricity resources necessary to make clean hydrogen cost-effectively, particularly those in the global South that expressed interest in hydrogen exports as a development strategy, could be put at a competitive disadvantage if hydrogen from less-legitimate sources is allowed to carry a 'green' label. To address these emerging challenges, both the Global Renewables Alliance and the International Standards Organization released proposed guidance on clean hydrogen qualification at this COP. There was also significant attention paid to upcoming domestic clean hydrogen production regulations in the United States, which have since been released and appear to align strongly with earlier proposals by the EU - pushing further toward an accepted international standard. These hydrogen-focused debates are part of a larger conversation over how any product can be legitimately certified as 'green', one which will become increasingly important as the global energy transition and trade in low-carbon products progress.

 

Picture of audience listening to a speaker at Conference of Parties presentation in Dubai.
Photo Source: Environmental Policy Associates

Developing Countries: Financing and Mitigation

Climate change and the energy transition pose special challenges for developing countries. The energy transition is a capital-intensive one, but developing countries have fewer and more constrained channels to access that capital. They are also especially vulnerable to the storms, droughts, heatwaves, and other forms of extreme weather that climate change intensifies. Edmund Downie and Avery Barnett (PhD candidates at SPIA) looked at how COP’s proceedings and side events tackled these challenges.

 

Edmund Downie: Climate finance for developing countries

Climate finance is one of the most challenging parts of the transition – how do we encourage funding flows to the developing world? The energy transition is a capital-intensive one, but the cost of capital is usually higher in the developing world. Borrowers must contend with risks like currency fluctuations and contract enforceability that are often weaker in developed-world contexts. Only China, with its enormous domestic capital markets, escapes these pressures – one reason why China’s renewable energy installations have been so large.

The most natural source of capital here are multilateral development banks, but their balance sheets are politically constrained and far from large enough for the investments required. What else could work? I attended events around one interesting model: de-risking via targeted deployment of philanthropic capital. One of the riskiest portions of a project’s life cycle is the early development stage, where project developers must acquire the prerequisites for construction – for instance, land, labor, and permits or permissions. Allied Climate Partners (ACP) has partnered with existing development institutions to use philanthropic capital as first-loss equity specifically for this stage of a project. Projects that get through this stage are more appealing to other investors and can raise funds at lower costs. Successful investments will also provide returns to ACP that can finance more such investments. It’s a clever way to stretch an ultimately limited resource, but the political constraints on bolstering development banks’ balance sheets mean that we need every approach we can get.

 

Avery Barnett: Energy and climate in small island developing states

Small Island developing states (SIDS) have unique challenges regarding the net-zero energy transition. These islands are at the frontlines of climate change and are the most vulnerable to the immediate effects. Their small size creates  constraints around land use, resource availability, and financing large projects. Moreover, these islands often must import fuel, exposing them to global economic shocks and energy security strains. 

During the proceedings of COP28, several discussions were focused on the legal and regulatory barriers to the energy transition. It was noted that policy development and implementation, education, and technology adoption will play critical roles in promoting the energy transition. Moreover, to accelerate the transition, as well as other mitigation and adaptation techniques, there is a need for grant funding for these initiatives and a restructuring of the current funding model which is often slow and impractical. Furthermore, many SIDS face natural hazards that impact their ability to borrow to pursue projects because rebuilding efforts are prioritized. Nonetheless, steps are being taken to prioritize the use and adoption of newer technologies such as green hydrogen, and a key point raised across multiple discussions is that the net-zero transition will require collaboration, coordination, and regulation – both within countries and at the global level..here is still work to be done within SIDS to fuel a just, sustainable, and equitable energy transition.

 

Panel of discussants speaking at the launch of the report drafted by America is All In
Photo Source: America is All In, COP28

The U.S. Presence (and Absence)

The U.S. is the world’s leading political and economic power, so its approach to international climate policy carries exceptional sway. Its large economy gives it deep pockets for international climate finance – if it wants to. As a superpower, its approach to COP has an outsized influence on what this process can produce. Christian Perkins and Brent Efron (both MPA ‘24) followed the U.S.’s presence (and absence) in COP and the international climate order.

 

Christian Perkins: U.S. funding for multilateral climate finance institutions

From Loss & Damage to private sector roundtables, challenges related to finance were never out of sight. This was especially true for one issue I followed closely: how the political mood in the U.S. affects its willingness – or unwillingness – to contribute to institutions like the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the largest climate fund.

One panel with U.S. officials, including Senators Coons and Cardin, grappled with this very issue (recording here). Coons, who Chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, indicated that while the politics of a moment matters, incentives to invest in international finance institutions remain, regardless of who sits in the White House. However, he did caveat this sentiment. When leaders less amenable to giving to institutions like GCF occupy the Oval Office or hold a Congressional majority, Coons and others must channel U.S. dollars less directly. Since Republicans currently control the House, less U.S. money is currently flowing to the GCF, despite pressure from allies and the broader international community. Large international funds are not popular among much of the domestic constituency, which means contributions from the U.S. must take the form of traditional aid and bilateral spending. Despite this, Coons is sure that while the U.S. is not currently increasing its contributions to the GCF, the sum of all international climate spending is far greater than other nations. Sen. Coons’ comments made clear that, though institutions like the GCF need much greater funding, domestic politics make it unlikely that the U.S. will deliver a major injection anytime soon.

 

Brent Efron: US officials at COP

One of the topics I followed at COP was the activities of the US federal government outside of negotiating rooms. This meant tracking who the federal government was sending to represent itself at the conference and what events the US was putting on. I found it fascinating to learn that while the US was playing a large role behind the scenes, its public presence was, by all accounts, greatly diminished compared to previous years. This was perhaps most evident in the prominent US officials who didn’t attend the conference. President Biden, Secretary of Energy Granholm, and Secretary of the Interior Haaland were all missing in action. Yet, all three had attended COP in both 2021 and 2022. However, it is not clear that these absences ultimately affected any of the significant outcomes of the negotiations.

 

group of activists gathered outside of COP28 with signs saying "No Fossil Fuels"
Photo Source: Environmental Policy Associates 

Intersecting Issues: How Climate Connects to So Much Else

Countries are belatedly recognizing the importance of climate change for our future society – and, by extension, for hosts of issues outside of traditional “core” climate topics like energy and the Global North-South divide. Beichen Lyu (PhD student at SPIA), Tony Solis (MPA ‘24), Yelena Yermakova (postdoctoral research scholar and Fung Global Fellow), and Haneen Khalid (PhD candidate at SPIA) turned their attention at COP to these many “climate-and” topics.

 

Beichen Lyu: Climate and Artificial Intelligence (AI)

2023 is the year of climate and AI — we recorded the hottest year while witnessing the “hottest” AI application, ChatGPT. So how could AI help better climate policy? At COP28, I explored the answers from three dimensions: people, problem, and policy, based on my virtual attendance at UNFCCC and side events. First, I was thrilled to see the emerging engagement from the AI industry, with executives from several big techs and early startups visible across events. Representation from the AI industry was still minor compared to the majority of scientists and governments, but the former’s technical insights well complemented the latter’s. Additionally, I found it interesting to observe how differently AI and policy experts approached the climate problem at its premier venue. Throughout several panel discussions, AI experts appeared to be more methodology-driven (e.g., “how could AI models help predict floods using these cool satellite images?”) while policymakers were more user-centered (e.g., “how could flood responders access satellite images easily and/or develop their AI capacity locally?”). I think both perspectives are necessary, but without being bridged, neither will be singularly sufficient in winning this climate battle. Lastly, there was a consensus that AI can be an immediate gamechanger for geospatial applications under several policy initiatives. Relevant AI applications include methane detection to “Accelerate Fast Mitigation” (an agreement by a US-China-UAE summit alongside COP28) and disaster forecasting to enable “Early Warning for All” (a flagship proposal by the UN Secretary-General in 2022). COP28 itself also announced a novel AI Innovation Grand Challenge that cultivates AI-powered climate actions particularly in developing countries. Overall, I am optimistic to see “hotter” AI applications for our cooler climate at future COPs!

 

Tony Solis: Climate and Youth at COP

Youth engagement at COP was visible through the many events that were made for youth and organized by Youth. Panels focused on a range of topics from youth negotiators from small islands to panels about youth climate action in specific countries and around the globe. I had the amazing opportunity to engage with different youth including influencers, negotiators, and activists. Many of them were directly engaging with governments and even facilitating meetings between governments and youth groups. Finally, some governments like the United States and Canada were intentional about involving youth throughout their programing at COP.

 

Yelena Yermakova: Climate, Oceans, and International Law

Even though the oceans cover two thirds of the planet and act as a critical climate change buffer by absorbing 93% of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere, oceans have been marginalized from the international climate regime. Only starting with COP21 in Paris were 'oceans' put in the preamble. Despite the climate change impact on sea level rise, there is no legal framework to address it. As Vladimir Ryabinin, the Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, stated during one of the panels, oceans are a victim of climate change as well as a source of solutions. The only way forward is sustainable ocean planning, mobilizing concrete ocean-based climate action and implementing ocean-based climate solutions in nationally determined contributions  (NDCs), national adaptation plans (NAPs), and other national climate plans. 

Besides the important physical role of oceans in climate mitigation and adaptation planning, oceans are also critical to global supply chains, but the shipping industry is also a major source of greenhouse gases. Some panels discussed shipping and the need for coherence between the UN agencies, such as the UNFCCC and the International Maritime Organization. In addition to stronger synergies among the UN agencies, it was noted that the private sector should be at the decision-making table as it plays a crucial role in the next generation of green ships. Lastly, some interesting discussions were held about one of the recent breakthroughs in sustainable ocean planning, the new High Seas Treaty, also known as the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction treaty (BBNJ), signed in September 2023. It is the only law that gives us a framework to protect the high seas. The BBNJ Treaty and guidance from international courts can protect ocean biodiversity’s capacity to mitigate and adapt to climate change, secure peaceful multilateral outcomes, and deliver on Paris Agreement obligations.

 

Haneen Khalid: Climate and Security

The intersection of climate change and global security might be the most important policy issue of our time. We are lucky to be at a department where the apex programs focus on exactly these two, and opportunities for more overlap, communication, and cross-cutting research may be what the country and world need to better understand new challenges. Attending COP28, for me, was such an attempt. I have only experienced multilateralism from a global disarmament and arms control perspective, which comes with its own set of limitations. At a time when security risks and war are calling multilateralism itself into question, it is not just the climate that is at risk but the fabric of our international society. Our School’s former namesake worked very hard to ensure that we, as a global community, would not fall prey to the worst of our whims and it is up to us to carry that torch forward. I believe the two greatest challenges, and opportunities, for multilateralism lie within climate and security issues. Finding opportunities to weave together ideas, infrastructure, data repositories, technologies, and most importantly relationships that can hold up in the face of immense change is the work of our time. COP is not just a climate conference but an opportunity to build alliances, research partnerships, and knowledge sourced directly from frontline communities to better understand what security might come to mean for ordinary people. For me, it was a bootcamp in all this and more, and I cannot wait to bring my insights into security conversations and citizen diplomacy initiatives that I have participated and have colleagues in, as well as the larger Princeton and alumni community.