The True Importance of COP28: It’s In Our Hands Now

Carl Pope
4 min readDec 17, 2023

Common sense prevailed at the last COP28 moment, with the symbolic agreement to commit the world to moving beyond fossil fuels (as it had been doing rather steadily during the conference). One importance of the agreement is that future COP’s can start out with the premise that zero carbon energy is the human future, and bear down on the question of how to accelerate its arrival.

The less obvious importance of an agreement — in this case almost any agreement — is that the early days of COP28 were devoting to calling out the granular progress that the world was already making. More than half the world’s economy signed up to triple their renewable energy capacity (to 11GW) and double the pace of enhancements in energy efficiency to 4%. Oil and gas companies producing 40% of the world’s supply pledges to eliminate at least 85% of flaring and methane leaks.

These three sets of commitments, if all nations signed up and implement them, would reduce greenhouse gas emissions post 2030 by the equivalent of 30 billion tons of CO2, enough to keep us on an emissions pathway which keeps warming from exceeding 1.5o. The oil industry pledge also concentrates the reductions on methane, particularly from the oil and gas industry whose emissions will otherwise be major drivers of a heat spike in the 2030’s.

In addition, by the time the acrimony over “should” vs. “could”, “Phase out” vs. Phase down” for the 2050’s future of fossil fuels kicked up, COP 28 had already launched and funded two new pathways to slashing emissions, one a sectoral focused Industrial Transition Accelerator, designed to catalyze decarbonization across heavy-emitting sectors, including energy, industry, and transportation, and accelerate the delivery of Paris-aligned targets. So steel, cement, chemicals, fertilizers, aviation, and shipping are now going to receive a dramatically enhanced level of scrutiny and innovation. The other was a decision to formalize the role of local governments in both negotiating and implementing the decisions of future COP’s; cities are the source of most of the world’s greenhouse gasses, and hence the key to reducing those emissions.

It is these sectoral and national decisions that will really determine the pace of decarbonization between now and the critical 2030 deadline to have reduced emissions by at least 40%. And COP 28 put in place for the first time a detailed road map of where each key stakeholder stands: which countries are prepared and equipped to achieve zero emissions, which are willing but lack capacity, and which are not yet convinced. Similarly, we now know which oil companies are willing to transparently report their emissions rate from producing oil and gas, which are recalcitrant and will need to be regulated or pressured by consumers, and which need technical assistance to identify and remedy their methane leaks.

The top-line news: thanks to a high-performance COP, 1.5o remains within reach, and we now know exactly how we must get there. It’s time to stop arguing and start cooperating. Most of the world, of course, wasn’t sitting at the negotiation table, or even watching from the back rows. But thanks to this COP’s attention to detail and willingness to announce agreement as and when it was reached, (a new feature) the entire world has a set of assignments. Each one of us is part of a network of institutions which, currently, are likely to be highly dependent on fossil fuel energy: ask each one of your community connections “are they committed, and have they planned, to cut their greenhouse emissions in half by 2030?”

Has your school board placed its first orders for healthy, zero emission electric busses, and perhaps the rooftop solar panels to power them? Has your state joined the California clean car and truck partnerships? Have your public utilities released a systematic plan to shift from coal and gas electricity and heating to all renewable power for your home and office? Is your employer transparently planning to cut their energy use by at least 4% a year?

Has your city established an all-electric timetable for home and office appliances, and has it required that all gas provided to its residents during the transition be low methane intensity? Has your state required the retirement of all polluting power plants by 2035, while making it easy and affordable for customers to become providers of clean rooftop solar power? Has your national government committed to triple its current renewable power capacity by 2030? And if, like the US, it has, is it transparently implementing that pledge, or is the promise still inside a black box?

Perhaps the most important accomplishment of COP28, and the true meaning of its vague fossil fuel transition language, is that it has empowered each one of us to become a climate leader on multiple fronts. Get the facts about your fossil fuel dependence. Take your new mandate and act, not as a consumer, but as a citizen and stakeholder in the future.

The next time a friend or colleague laments that the climate crisis is hopeless, remind them “Not since Cop28! It’s in our hands now.”

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Carl Pope

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, former executive director & chairman Sierra Club and Senior Climate Advisor to Michael Bloomberg