Can the World Find Agreement on Fighting Climate Change?
Researchers from BU brought their expertise to the global stage at the annual UN climate summit, COP28, in Dubai
As global temperatures skyrocket and many countries blow past their agreed upon climate goals, world leaders have been gathered in Dubai for the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference. This is the 28th year of climate negotiations between the Conference of the Parties (COP), and top officials were there to figure out how to finance the phasing out of fossil fuels, expand renewable energy sources, adapt to an accelerating climate crisis, and pay for damage caused by climate change.
“The focus has really shifted toward implementation and, for that, finance is vital,” says Rishikesh Ram Bhandary, assistant director of the Boston University Global Development Policy Center’s Global Economic Governance Initiative. He attended COP28 along with Maureen Heydt, the center’s assistant director of communications and outreach.
Over 70,000 delegates, along with thousands of students, activists, policymakers, scientists, and others, have taken part in events during the two-week climate summit, which closes this week. Some notable highlights include an international agreement to expand renewable energy, a global assessment of progress, and controversy about oil and gas companies’ involvement in the summit.
During the final weekend of the conference, Bhandary and Heydt hosted a COP28 official side event with the China-based environmental think tank Greenovation Hub. Bhandary says the event aimed to highlight ways to tackle the global debt crisis—a major barrier for low-income countries to build out clean energy—and particularly focus on how vulnerable countries need resources to respond and adapt to climate change.
“Our center has tried to bridge the climate change and international financial architecture reform discussions. By talking about how climate change and debt distress are related, we hope to bring not just greater awareness of the interlinkages of the two topics, but also to identify how the two fairly distinct policy processes can best support and reinforce each other,” says Bhandary. His research shows that cutting greenhouse gas emissions will “require closing the massive climate financing gap,” and this means “policymakers must overcome widespread sovereign-debt distress,” as he pointed out in a recent op-ed for Project Syndicate.
The debt crisis in the global south is dampening climate ambition.— Rishikesh Ram Bhandary (@rishirbhandary) December 6, 2023
As countries review progress on climate change under the Global Stocktake, debt needs to be a part of the conversation.@mfespinosa and I write in @ProSyn #COP28 https://t.co/PsbTtdS00O
Many low-income countries disproportionately face the brunt of disasters like sea level rise, drought, floods, hurricanes, and other weather events made stronger by a warming atmosphere and ocean. With global average temperatures breaking records—2023 has already been declared the hottest year in the last 125,000 years, according to the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service—the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been.
In a step toward progress, a “loss and damages” fund—to provide financial assistance to vulnerable countries—received its first concrete commitments on the first day of COP28. Another focus this year was to assess how much progress countries have made in meeting COP21’s 2015 Paris Agreement—the most significant international climate change treaty ever signed. It remains the standard in measuring if the world is reducing greenhouse gas emissions—which are emitted from burning fossil fuels for transportation, electricity, heating, industrial processes, and other routine activities—enough to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures.
There was widespread agreement at the summit that more needs to be done to mitigate and adapt to climate change. And even before COP28, the most recent World Energy Outlook found that the demand for fossil fuels is too high to keep within the Paris Agreement goal and global emissions will “push up global average temperatures by around 2.4°C this century.” It states that “bending the emissions curve onto a path consistent with 1.5°C remains possible,” but difficult.
“Assessing progress at the COP requires a long-term view,” Bhandary says. “There is a lot of noise in terms of the short-term and immediate twists and turns that crowds out the actual signal coming out of this process, which is that there is tremendous interest in climate action and wide recognition of its importance.
“However, a full alignment of the global economic system is required to actually deliver on climate change goals.”
An Alarming Fossil Fuel Influence
One of the biggest questions facing policymakers is figuring out how, and if, fossil fuel companies should play a role in the transition away from the fuel they produce. Climate journalists at Heated found that fossil fuel lobbyists had an unusually prominent presence at COP28, raising alarm that the industry held an outsized influence at the conference. The climate summit president, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, also faced criticism for saying that phasing out fossil fuels isn’t necessary, a claim that the largest scientific reports show is false; he later said his remarks were misinterpreted.
“It is somewhat worrisome to me that there is a large presence from the fossil fuel industry here at COP28,” says Sasha Gilmore (GRS’28), a BU Earth and environment PhD student who attended the summit. “On one hand, where the conference is being hosted is a high producer of oil, and there were rumors that the UAE was going to use the climate talks to make oil deals, the opposite of what we want to be discussed at one of the largest climate summits in the world. On the other hand, I hope those [lobbyists] not engaged in these talks are here to learn why transitioning away from fossil fuels is in the best interest for us all, and that making this switch would also benefit them in the long run.”
During the last week at COP28, Gilmore sat on a panel on engaging youth in climate action and gave a presentation based on her final project, which is focused on the connection between extreme heat and climate change solutions.
“I feel optimism about the voices of youth,” says Pamela Templer, a BU College of Arts & Sciences professor and chair of biology, who attended COP28 along with Gilmore and Shalom Entner (GRS’28), a PhD student in the biology program. They were all supported by the National Science Foundation’s Climate Leaders Academy grant.
“This COP has a huge number of students engaging from around the world,” Templer says. “They are showing the world that their present and future are both affected by decisions made by negotiators. I believe this is important so world leaders don’t forget that the decisions they make affect humanity and future generations around the globe.”
[Students] are showing the world that their present and future are both affected by decisions made by negotiators.
In a big step toward a global clean energy transition, 118 governments pledged to triple the world’s renewable energy capacity by 2030. Gilmore hopes that the lasting effects of this year’s COP will revolve around more progress toward the Paris Agreement goals, a fast-paced move to clean energy, and delivering money for climate action to developing nations.
“The youth are the future climate leaders of the world, and our generation is the one that will feel the worst effects of climate change,” Gilmore says. “Therefore, we should have the power to voice our opinions and suggestions on how to reach our current climate goals and move toward a more sustainable and just future.”