The 28th International Conference on Global Climate Change (COP-28) followed the usual pattern as it wound down in Dubai last month. Its leaders saved the most controversial issue for last when the scheduled adjournment time had passed, and exhausted delegates were ready to go home.

In 1992, several nations around the world approved and signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This led to the start of “Conferences of the Parties”. As per the rules, all countries, nearly 200 of them, must unanimously approve the agreements, a task that can prove quite difficult. So, in 2015, when the historic Paris climate agreement came to the floor in the closing minutes of COP-21, the presiding official, French Foreign Affairs Minister, Laurent Fabius, quickly banged the gavel to approve the accord before anyone could object.

"With a small hammer, you can achieve great things," he said.

But 32 years of international negotiations in the COP process have produced only great aspirations. To achieve unanimous approval, the heralded Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 called for nations to submit voluntary plans to mitigate greenhouse gas pollution. Shaming is the only sanction for insufficient and unmet goals. But shaming doesn't work when underachievement is a pandemic, and that has been the case. In aggregate, the plans countries have submitted so far will not keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, the Paris target. As COP-28 began, scientists warned that "no pathway remains" to achieve the preferred Paris goal of holding warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The most significant single symbol of underachievement has been the failure of the international community to acknowledge the need to phase fossil fuels out of the global economy. None of the agreements produced by the COP in the last three decades have even included the words fossil fuels, oil, natural gas, or coal. Except one. The document produced at COP-25 in Glasgow mentioned phasing down (but not out) "unabated coal power." The careful phrasing was big enough to drive a coal train through.

In 2022 at COP-27, over 600 fossil-energy lobbyists defeated a proposal to put the phase-out of fossil fuels in the final document. Now, in the closing minutes of COP-28, surrounded by a record 2,400 fossil energy lobbyists in one of the world's major oil-producing regions, the gavel came down on this language: Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly, and fair manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.1

Inside the COP bubble, this seemed like a major achievement. News media and many climate activists praised it as a historic breakthrough. U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry said he was "in awe of the spirit of cooperation that has brought everybody together."

"Whilst we didn't turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end," said U.N. Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell in his closing speech. "Now all governments and businesses need to turn these pledges into real-economy outcomes, without delay."

But outside the bubble where billions of people already are feeling the rising costs and deadly effects of climate change, the words were just words, wholly insufficient to confront the urgency of the climate crisis. There were several reasons to see the outcome of COP-28 as a glass half-empty rather than half-full.

First, action "in keeping with the science" would be specific and concrete. Scientists concluded in 2021 that the world's fossil energy production must peak now, and we must leave most of the world's oil, gas, and coal reserves in the ground by 2050. The language adopted last month is merely a statement of good intentions with no timetable, binding commitments, or implementation plans.

Second, there is no sign, let alone assurance, that the fossil energy industry will participate in the transition. Over the last 50 years, the industry's record has been a series of cover-ups, deceptions, greenwashing, and broken promises. Big oil producers, including ExxonMobil, B.P., and Shell, made a show of hopping aboard the net-zero carbon bandwagon in 2022, but they jumped off again in 2023 when record profits began rolling in.

Aljazeera reports that oil and gas companies are reinvesting record profits to intensify the hunt for new deposits. The International Energy Agency forecast upstream oil and gas investments to reach the highest level since 2015, and Barclays expected the approval of offshore projects this year to reach a 10-year high. Since nations approved the Paris Agreement in 2015, the world's 60 largest private banks have loaned $5.5 trillion for fossil fuels projects, according to a report by a coalition of environmental groups.

Third, world leaders still buy the oil industry's argument that renewable energy and energy efficiency can't meet the world's demand for energy. However, in 2010, researchers analysed 180 articles published about renewable energy since 2004 and found, that "the great majority of all publications highlights the technical feasibility and economic viability of 100 per cent RE systems."

To their credit, nearly 120 countries at COP-28 agreed to triple their renewable energy capacity by 2030. Delegates agreed to double the world's energy efficiency by 2030 compared to 2022. But again, these are aspirations, not plans.

The Record

A review of results from the COP process shows negotiations have produced some bright spots, but the most important progress indicator shows none.

When international negotiations began in 1992, the atmosphere contained a relatively safe 356 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide. By 2019, the concentration reached 411 ppm, its highest level in 3 million years. And by 2022, it was 50 per cent above the preindustrial level for the first time and higher than any time in the previous 4 million years. As COP 28 convened last November, the carbon concentration was pushing 420 ppm, and "no pathway remains" to achieve the Paris goal of holding warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Since 2015, dozens of countries have raised the ambition of their climate-action plans, but as they stood at the end of 2022, they would allow global warming to grow to 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100. And while that may be a long way off, it is within the lifespan of children born today.

Scientists warn that if this warming continues unabated, it could bring environmental catastrophe to much of the world, including staggering sea-level rise, record-breaking droughts and floods, and widespread species loss.

In its current form, the COP process has lost credibility. A post-mortem by Reuters summed it up COP-28: "Flashy country pavilions, corporate-sponsored cocktail parties and a smorgasbord of side events have turned the annual U.N. climate summit into what some say is a trade show or circus," and "a dangerous distraction from the business of combating climate change as over nearly three decades global oil demand, carbon emissions, and temperatures have marched steadily upward."

Pascoe Sabido, a researcher at the Corporate Europe Observatory, called COP 28 "a lobby fest where polluters can schmooze with politicians, all under the guise of tackling climate change."

The Alternatives

William Nordhaus, the Nobel laureate in economics at Yale University, believes that purely voluntary climate-action plans will fail. Like many other economists, he says governments should negotiate a universal carbon price. Energy markets must stop hiding the actual life-cycle costs of fossil fuels, and countries must stop subsidizing them.

Others say progress is more likely with bilateral and multilateral agreements among nations with mutual interests. Nordhaus proposed in 2015 that nations genuinely committed to reducing carbon emissions create "climate clubs" and use small trade penalties against non-participants.

Climate action plans at any level of collaboration must be transparent, quantifiable, binding, and enforceable. As I have written previously, the plans submitted by individual nations under the Paris Agreement will only be credible once they show how countries will enforce them in their own economic policies, laws, and constitutions.

But all the aspiring, promising, and planning in the world will be sufficient once we break the grip of oil-producing nations and companies. Besides fossil fuels, the most important missing word in 32 years of climate negotiations has been "greed." We have yet to show the spine to call it out and deal with it.

Until we overcome it, we will keep rushing into a future we don't want, can't afford, and may not survive. Greed still rules climate and economic policies, and it's killing us.


1 Wise J. COP28 decision to “transition away” from fossil fuels is hailed as a milestone but loopholes are decried BMJ 2023; 383 :p2941 doi:10.1136/bmj.p2941.