The United Nations climate conference gets underway in the United Arab Emirates this week against a backdrop of broken records and broken promises. From off-the-charts temperatures and unprecedented weather events to off-the-rails climate policies and missing climate finance, 2023 has raised the stakes for this year’s intergovernmental climate talks to new heights and underscored the forum’s continued failure to address the key driver of the crisis: fossil fuel production and use.
Governments are on track to produce twice as much oil, gas, and coal in 2030 as would be consistent with a 1.5°C limit, and to generate twice as much warming this century as the world can withstand if we are to avert the most catastrophic impacts on human rights.
The 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP28) also takes place against the backdrop of immense suffering in the region, resulting from the conflict in Palestine and Israel and the tragedy unfolding in Gaza. CIEL affirms its solidarity with all those affected and condemns all forms of violence, whether it be the attacks by Hamas on Israeli civilians, the Israeli military’s assaults against civilians in occupied Gaza, or the violence and attacks against the civilian population in the West Bank. UN human rights experts have stressed the genocide in the making in Gaza and the obligation of governments to take swift action to prevent further international crimes and grave violations of human rights. Yet many Western governments pour public money into destruction, death, and further escalation of this conflict through unrestricted aid and weapons instead of seeking to uphold the rule of law and human rights through international institutions. There can be no climate justice without human rights.
CIEL’s team is in Dubai for the two weeks of negotiations and meetings, from November 30 through December 12, focused on the intersection between human rights and climate change, the role of the fossil fuel industry, dangerous distractions from necessary climate action, remedying climate-related harms, climate accountability, and the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.
Here’s an overview of our priorities for COP28:
COP28 underscores why ending reliance on fossil fuels must be the center of climate action, even as it demonstrates that fossil fuel phaseout will never be at the center of the UNFCCC. Despite three decades of UN climate talks, fossil fuel-driven emissions continue to rise year after year, resulting in widespread harm to communities and ecosystems. One of the key reasons for these failures is that decisions under the UNFCCC are taken by consensus, rather than majority vote, which allows single countries with vested interests to block progress and leads to lowest-common-denominator outcomes or no outcomes at all.
Another reason is the corporate capture of climate policy. The history of fossil fuel interests influencing the UNFCCC and COPs has come to a head with this year’s COP being held in the UAE, a petrostate with a grave human rights record, and presided over by the head of that country’s national oil and gas company. We can expect COP28 to host the largest contingent of fossil fuel lobbyists yet, and plenty of industry deal-making on the margins of the negotiations. Even the presidency of the conference is reportedly attempting to use the event to further the interest of its own fossil fuel industry in a blatant breach of its responsibility. This is a clear result of the lack of a conflict of interest policy at the UNFCCC, which has allowed thousands of industry lobbyists to influence negotiations over the past two decades.
As the UNFCCC repeatedly fails to deliver progress, the world urgently needs alternative, complementary, and effective governance spaces to deliver a fossil fuel phaseout that is full, fair, fast, and funded. States have a duty to establish spaces that are structured to enable meaningful progress toward effective international cooperation and multilateral solutions to confront the global climate crisis.
Momentum for phasing out fossil fuels is coming from all corners of the world. Heading into COP28, there is an unprecedented level of agreement among scientists, governments, and civil society that an accelerated, just transition away from fossil fuel production and use is essential to have any hope of delivering on the promises of the Paris Agreement to limit warming to 1.5°C.
In Dubai, we must leverage this global momentum to deliver a clear political signal on the need for an unqualified phaseout of all fossil fuels, without loopholes or limitations. Whether or not that is achieved, there is a clear need for complementary governance spaces and processes, like the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, to address how the phaseout should happen, and to chart a path forward out of the fossil era.
In spite of the failures caused by the UNFCCC’s decision-making process and the prevailing lack of political will, it is currently the primary space to force international conversations on human rights-based climate action and the mobilization of finance to support climate action in developing countries and remedy climate harms. Because carbon emissions and climate impacts are not bound by national borders, and their drivers and distribution reflect a profound injustice, international cooperation is necessary to address this international crisis.
At COP28, we will set the bar as high as possible to hold governments accountable for ensuring that their climate action adheres to their international legal obligations. This requires keeping warming below 1.5°C. In order to do so, we must:
We cannot avoid climate catastrophe and prevent further harm without ending our reliance on fossil fuels. The transition away from fossil fuels must go beyond the energy and transport sector to cover fossil fuels used as feedstock for petrochemicals to produce plastics, fertilizers, pesticides, and other products, which the fossil fuel industry sees as its lifeline for the years ahead. That means countries must accelerate the unqualified, equitable phaseout of all fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) — not just fossil fuel emissions.
Focusing on emissions, rather than fossil fuels themselves, ignores the myriad ways, beyond the release of greenhouse gases, that oil, gas, and coal harm health, destroy the environment, and undermine political and economic stability. It also perpetuates the myth that we can continue producing and using fossil fuels indefinitely if we just “manage” their carbon.
With the growing recognition that a fossil fuel phaseout is necessary, feasible, and indeed inevitable, the industry is working, again, to delay critical climate action, this time with purported technofixes that are dangerous distractions from needed climate action.
Over the last few years, we have seen a wave of interest from investors and political decision makers in technologies that promise to fix fossil fuel pollution without ditching fossil fuels (carbon capture and storage (CCS), carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS), “blue” hydrogen/ammonia, carbon dioxide removal (CDR), solar geoengineering, and other forms of geoengineering, including in the oceans). Ample evidence demonstrates that these technologies are unnecessary, unproven at scale, extremely expensive, risky, and unjust for frontline and fenceline communities. However, they are used to greenwash new investments in fossil fuels, particularly fossil gas; extend the operation of polluting facilities; prop up demand for fossil fuel-based products; and perpetuate the myth that the world can remain reliant on dirty energy and feedstocks for decades. What’s more, they divert funding away from safe, reliable, readily available, and rapidly scalable solutions. We expect an unprecedented effort by polluting States and corporate interests to hide behind these dangerous distractions.
Already, we’ve seen efforts by major fossil fuel producers to focus on the phaseout of only “unabated” fossil fuels, implying that technologies like CCS can “abate” the harm that oil, gas, and coal cause and make them acceptable for decades into the future. But the inclusion of that language could open an LNG carrier-sized loophole in a phaseout commitment. Any decision that legitimizes the use of “abatement” technologies risks more fossil fuel lock-in and, ultimately, overshoot and more loss and damage.
In addition to dangerous technologies, carbon markets and offsets — which are on the agenda at COP28 — distract and detract from meaningful solutions. They do not reduce emissions, enhance climate ambition, or provide climate finance, but rather allow for business as usual and continued fossil fuel production and use, while claiming “carbon neutrality.”
Even with real solutions, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency, the COP28 presidency’s “more of everything” approach will not solve the climate crisis. COP28 leadership is calling for a tripling of renewable energy capacity and doubling of energy efficiency, along with the “accelerated deployment of all available solutions and technologies.” This will be touted as a win, along with the industry’s voluntary Global Decarbonization Alliance. But unless renewable energy replaces fossil fuels and expands energy access, it won’t address the drivers of this crisis. Without a clear commitment to end fossil fuel expansion and shutter existing facilities, and absent targets around displacement of fossil fuels and better distribution of energy access, more renewable energy may be good for business, but it isn’t necessarily good for the climate or sustainable development.
The systematic violation of human rights in countries hosting the COP are not tangential to, but highly relevant to climate action and justice. A safe civic space — including in COP host countries — and protection against undue influence by corporate actors are imperative to mobilize broad public support for a full fossil fuel phaseout and a climate-resilient future.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recognized that participatory governance, human rights, and social inclusion are essential for effective climate policies. Yet civil society space is shrinking in many countries in every hemisphere. Since the adoption of the Paris Agreement, more than 1,390 environmental human rights defenders have been killed. Much larger numbers of environmental leaders have been and continue to be harassed and targeted by public officials and corporate actors. In this context, it is essential that the UN and its processes deliver on the principles of meaningful public participation, a safe space for civil society to engage, and effective protection of environmental human rights defenders.
Last year, the conduct of Egyptian authorities at COP27 — from surveillance of delegates to a broad range of harassment practices within the COP venue — demonstrated the reality of threats to civil society when COPs are held without proper safeguards to protect the human rights of all attendees. The effective participation of many civil society and Indigenous Peoples representatives at the conference was hindered as a consequence. Few lessons appear to have been implemented from this shameful experience.
COP28 is again being held in one of the countries with the lowest rankings when it comes to the protection of fundamental freedoms. Through extensive use of electronic surveillance and extremely restrictive laws on freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, expressions of critical dissent are severely punished in the UAE, and many Emiratis who have expressed critical opinions remain arbitrarily and extrajudicially detained despite pleas by the UN for their unconditional release.
In the lead-up to the COP, the Emirati government has been asked and has refused to release some of the political detainees as a token of good faith. The UN Climate Secretariat and the COP28 presidency similarly ignored recommendations to publicly share the Host Country Agreement that stipulates their respective role in the planning of the event. This context is already having a chilling effect on COP28 observers. The resulting self-censorship among delegates undermines the ability of civil society to play its critical role in monitoring the process, demanding adequate outcomes, and holding governments accountable, thereby further weakening the prospect of positive outcomes from COP28. Other governments and UN agencies participating in the process must learn from these lessons, be more vocal in the selection of future presidencies, and insist that each COP be hosted in an environment free of harassment and intimidation.
After decades of obstruction and delay by developed countries refusing liability for harms caused by their reliance on fossil fuels, Parties at COP27 finally established a Loss and Damage Fund. A Transitional Committee was tasked with developing recommendations to operationalize it before COP28. Due to the influence of wealthy nations continuing to deny responsibility to pay for climate harms, those recommendations fall short of delivering justice or remedy.
An effective, resourced, and rights-based Loss and Damage Fund could become a major avenue for communities seeking justice for the harms caused by rich countries and polluting industries. To show good faith and in line with their obligations under international law, developed countries must now actually deliver loss and damage finance at scale, beginning at COP28. In addition, significant improvements are needed to ensure that the Loss and Damage Fund will be rooted in human rights and meet the needs and priorities of those most marginalized.
Critically, we must move away from empty promises and push past voluntary finance. States must also look beyond the UN climate regime when it comes to delivering climate reparations at scale: Multiple pathways at the local, national, regional, and international levels are needed.
In addition to loss and damage, wealthy nations have an obligation to provide climate finance to developing countries for mitigation and adaptation activities. Climate finance provided to date has been woefully inadequate. Developed countries must provide significantly scaled-up climate finance to fund a just transition.
COP28 takes place against the backdrop of mounting efforts to hold governments and corporations legally accountable for their contributions to climate change and to compel them to prevent and remedy resultant harms. Civil society and States most exposed to climate change are increasingly turning to the courts to clarify the scope of State obligations to tackle the root causes of climate change, as well as the legal consequences of failing to do so. The Advisory Opinion processes currently ongoing at the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) serve as an important reminder that State obligations to act on climate do not start or end with the UNFCCC, and that regardless of what they decide at COP28, governments have existing legal duties to do more on climate.
Too many States treat climate change agreements not as a sword to ratchet up ambition, but as a shield to deflect scrutiny of their grossly inadequate national climate policies and absence of political will. This cynical play not only erodes any remaining confidence that international processes can provide a response to global crises such as climate change but it also squanders the rapidly closing window of opportunity to avert the most dangerous impacts of climate change. The Advisory Opinion processes before international tribunals force States to confront the consequences of their failure to prevent further fossil-fueled climate destruction, and can prompt greater ambition and accountability. With rapidly approaching deadlines for governments to submit written input to two of the courts, COP28 will also offer opportunities for legal experts to sharpen their arguments, influence States’ engagement, and inform the future guidance to be delivered by the courts.
Even before its opening, COP28 has succeeded in generating dismay and defiance like none of the UN climate conferences before it. The credibility of the climate talks, already in question given persistent failures to curb fossil-fueled emissions and deliver needed climate finance, was further eroded by the appointment of an oil executive, overseeing massive fossil fuel expansion plans, as this year’s COP president.
But this year’s host is far from the only or the biggest climate culprit. The United States, as the largest producer of oil and gas in the world and a chief proponent of carbon capture and other dangerous distractions, is a major climate wrecker, along with other fossil fuel producers in the Global North planning oil and gas expansion incompatible with a 1.5°C warming limit. Those same countries, which bear historical and present responsibility for driving climate destruction, are unwilling to fulfill their climate finance obligations and are doing their utmost to block progress on making polluters pay for mounting loss and damage. While we call out the host of this year’s climate talks for its role in fossil-fueled climate destruction and deception, we will not let the biggest polluters hide comfortably behind the COP presidency.
Empty promises, half measures, and weasel words in decisions representing the lowest common denominator won’t allow governments to save face. If any hope is to be found at COP28, we expect it to shine from parallel initiatives on the margins of the conference, as governments and civil society experts advance alternative venues and processes to leverage the power of the law and bolster international cooperation to tackle the root cause of the climate crisis and implement solutions that promote climate justice.
Published November 29, 2023