A Reflection on COP28

By Heather Phelps, WCEE Resource Specialist

Every year, leaders from around the world gather to debate what actions should be taken to combat climate change. Previous years resulted in agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. I was privileged to attend this year’s conference, known as COP28, held in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates this past December.

Arriving in Dubai, what I was most immediately struck by was the size – from the tallest building in the world to the largest single-site solar plant, the UAE is known for over-the-top extravagance, and this conference was no different. At final count, over 85,000 delegates descended on Expo City Dubai, a complex of buildings, conference rooms, food halls, and meeting spaces spread out over almost a mile. Just walking from one session to another might require a 10 minute walk, albeit a very pleasant walk in sunny, 85 degree weather along elegant, shaded paths. It was a daunting size to deal with, and yet also immensely inspiring to see so many people from every corner of the planet coming together with the conviction that climate change is an urgent issue and the determination to do something about it.

The week I was there went by in a whirlwind: each of the too-few days jam-packed with UN sessions and side events hosted by countries and multinational organizations. Everywhere I looked was another session.

Some highlights included:

  • new plans to triple renewable energy and double energy efficiency improvements
  • the role of nonprofits in climate action and disaster resilience
  • actions taken by local governments (including remarks from Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway about the upcoming electric buses for Madison’s Bus Rapid Transit system)
  • and, of course, the official debates about whether or not to insert this or that word into the official statement to be released at the end of the conference.

Getting consensus among half a dozen members of a group project is hard – I have immense sympathy for everyone trying to get the required agreement among every single nation on earth!

It was truly inspiring to see so many young people involved from around the world. Some spoke of the challenges of facing droughts in areas in which famines encourage families to marry their daughters off at young ages. An 11-year-old girl explained how she had already started two non-profits and organized the planting of hundreds of thousands of trees in her region of India. Meanwhile the President of Slovenia spoke about how she had implemented curriculum about climate change in all levels of education in Slovenia.

There were so many incredible people to hear from, and my single regret was that I didn’t have enough hours in a day to hear from all of them.

As the conference went into overtime, a consensus was finally reached. A consensus by omission, unfortunately – the document was ratified too quickly for the Alliance of Small Island States to even make it into the room to present their official objection: that it didn’t go far enough to save their islands from inundation – but still a document that was long overdue.

Specifically, the decision “calls on Parties to contribute to the following global efforts,” including “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.” Such a simple statement to have taken until 2023 to agree upon at a global level!

UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell said in his closing remarks, “Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end.”

The challenge of this decision is that “calls upon” is a very different verb than “requires.” There is no enforcement mechanism for this decision. Whether or not the United States achieves this goal, and benchmarks such as tripling renewable energy and doubling annual energy efficiency improvements by 2030, will depend on our actions, including whether we advocate for increased renewable energy and energy efficiency in our own communities and across the state.

At KEEP, our vision is communities making informed energy decisions now and for a sustainable future, and we’re proud to have all of you involved in educating the young people of Wisconsin in energy literacy to help them make those energy decisions in a way that moves us towards, rather than away from, a sustainable future. At COP28, the countries of the world came together to craft a vision of what it will take to reach that sustainable future, so let’s work together to make that happen!

Heather attended COP28 with the Christian Climate Observer Program. It brings young people to the UN climate summits to offer “a non-denominational Christian presence advocating for God’s creation.”

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