Experts React: Decoding COP28's Impact and Outcomes

Audio Brief

A short, spoken-word summary from CSIS’s Joseph Majkut on his recent Experts React with Ben Cahill, Gracelin Baskaran, Jane Nakano, Mathias Zaracrias, Cy McGeady, and Janet M. Whittaker, Experts React: Decoding COP28's Impact and Outcomes.

Audio file

The 28th United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP28) just concluded in Dubai, where heads of state, diplomats, climate experts, and environmental activists met for a stocktake of global efforts. New commitments were announced on methane emissions, reduction of fossil fuel use, growing renewable energy capacity, and nuclear energy. This COP is notable for this final agreement, the so-called UAE Consensus, which calls for countries to shift their energy systems quickly away from fossil fuels in a just and organized fashion.

CSIS experts assess the strength and resiliency of these announcements to chart a path forward for comprehensive global climate action.

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Joseph Majkut

Building on Glasgow and Finding the Limits of Consensus

Joseph Majkut
Director, Energy Security and Climate Change Program

The parties at COP28 faced a couple of significant challenges. It is already clear that the world is falling behind on its climate goals and tensions between more economically developed and less economically developed countries about clean energy funding and climate damages have been growing in recent years. How could negotiators find consensus around those tough issues, while outside participants demonstrated progress in attacking different parts of the decarbonization challenge?

COP28 has shown significant progress through the various pledges and initiatives that my colleagues report on here. Building on the model of COP26 in Glasgow, “coalitions of the willing” have now been established to tackle methane, renew nuclear power, advance clean hydrogen and carbon management, and more. The diversity of approaches to managing emissions is heartening for a world that needs every solution it can get to work.

The headline result is that parties have now agreed to transition away from fossil fuels as part of achieving net-zero emissions by mid-century. This was always an obvious implication of the Paris Agreement, but the timing and distribution of that transition amongst countries matters greatly. What does a call to action in a non-binding framework mean in a world where actual demand for fossil fuels is still increasing? What will be the role of carbon capture and carbon management in building a net-zero world? Which coalitions of the willing can countries make among themselves to activate this transition? Achieving ambition is way more important than writing it down.

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Ben Cahill

The Methane COP

Ben Cahill
Senior Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Change Program

COP26 elevated methane in international climate accords, and COP28 showed a new phase of maturity. A flurry of COP28 announcements shows consensus among producers, policymakers, and investors on the urgency of methane reductions. In the past year, donors have pledged more than $1 billion in grant funding for methane abatement. And unlike mid-century targets for CO2 reductions, cutting methane is all about taking immediate steps to achieve large reductions by 2030.

In the oil and gas sector, the focus is shifting toward more challenging targets. Fifty companies, including many national oil companies (NOCs), signed the Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter—a pledge to set 2050 net-zero Scope 1 and 2 targets, and to cut methane intensity to 0.2 percent and end routine flaring by 2030. This is the first time that many NOCs have made net-zero or methane pledges. Despite reflexive criticism from some NGOs, this progress should be applauded. Some NOCs will be aided by the World Bank-led Global Flaring and Methane Reduction fund, which aims to extend financial and technical support to developing countries.

In the agriculture sector, collaborations are emerging between producers, food and beverage companies, foundations, and academia. A new $200 million research and development program backed by governments and philanthropies targets enteric fermentation—an enormous source of methane emissions that has attracted far too little funding. A similar collaborative effort will target waste sector methane reductions. Funding commitments and action-oriented partnerships are achieving real momentum on methane reductions.

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Gracelin Baskaran

Critical Minerals Dilemma: A Missed Opportunity for Global Consensus

Gracelin Baskaran
Research Director and Senior Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Although critical minerals are fundamental to reaching net zero, it was the first time that they were on the agenda at COP. Still, while world leaders committed to tripling renewable energy capacity by 2030, there was no agreement between governments on how the world was going to secure the critical minerals required to meet this goal. To achieve the Paris Agreement's goals of net-zero by 2050, an estimated 3 billion tons of critical minerals will be needed. TechMet founder Brian Menell warned COP28 attendees that the world is facing a “structural cliff of undersupply” of critical metals for the clean energy transition.

Given the distribution of critical minerals, the world cannot reach global net-zero ambitions without increasing supply of critical minerals from Africa, South America, and Central Asia. COP28 provided an opportune moment to reach consensus on how developed and developing countries can formalize collaboration going forwards to boost supply. It was a missed opportunity to achieve consensus on a world stage as to how developed countries are going to responsibly source their critical minerals, pursue investments in value addition and manufacturing in developing countries, and ensure that biodiversity and the environment are protected.

The good news is that the U.S. government stepped up at COP28. U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) CEO Scott Nathan and Menell signed a commitment for another $50 million equity investment from DFC to TechMet to support the Phalaborwa Rare Earths project in South Africa.

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Jane Nakano

Accelerating Nuclear Energy

Jane Nakano
Senior Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Change Program

COP28 saw a few major announcements on nuclear energy. Chief among them was the pledge by the United States and 21 other countries to collectively triple nuclear energy capacity by 2050, against the 2020 level. Installed nuclear capacity stood at about 375 gigawatts (GW) in 2020. The pledge translates into adding roughly 25 GW annually in the next three decades—a steep increase in pace from 5.4 GW average annual capacity addition in the last seven decades. The world would need not only up-rating (i.e., increasing licensed power levels) and operating license extensions, but also massive new construction. Also, bringing China into the fold would make the vision more viable as the nation, with 26 reactors worth 27.7 GW currently under construction, is the fastest in installed capacity expansion globally.

Meanwhile, to help underpin its share in the ambitious tripling endeavor, the U.S. government announced a host of financial tools by the U.S. Export-Import Bank to support the deployment and export of small modular reactors. Also notable was the announcement by the so-called Sapporo 5 nations, including the United States, to mobilize $4.2 billion to develop a reliable nuclear supply chain, especially for uranium supplies. While it is uncertain that these commitments would suffice to launch nuclear power as a savior in the global fight against climate change, what these announcements reflect is an emerging global consensus that renewable energy alone will not suffice to decarbonize the world, especially by mid-century.

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Mathias Zacarias

A First Step toward Establishing International Clean Hydrogen Markets

Mathias Zacarias
Research Associate, Energy Security and Climate Change Program

More than 30 countries launched a Declaration of Intent on “the Mutual Recognition of Certification Schemes for Renewable and Low-Carbon Hydrogen and Hydrogen Derivatives” at this year’s COP. This announcement underscores growing recognition of the need to harmonize the fragmented clean hydrogen certification environment. The declaration also unveiled the International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) proposed methodology to calculate the emissions intensity of hydrogen. A robust certification scheme would increase transparency and trust between trading countries. It will also be a vital step towards enabling consumer choice and spurring demand creation—which is urgently needed for the sector to take off.

NGOs have been quick to pick apart the proposed ISO methodology, criticizing its lack of an emissions threshold for what constitutes clean hydrogen. Other industry observers have raised concerns over the underreporting of methane emissions from natural gas-derived hydrogen, the lack of accounting for leaked hydrogen as an indirect greenhouse gas, and the new methodology being unfit to harmonize clean hydrogen definitions set by individual countries. The ISO will have to take stock of these concerns so that its certification scheme successfully facilitates clean hydrogen trade in a way that advances global decarbonization.

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Cy McGeady

Tripling Renewables Depends on Solving the Integration Cost Challenge

Cy McGeady
Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Change Program

World leaders have pledged to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030.

The pledge, which sets a target of 11,000 GW of renewables capacity by 2030, is ambitious but not entirely implausible. In 2023, the world added roughly 450 GW of renewable energy capacity for the year, bringing the global total to about 3,800 GW. This represents a remarkable year-over-year increase in deployment rates; each of the three years prior saw less than 300 GW of annual additions. This growth in the rate of deployment needs to continue to scale; EMBER calculates that by late 2028 the world will need to be adding over well over 1,000 GW a year to hit the target. 

The economics of renewable energy are improving in some areas. The long-term downslope in technology cost for solar is set to continue, propelled by vast increases in solar manufacturing capacity worldwide. But the improving economics for solar power are not representative of all technologies; costs for offshore wind are moving in the opposite direction.

The emergent challenge for renewables deployment is the upward sloping curve of renewable integration costs. These whole-of-system costs—things like transmission investments, storage technology, and capacity payments for reserves generation—grow as share of renewables deployed in each electric power system grows. How effectively policymakers manage these costs will become a far bigger variable than technology costs in determining the arc of renewable energy deployment in years to come. 

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Janet Whittaker

Important Advance toward a Common Framework for Measuring Steel Emissions

Janet Whittaker
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program

An important achievement for an emissions-intensive industry at COP28 was the launch of the Steel Standards Principles—an initiative aimed at driving forward the global steel industry's transition to near-zero emissions through development of common methodologies to measure emissions in the iron and steel sector. A broad coalition of international organizations, steel producers, and industry associations endorsed the principles, recognizing that the sector accounts for 8 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions and that these emissions must be reduced by at least 90 percent for the sector to credibly contribute to climate targets.

Comparing the carbon intensity of steel and steel products is challenging because of the multiplicity of production methods, technologies, and inputs used by steel producers across the globe. As Director-General Okonjo-Iweala highlighted at the launch of the principles, the lack of a common framework for measuring steel emissions and “fragmented and uncoordinated trade policies make it harder for the steel industry to decarbonize. They add uncertainty for producers, hamper cross-border movement of green technologies and inputs, and slow investments in clean technology.”

The principles highlight the need for a common understanding of what constitutes near-zero emissions steel production. A key innovation behind the principles is to provide a dedicated framework for governments, policymakers, industry participants, and other stakeholders to engage in dialogue aimed at refining interoperability of emissions measurement standards for steel, as well as data collection and disclosure frameworks.

The Steel Standards Principles build on existing net zero emissions measurement principles developed by the International Energy Agency, but take a significant step forward in bringing together a diverse range of steel industry stakeholders. The group endorsing the principles will meet at least annually to review progress. If successful, will they provide a blueprint for other high-emissions industries to similarly collaborate?

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Joseph Majkut
Director, Energy Security and Climate Change Program
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Ben Cahill
Senior Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Change Program
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5Baskaran
Director, Project on Critical Minerals Security and Senior Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Change Program
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Jane Nakano
Senior Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Change Program
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Mathias Zacarias
Research Associate, Energy Security and Climate Change Program
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Cy McGeady
Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Change Program
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5Whittaker
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program