What do the outcomes of COP28, held in the United Arab Emirates at the end of last year, mean for Yorkshire and Humber, and for our Commission’s work?
We owe the Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission’s existence and sense of direction in the region to a global commitment: without the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty passed in 2015 at COP21 that sought to limit temperature rise to 1.5C, it is unlikely that local authorities would have declared climate emergencies. Or that organisations across all sectors would have found the common purpose to take part in the Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission and collaborate on a regional Climate Action Plan.
On the other hand, there is always that sense of frustration that international action seems too slow, the gains too hard won. While our region has stepped up to the challenge – local government, businesses, NGOs and universities are all eager to make progress – increasingly it seems that the global mission is too tentative. Meanwhile, the risks of a nightmare future loom ever larger: the UN Environment Programme’s latest Emissions Gap Report projects a likely temperature rise of 2.5C - 2.9C, and that's if nation states’ current pledges are met.
Our Commission and COP (the acronym stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’ to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) operate at very different spatial scales, but they are both coalitions of the willing. And there is interdependence between the two: we can act at our regional scale because there is a global mission; nation states can work together because they know that climate policy and climate solutions need to be delivered at home, on the ground. (Indeed, this is why the Place-based Climate Action Network – PCAN – and local climate commissions were formed.)
Future of fossil fuels?
COP28 concluded with claims of both landmark success and dangerous failure. For first time, moving away from fossil fuels has been explicitly mentioned in the COP text, with nearly 200 countries agreeing to call for “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.” That is undoubtedly a step forward, especially given the oil lobby’s strong presence and the controversial choice of Sultan Al Jaber, who also runs the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, as the COP President, a role that is supposed to be impartial.
But the text doesn’t adopt the more definite ‘phasing out’ of fossil fuels, and it renders the prospect of limiting temperature rise to 1.5C highly unlikely. As a result, the Small Island States have called the COP28 text a ‘death certificate’, since any delay in decarbonisation heightens the danger of their countries becoming uninhabitable.
Perhaps one problem here lies in how the shared goal is defined. At COP, there is a focus on producing a definitive text with unanimous agreement. It’s obvious that a dissenting country would be very unhappy if it felt squeezed out, its voice not heard. In the Commission’s work we take care to recognise and explore dissent, whilst recognising the breadth of agreement. Where there is unanimity there is no cause for delay, but where there is dissent there is a need to keep investigating, discussing and negotiating.
A recurring criticism of international climate negotiations is that they are dominated by people who are invested in the status quo and are therefore limiting change and compromising the welfare of future generations. The young climate activist Mikaela Loach said recently, “What does solving the climate crisis mean? Because even if we stop burning fossil fuels today, somehow... but we don’t do it in a way that centres justice...we’re still going to be in a crisis of some sort.”
In other words, carbon emissions are a symptom of the problem rather than its cause, and the real problem is exploitative approaches to resources, land, water, nature and people. COP is ultimately about finding ways to make co-operation possible, but can such systemic change be achieved before it’s too late? The president of this year's COP has recently been announced: for 26 years Mukhtar Babayev worked for Azerbaijan’s state-owned oil and gas company; he is now the country’s environment minister. A pattern appears to be developing, and it’s not about radical transformation.
Positive new commitments
However, there are some important headlines for hope from COP28. A new commitment by over 100 countries to triple renewables and double energy efficiency rates by 2030 means wind and solar will naturally displace some coal, oil and gas, and is likely to assist economies in divesting from fossil fuels. A loss and damage fund has been established, with $770 million already committed to pay countries that have emitted very little but are bearing the brunt of climate impacts (although it’s a tiny fraction – 0.2% – of what is needed). There will be a new framework for a global goal on adaptation, and the text also acknowledges need to attain climate-resilient water supply, agriculture and health services. And billions of dollars have been committed to protecting forests and oceans.
Co-operation does not have to be just between nation states. The letter of ‘unstoppable transformation’ from the B Team, which was presented to the COP presidency, showed a reinvigorated multilateralism, with 2000 leaders from across regions, sectors and actors coming together in solidarity to support delivering what the science requires.
This is where organisations like our own Commission – a multilateral partnership – come in, as catalysts to trigger lasting and far-reaching change. Our Climate Action Plan includes a cross-sector, shared goal for Yorkshire and Humber to reach net zero emissions by 2038. This figure represents our region’s contribution to the global carbon budget: we need to go further and faster than the UK government to achieve this, which means giving decision-makers confidence in what can be achieved. Transformation is already happening, and will be accelerated by entrepreneurs, investors, technology and civil society, as well as by local and national government. Energy, infrastructure and financial companies are involved in the Commission and 80 organisations have now taken our Climate Action Pledge, indicating that they want to act and are willing to report their progress.
South Yorkshire’s Mayor Oliver Coppard, who is one of Yorkshire & Humber Climate Commission’s Vice-Chairs, attended COP28 and established the first Citizens’ Assembly on Climate in the region. We asked Oliver to reflect for us on witnessing both the global challenge and local people’s appetite for change. He said: “Climate breakdown isn’t just the biggest challenge of our time, it’s also the biggest opportunity; a generational chance to change how we live, work, travel, and collaborate. COP28 was an opportunity for me to meet with, talk with, and collaborate with, some of the brightest and best city leaders working to respond to our changing climate, and adapting their cities to our shared environmental pressures. Being in Dubai gave me the chance to both listen and learn, while putting our region at the forefront of that global conversation.
“I’m pleased I was there, because cities and regions are leading the way. That’s because we have to. Here in South Yorkshire we have felt the impact of the climate emergency first hand, with increased flooding and wildfires. But we also have industries at the forefront of sustainable aviation, hydrogen power and small modular nuclear technology. I’m determined we will do everything we can to hit our net zero goals, while building the industries of the future, so that ultimately everyone in South Yorkshire can feel secure about the future.”
We know that there is a strong appetite for action, and COP helps to showcase that. The raised public awareness of the climate challenges since COP28 stated has corresponded to an uptick in involvement in our own climate surveys and attendance at events (over 100 registered to attend a subsequent online event on transport). You can feed into that too, through our Commonplace platform by reading our reports and having your say on a range of issues from business, nature, and emergency preparedness to green jobs, protecting our infrastructure and how to finance the transition.
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Andrew Wood, Senior Engagement and Impact Officer, and Kate Lock, Policy and Communications Manager, Yorkshire & Humber Climate Commission