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Climate Change

Reflections from COP28

By Jason Bordoff

I recently returned from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where I joined roughly 84,000 people for the largest climate conference ever: COP28. Along with our incredible team of scholars and staff on the ground, I was proud to bring the Center’s actionable and evidence-based insights to this important gathering. 

Today’s final agreement is notable in several respects. The component of the agreement that captured the headlines was, of course, the language regarding fossil fuels. For the first time in this conference’s 28-year history, the final agreement text called for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in the energy system, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.” Such a statement may appear meager relative to the speed at which emissions must fall, and the formulation to “call on” nations to do this is relatively weak by standards of international diplomacy. Yet the phrase still represents a marked departure from previous agreements. 

The language suggests a need to focus on changing the energy system and on rapidly curbing demand along with supply. As I have written previously, “a failure to synchronize declines in oil supply and investment with declines in demand runs the risk of supply shortages, tight markets and less latitude for handling shocks.”  Driving down demand requires stronger policy and accelerating the deployment of clean energy. As the IEA’s latest World Energy Outlook explains: “Simply cutting spending on oil and gas will not get the world on track for the NZE Scenario; the key to an orderly transition is to scale up investment in all aspects of a clean energy system.”

The final COP language is also notable for highlighting the importance of an “orderly” transition, which Meghan O’Sullivan and I have written about often. That is not an argument for delay or to slow the pace of transition, but it is a reminder of the need to anticipate the geopolitical and economic risks that might lead to a more jagged and volatile transition so that policymakers can take steps to smooth the path to net-zero. As we wrote for the New York Times, “If climate ambition comes into tension with energy reliability or affordability or the security of energy supplies, climate ambition will lose.”

The language of “transitioning away” avoided the thorny issue of whether to “phase down” or “phase out” fossil fuels. As I told Axios from Dubai, while the world will still be using some oil and gas if it achieves net-zero, it should be clear that it will be using far less than today. 

Also notable in the final agreement was language that “transition fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security.” The phrase “transition fuels” was not defined, no doubt intentionally, leaving some to point to low-carbon fuels like green hydrogen while others will use the language to argue natural gas has a role to play as a so-called “bridge fuel”, particularly in emerging and developing economies and in certain sectors such as industry. According to the IEA, in a net-zero scenario, the share of gas consumption devoted to industry grows from 21% in 2022 to 35% in 2050 as easier-to-abate sectors transition to other fuels. 

COP28 also yielded a clear and unambiguous agreement to triple renewable energy by 2030, which is consistent with the net-zero 2050 pathway although by no means easy. There was also broad (although not universal) agreement that carbon capture and removal technologies are needed to get to net-zero by 2050, a view consistent with our research at CGEP and analysis by the IEA and many others. As I told Axios, however, “Even recognizing a key role for carbon capture, there is no scenario where we reach net-zero with business-as-usual for fossil fuel use.”

Developed countries also agreed to commit roughly $700 million to a loss-and-damage fund for the least developed economies (which are also responsible for only a negligible share of cumulative emissions to date). While this agreement was hailed as a breakthrough and avoided the worst-case outcome of breakdown in relations between rich and poor nations, the sum is still paltry compared to the needs; consider that last year’s flooding in Pakistan alone caused $30 billion in damages, and estimates are that roughly $500 billion will be needed to cope with climate impacts in developing countries. 

COP28 also yielded important progress on reducing methane emissions, which are a powerful contributor to global warming. Fifty oil companies announced a pledge to cut methane emissions (and release plans to meet these goals by 2025), which was followed days later by a similar pledge from six dairy companies. As CGEP scholars have highlighted in reportscommentaries, and Congressional testimonies, methane abatement will be a critical determinant of whether oil companies maintain a social license to operate. The EPA also rolled out a final rule regulating methane leaks and flaring on oil fields.   Despite sharp strains in the relationship, efforts by US and Chinese climate negotiators to ease tensions by agreeing to cooperate on issues like methane in the run-up to COP likely helped make this progress possible. 

Geopolitics played a more prominent role at this year’s COP than in years past. Raging wars in Ukraine and in Gaza, along with escalating Transatlantic trade tensions and heightened great power rivalries, made for treacherous negotiating terrain. As the leading research institute at the intersection of geopolitics and the clean energy transition, much of CGEP’s work on the ground addressed these tensions. 

I was pleased to join the Munich Security Conference on the first day of COP28 to chair sessions with ministers and heads of state about climate change and security, which will be a key priority for collaboration in a new initiative between CGEP and Columbia SIPA’s new Institute of Global Politics, led by Dean Keren Yarhi-Milo and Secretary Hillary Clinton. 

CGEP also prioritized the critically important question of how to mobilize financing for clean energy in emerging and developing economies. The IEA finds that getting to net-zero involves increasing clean energy investment in these economies sixfold over the next decade, but the pledges secured at COP28 got nowhere near closing this gap. CGEP held a high-level roundtable on this subject in Dubai, where participants stressed the need for multilateral development banks to reassess their risk frameworks and expand the scope of projects they support, as well as the potential to use blended finance to address the persistent challenge of currency exchange risk. The latter is an area in which CGEP has been a key contributor, with Dr. Gautam Jain drawing on his research to co-chair a discussion with the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) on how climate investors can navigate local currency risk to accelerate clean energy solutions in EMDEs. At last year’s COP, CGEP launched our Energy Opportunity Lab, and I was happy to be joined by the Lab’s co-director, Andrew Kamau, to highlight some of the remarkable work it has accomplished in recent months, including a blueprint for surging private capital into African businesses, a proposal for a carbon market in Africa, and an exploration of energy insecurity here in the United States. 

COP28 was also the first COP with a “trade day”, and CGEP hosted a high-level dinner to discuss how to  navigate rising trade tensions in the energy transition. Participants warned that the trade tensions of the past year were likely to become a feature of the energy transition, and that addressing them would require the US figuring out how to bring the benefits of the IRA to other countries to complement flows of climate finance. Some also predicted that the energy transition would ultimately require reform to the World Trade Organization (WTO), but that such efforts remain far off. 

CGEP also co-hosted a roundtable with the Atlantic Council and the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) to discuss how to meet the enormous need for minerals and metals in the clean energy transition securely and sustainably, with a particular focus on resources and communities across Africa.

CGEP’s senior director of research Dr. Melissa Lott noted the importance of centering gender equity in the transition at an event co-hosted by Columbia University, TIME, and the UNFCCC called “Women are Leading the New Climate Revolution,” in which she drew on insights from CGEP’s Women in Energy program work and was joined by Columbia’s new president, Minouche Shafik, and Columbia Climate School faculty member Catherine McKenna. 

On issues ranging from technology to economics to energy justice, CGEP was a ubiquitous presence in the pavilions and programming around Dubai. Our inaugural fellow David Sandalow and adjunct senior research scholar Antoine Halff teamed up to present a roadmap for using AI to accelerate emissions reductions, the result of a year’s worth of hard work, which was featured in the New York Times. Speaking on a panel for Abu Dhabi Global Markets, Dr. Karen Young expounded on the theme of AI and sustainability, as well as moderating a panel for Abu Dhabi Finance Week on the technology needed to tackle climate change. Senior research scholar Dr. Chris Bataille spoke on an IPCC panel on carbon dioxide removal, weighing in on the key considerations both for reaching net-zero and managing overshoot. Elsewhere, distinguished visiting fellow Diego Mesa Puyo joined Melissa Lott as a panelist at an event hosted by the IMF called “Preparing for the Green Transition in Fossil Fuel Exporters.” And only hours after arriving in Dubai, I was delighted to see CGEP advisory board members Tariye Gbedegesin and Damilola Ugnbiyi speaking at an event titled “The Global South’s Energy Transition and Investment Pathways.” 

Despite the progress made in the final agreement and over the two weeks, the global stocktake made clear that the world is far off track to achieve net-zero by 2050 or limit warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. At the same time, it is also the case that going into COP28, the outlook for temperature rise was notably better than a decade ago, 2.4 to 2.9 degrees versus 4 degrees in 2014. Similarly, while tripling renewables by 2030 is a very ambitious goal, doubling renewables by 2030 is today the baseline–a marked improvement over the outlook a decade ago. To close on an optimistic note, recent experience shows progress is possible, even if much more remains to be done. 

Playing our role in this work, CGEP will continue to provide actionable, objective and evidence-based solutions, analysis and insights to guide the decisions of energy and climate leaders in government, civil society, and business.  I was proud to see the contributions our many scholars made on the ground in Dubai and, as 2023 nears its end, am excited for the year ahead and grateful to be a part of this remarkable team. I extend my deepest thanks both to them and to you for your ongoing support of the Center. 

Below are some photos from the conference to give you a sense of what we at CGEP were up to in Dubai.

I will conclude just by saying that progress is possible. The agreements reached at COP28 – including those on methane, fossil fuels, and renewables – would have been nearly unimaginable when I founded the Center a decade ago. So while there is a tremendous amount of work that remains to be done to solve the challenge of climate change, I take solace in the knowledge both that the world can change very quickly, and that many of our brightest minds are hard at work on this problem. 

Upon arriving in Dubai, I was delighted to see CGEP board members Tariye Gbadegesin and Damilola Ogunbiyi “Global South’s Energy Transition and Investment Pathways.”

In the first few days on the ground at COP28, I was honored to participate in the Munich Security Conference’s Climate Security Moment, serving as master of ceremonies in a high-level convening of leaders and stakeholders to discuss how the global community can scale concrete action on climate security. 

As part of the COP28 “Green Zone” programming, CGEP partnered with the Atlantic Council and the US International Development Finance Corporation to bring together a high-level roundtable discussion on the importance of critical minerals for the energy transition.

Also as part of public “Green Zone” programming, Co-Director of the CGEP Energy Opportunity Lab Andrew Kamau participated in a panel discussion as part of the COP28 Kite Insights Stage on Climate & Energy and discussed exploring pathways to sustainable energy models and the infrastructure investments needed to support them.

Speaking on a panel hosted by the UN called “Clean energy and commodity exports as an opportunity for fossil fuel rich economies,” CGEP senior research scholar Dr. Chris Bataille argued that a starting point for emissions reduction agreements was establishing a clear definition for “abated.”

Among the insights at CGEP’s dinner-discussion, “Cultivating a Positive Agenda on Climate and Trade” was that climate clubs could be a pathway to harnessing trade tensions for climate benefit, but poor utilization could easily undermine such an effort.

At Abu Dhabi Sustainable Finance Forum, Dr. Karen Young offered key insights on “The Sixth Wave of Innovation” and the nexus of where new technologies like AI, robotics, and automation may be applied to global climate action. 

Working with the Columbia Climate School and the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate, CGEP assembled a candid discussion with Meghan O’Sullivan, Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Kate Guy, Managing Director for Cross-Cutting Initiatives at the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate; and Justin Worland, TIME Climate Correspondent on how policymakers can steer toward an orderly energy transition and manage the emerging geopolitics of both the climate crisis and the transition.

At the IMF’s event “Preparing for the Green Transition in Fossil Fuel Exporters” CGEP’s research director Dr. Melissa Lott highlighted the important role governments play in setting market rules, while distinguished visiting fellow Diego Mesa Puyo pointed out that fiscal discipline in the face of volatile demand would define the future success of fossil fuel exporters.  

Presenting their “Artificial Intelligence for Climate Change Mitigation Roadmap,” David Sandalow and Antoine Halff highlighted the potential for AI to accelerate greenhouse gas emissions monitoring, optimize power plant deployment, and improve efficiency in industrial processes. They also noted key safety and equity risks, pointing out a role for government regulation of the technology. 

Bringing our insights to COP28 took a village. I am always grateful for the incredible talent and hard work of the team here at CGEP. From left, back row: Dr. Karen Young, Dr. Gautam Jain, Kevin Fitzmuarice, Amanda Huckabee Ferlazzo, Dr. Chris Bataille, Andrew Kamau, Antoine Halff, me, Dr. Kaushik Deb. From left, front row: David Sandalow, Jocelyn Tarbox, Robin Mills, Sagatom Saha, Alice Manos. 

Broadcasting LIVE from COP28” Dr. Melissa Lott joined the popular Woods McKenzie podcast, The Energy Gang, for episodes with UT-Austin’s Michael Webber and Carbon Wrangler CEO Julio Friedmann covering some of the biggest themes at COP this year.

As part of the official UN COP28 programming, Dr. Melissa Lott also participated in meetings for the UN Council of Engineers for the Energy Transition, along with fellow colleagues from CU including Vijay Modi, Jeff Sachs, and Lucas Chapman.

We were also thrilled to host Columbia University President Minouche Shafik as a guest speaker at CGEP’s hosted dinner-discussion, Financing the Energy Transition in the Developing World, where high-level attendees discussed how to obtain the financing needed to achieve global climate targets.

Closing out my visit to the UAE for COP, I joined our CGEP Advisory Board Chairman Matt Harris at the Milken Institute’s Middle East and Africa Summit in Abu Dhabi for a conversation focusing on how we can achieve a more equitable and inclusive energy transition.  

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