“We’re taking on this audacious project to remake the world in a way that is built on a sustainable infrastructure, a more fair infrastructure, that will usher in health equity and help people thrive. I think it’s the biggest project modern society has ever taken on. It’s going to have a lot of ups and downs. There’s gonna be moments of feeling very daunted and scared and there’s gonna be transformative moments. And my hope is that people find community, that they find their voice, they find their people, and they feel a commitment to be in it for the long haul.”
Gaurab Basu, physician and climate advocate
COP28, this year’s annual Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, wrapped up Wednesday morning in Dubai. Things got dicey over the last couple of days, with world leaders hashing out the final text of the first global stocktake — a document assessing progress toward the Paris Agreement goals, and outlining measures countries will need to take to meet them.
One of the key points of debate was whether countries would agree to a phaseout of fossil fuels. Former Vice President Al Gore took to social media on Monday declaring that “In order to prevent COP28 from being the most embarrassing and dismal failure in 28 years of international climate negotiations, the final text must include clear language on phasing out fossil fuels.” The agreement stops one step short of that. It calls for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly and equitable manner,” and also mentions a phasedown of “unabated” coal power. (Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe has referred to “unabated” as a weasel word.)
While many advocates and delegates wanted more decisive language, the stocktake text does make history as the first global climate agreement to specifically mention fossil fuels and call for curbing their use. And this conference included a number of other firsts, including an agreement on a loss-and-damage fund reached on the very first day.
For advocates on the ground at COP fighting for certain outcomes, the agreements generated are just the beginning. “It really does all come down to continuous local activism and pressure on government, because we’re not in any shape, way, or form currently on track for 1.5,” said Alexia Leclercq, the policy director at People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources, or PODER, and cofounder of an educational organization called Start:Empowerment, in reference to the goal set forth in the Paris Agreement of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees C.
“Sometimes it can feel very hopeless, especially just seeing how much of an accomplishment the Paris climate agreement was, but how little follow-through there is,” she said. Ultimately, that follow-through depends on continuous pressure and accountability at the local, national, and international levels.
We asked four advocates who have been involved in the conference in different ways for their reflections on the COP process and the work ahead. Here’s what they had to say.
“We really have to leverage that to pressure governments”
Leclercq (who was featured on our 2023 Grist 50 list) attended COP for the second time this year, working with the group Kick Big Polluters Out and also as part of a coalition of youth activists focused on an equitable fossil fuel phaseout. Although the word “phaseout” didn’t make it into the final agreement, when we spoke last week, Leclercq noted that any commitment countries made around fossil fuels would require watchdogging.
“Even if the language makes it to the text, I think we really would have to leverage that to pressure governments to actually implement that and actually triple renewable energy capacity and really follow through with the phaseout,” she said. In other words, it’s a long road ahead for activists — even after a long and exhausting stretch of days at the conference itself.
For instance, the final agreement specifies transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems — Leclercq noted that fossil fuel development for plastics production didn’t seem to be considered part of a phaseout or transition, based on conversations she and her team had with U.S. negotiators.
“The final global stocktake simply does not keep the goals of the Paris agreement alive, and as a result, frontline communities continue to die everyday,” Leclercq told me this morning.
Despite concerns over implementation, and extreme disappointment that agreement didn’t go further, Leclercq finds the conference itself to be a valuable space for knowledge sharing and solidarity. “Outside of being here to follow the negotiations, it’s cool to be in such an international space and to meet the civil society, frontline communities, and Indigenous groups from different parts of the world to build solidarity and learn about each other’s work,” she said. “That’s one thing that I do like about COP. It’s exhausting and chaotic, and it’s a very emotional process. But I think that part of it is very refreshing and kind of beautiful to be able to learn from.
“We want health professionals to be at the table”
The links between climate change and human health got a much-needed spotlight at COP28, with a first-ever dedicated Health Day on the agenda. Over 120 countries, including the U.S., signed a Declaration on Climate and Health, committing to objectives like better integrating health considerations into climate policy, improving the climate readiness of health care systems, and combatting societal inequalities that create health disparities.
“For us in the health field, I think Health Day brings in the moral urgency of taking care of our patients,” said Gaurab Basu, a primary care physician and the director of education and policy at the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard’s School of Public Health (and a 2021 Grist 50 Fixer). He traveled to Dubai for the first week of the conference — his first time attending COP. As a physician, he said, he feels a responsibility to bring his perspective on the human costs of climate change and push for accountability to the people who are suffering, in his clinics in Massachusetts and around the world. “This work can get abstract and analytical, about graphs and emissions and economics and policy. But there’s got to be an urgency behind it, and I think health really allows us to do that,” he said.
Still, the health declaration did not go as far as the global stocktake in including any mention of fossil fuels — which not only drive planetary warming, but also endanger the health of surrounding communities. “We cannot look away from the simple truth that fossil fuels have to end and they have to end urgently,” he said. He hopes the declaration will at least prove to be a useful starting ground. “You know, we really want health professionals to be at the table, pushing with urgency to get these things done.”
“Human rights needs to be at the center of the agenda”
Adrien Salazar, the policy director of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (and a 2019 Grist 50 Fixer), did not attend COP28. For the first time in 15 years, the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance elected to withdraw its delegation, participating in a boycott to call for a ceasefire in Israel’s siege against Gaza.
“Human rights needs to be at the center of the agenda at COP,” Salazar said. And to him, climate justice and demilitarization are intricately linked. “We know that military operations around the world are contributors of not only carbon emissions but toxic pollutants that communities on the front lines of militarized sites face,” he said, calling it “one of the last remaining taboo topics in the international negotiations.”
He added that the decision to boycott was also based in part on a long-term assessment of how the COP space has been overtaken by corporate interests. This year, for the first time, data was made public on the number of fossil fuel lobbyists at the conference — roughly 1 in 40 attendees. Salazar is cautiously hopeful that this revelation will help advocates who are pushing for a conflict-of-interest policy at future gatherings. “Despite how dire the situation is when we see the numbers, us getting the numbers is a victory,” Salazar said.
His team is already looking toward COP30 in 2025, before which countries must update their national climate pledges. The 2025 conference will be held in Belém, Brazil, the closest major city to the mouth of the Amazon. “We think this is a major opportunity to raise all of these issues and to work with our movement allies from around the world to make sure that the COP becomes a people’s COP,” he said.
“Entrepreneurs and government need each other”
COP28 shattered attendance records, with over 84,000 registered participants. “Like me, it was a first for many, many, many people at COP this year,” said Danya Hakeem, managing director of the portfolio for Elemental Excelerator, a nonprofit investor focused on scaling emerging climate tech solutions.
“It was really encouraging to see the private sector, the entrepreneurs, the investors show up in a way that they never have before. It felt like tech and innovation was not just sort of present but actually center stage,” Hakeem said. For the first time, Hakeem notes, there was not only one but two tech and innovation pavilions, as well as a “startup village” with over 100 companies sharing exhibits, including a handful from Elemental’s portfolio.
Some advocates have been critical of the business presence at COP28, worried that it distracts from the seriousness of the deliberations and makes the conference feel more like a big trade fair. But Hakeem and others from her team found immense value in being part of the space, and some of the serendipitous interactions that were possible at the global forum. “I think entrepreneurs and government need each other in order to implement the technologies we need to mitigate climate change,” she offered. “I genuinely do feel like we need everyone at the table.” And, with the negotiations turning rocky at the tail end of the conference, she felt that the private sector conversations at the conference were where real movement was happening.
When we spoke yesterday, Hakeem noted that “even if the news doesn’t go our way in the next few hours here when we get the final word, I feel so encouraged and [I feel] so much drive and momentum from our entrepreneurs who are so passionate, so committed, so smart. And they’re not gonna stop. They are gonna keep working day and night to solve these problems. So that’s what keeps me going every day.”
— Claire Elise Thompson
Grist reporters have been following the conference closely, with senior staff writer Naveena Sadasivam on the ground in Dubai. These stories are just a few highlights — check out all of our coverage here.
- Read: more about the final agreement, and a recap of the turmoil at the end of COP28
- Read: criticisms of COP and how the system might be improved
- Read: about the loss and damage fund announced on the first day of the conference, and the significance of the UAE’s contribution to it
- Read: about a pivotal adaptation plan that the Marshall Islands unveiled at COP28
- Read: a day in the life of an activist at the conference
- And just for fun: check out this Instagram account dedicated to the slayingest street style at COP28
A parting shot
Youth activists staged a protest in Dubai on Tuesday — what was meant to be the final day of the conference — calling for a swift end to fossil fuels. Leclercq, in the blue shawl, holds a microphone at the front of the group.