In the aftermath of the adoption of the UAE Consensus, Government Parties and commentators are deeply divided in their assessment writes Remco Fischer, Climate Lead at UNEP FI. 

There are those looking at the big picture, the fundamental causes, the drivers of and solutions to climate change, and the decades-long history of intergovernmental negotiations; the ones thinking like visionaries and historians. From their perspective, the UAE Consensus can indeed be seen as a real landmark, as a catalyst of the unavoidable paradigm shifts that we must undergo for global society to have a fighting chance at coping with the climate change phenomenon.

Then there are the communities – including those already heavily impacted by the 1.3C of warming that we have now – as well as the decision-makers in the real economy – who are desperately waiting and looking for concrete measures, for clear objectives and timelines, for tangible support packages, and means of implementation. It’s the implementers, as well as those on the frontline of global heating. 

To them, the UAE consensus can only be a disappointment: a wasted opportunity that failed to truly build and capitalise on existing concrete and ambitious policies such as the Inflation Reduction Act in the US and EU Green Deal — both in terms of the huge business opportunity these initiatives represent and their potential to accelerate the transition towards clean energy.

Those in the first camp will highlight the extraordinary achievement of reaching a practically universal, multilateral consensus among all countries, on a challenge as complex and divisive in 2023 as climate change. All this in a world that otherwise is increasingly divided, with increasing conflicts that some are calling the beginning of a reversal in globalisation.

More importantly, they will highlight the paradigm shift in world governments reaching universal consensus on the need to “transition away” not only from coal – as already established at COP26 in Glasgow two years ago – but to do so from fossil fuels altogether, including importantly oil and gas. 

From a scientific perspective, this resolution seems like a no-brainer, of little value as a breakthrough, let alone a paradigm shift. Of course, the combustion of fossil fuels is quite simply and factually the number one source of GHG emissions. 

In the geopolitics of climate change, unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth. In the three decades to date of international climate negotiations, the dominant realpolitik has always been to focus only, and exclusively, on emissions, and never on fossil fuels – neither their supply nor demand. Even if logic would dictate that the latter goes together with the former. 

To a certain extent, this approach of ignoring the ‘elephant in the room’ has been the political formula by which over the last three decades countries have come together, time and again, to create a semblance of determined collective climate action, while never getting too much in the way of the deeply entrenched interests of the ‘fossilist economy’. At the same time, that may very well have been the formula for failure: three decades of negotiations that didn’t deliver much at all in terms of a reduction in real world emissions. Those now hailing the UAE Consensus as a success point out that the politically convenient, yet ineffective formula has finally reached its end at COP28. The link established between emissions, as the result, and fossil fuels, as the cause, is here to stay and hopefully will drive more effective, real and direct decarbonisation action in the future. This signal indeed is groundbreaking, to all economic, financial and political decision-makers worldwide, especially those exposed to and reliant on fossil fuel markets. 

They will also hail the achievement of capitalising and operationalising the loss and damage fund, to the tune now of USD 700 million. More fundamentally, they will hail the implied, and now lived, recognition that large emitters – which should include the historically industrialised countries as well as fast-growing, increasingly wealthy, high-emitting, emerging economies like the UAE – have a responsibility to help poorer developing countries compensate for the losses and damages accrued from increasingly intense and frequent extreme weather.  Here again they see an important gear change.

They will appreciate the continued calls in the text for at least politically elevating the importance of adaptation, to parity with mitigation; and in that same vein they will value the novel effort to mobilise countries to set related, almost operational objectives on adaptation – such as on water security, ecosystem restoration, health, already by 2030, alongside the targets and objectives being set for mitigation.

Lastly, they will see in the text that important new agendas are being given the weight that they deserve. The just transition, for instance, is given an important focus in the agreements, even if more work will be required on what the just transition means in quantitative terms from emissions trajectories to climate finance obligations. The same goes for nature, the importance of ecosystem-based adaptation and nature-based solutions, and the increasingly codified recognition that climate goals demand nature-positivity. 

So, philosophically, commentators will agree there is a lot of great, new stuff in the Consensus. Enter the realists and doers.

Their main argument will be that all those great ideas and visions in the Consensus, are lacking in corroboration and concreteness. What’s missing are all the things needed to turn vision into action, and action into the types of decarbonisation and adaptation impact now needed on the ground, in communities, economies and ecosystems.   

They will be steadfast in pointing out that the Consensus lacks any concreteness as to when countries should be peaking their emissions, fossil fuel production, and fossil fuel consumption. They will point out that USD 700 million for loss and damage is a drop in the ocean of fast changing weather patterns everywhere; that not even in 2023 are the USD 100 billions of annual climate finance promised back in 2009, fully flowing; that there has been no solid progress, let alone breakthroughs, on the new quantified goal on climate finance (now expected for COP29 or COP30), nor, equally disappointingly, on the foundations for a new regime on high-integrity international carbon trading. The list goes on.

Which of these two above sides and angles has the better analyses, and the more convincing arguments, will ultimately be in the eye of the beholder, of course.

However, strategists and leaders worldwide, including those in the corporate and financial sectors, should pay close attention to the new foundational direction, and indeed paradigm shift, captured in the Consensus. The global ripple effects of those are likely to over time be felt and reflected deeply across national legislative processes and jurisdictions, public opinion, consumer awareness and preference, and ultimately corporate performance – even if that may not happen as immediately and directly as many would have hoped for in the lead up to COP28. 

The proverbial writing is on the wall, now in bold Arabic letters. The fine print, granted, not yet, but likely, with enough time, will also follow.

Read more from the UN on outcomes from COP28:

UN Secretary-General’s statement at the closing of the UN Climate Change Conference COP28

UNEP Executive Director, Inger Andersen’s statement on the closing of COP28