December 15, 2023

Duke Experts Reflect on COP28

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
Two people talking in a walkway at the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.
Ashley Ward (left), director of the Heat Policy Innovation Hub, attended COP28 in the United Arab Emirates. Here, she talks with staff at the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi about the traditional cooling methods deployed there.

World leaders—along with government officials, nongovernmental organizations, researchers and activists—gathered in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12 for the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference to discuss ways to advance climate action.

The main headlines coming out of the conference, also known as COP28, focused on an agreement between nearly 200 nations to transition away from fossil fuels and accelerate development of renewable energy. During a series of official negotiations, associated events, and informal conversations, attendees explored pathways to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to a warming world in equitable ways.

Experts from Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability attended the conference, released publications or announced initiatives tied to it and/or followed the proceedings closely. Here are some of their reflections on COP28.

Global Energy Transition

“For the first time in three decades of climate diplomacy, we have explicitly called for a transition away from fossil fuels. This is significant,” said Jackson Ewing, director of energy and climate policy at the Nicholas Institute and an adjunct associate professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment.

“The impact of this call will depend upon the extent to which governments, firms, civil society actors and beyond flag the COP28 commitment in future forums and integrate transition principles into their policies and actions,” Ewing continued. “That will be a mixed bag, and there are plenty of potential loopholes across Dubai outcomes to allow for all sorts of interpretations. But such commitments can stick. The 2- and 1.5-degree temperature targets encoded into the Paris Agreement have been north stars ever since—a position that was far from certain when they were agreed upon in 2015. Time will tell if the fossil fuel transition language from COP28 follows a similar path or if it ultimately rings hollow.”

Jackson Ewing leads Energy Pathways USA, a Nicholas Institute initiative that convenes public- and private-sector partners to accelerate progress toward net-zero carbon emissions in the U.S. economy. Ewing coauthored an Energy Pathways USA report released during COP28 that comprehensively models the intersecting effects on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions of the Inflation Reduction Act, proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations on the power sector and recent increases in the costs of clean energy development. He also attended the conference with a contingent of 18 Duke students, who got an up-close look at international climate negotiations and hands-on experience supporting "clients" as part of the U.N. Climate Change Negotiations Practicum.

Nature-Based Solutions

“Momentum on integrating nature into global climate action continued at COP28,” said Lydia Olander, program director at the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability and an adjunct professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment. “Reducing deforestation is still a priority, although the focus this year was on adjusting forest carbon market standards to regain credibility after some significant reputational setbacks. The broader themes around nature-based solutions and nature conservation continued and expanded from last year with new financial commitments and growing global partnerships. However, there is still a long way to go, as reflected in a U.N. Environment Programme report released at COP that showed 30 times more investment in economic activity that harms nature than in measures to protect it.

“Domestically, the Biden administration announced new actions related to the implementation of the national nature-based solutions roadmap it launched at last year’s COP,” Olander added. “The U.S. also joined a growing number of countries participating in the ENACT partnership, which is working to accelerate global efforts to address climate change, land and ecosystem degradation, and biodiversity loss through nature-based solutions.”

For the last two years, Lydia Olander spent much of her time on loan from Duke to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, where she served as director of nature-based resilience and co-led the national roadmap. In her university role, Olander and a team of Nicholas Institute experts and Duke students worked closely with the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) to develop the DOI Nature-Based Solutions Roadmap, which was announced during a U.S.-led event on Dec. 9. The document provides DOI staff with consistent and credible information for implementing nature-based solutions.

Climate and Health Policy

“This was the first COP in 28 years to feature a designated day for health,” said Ashley Ward, director of the Nicholas Institute’s Heat Policy Innovation Hub. “Those who have worked toward this for decades were not disappointed as health became part of many conversations not only on Health Day but throughout the conference. The topic of extreme heat was especially discussed with newfound urgency on the heels of the hottest year on record. The result was unprecedented attention on needed investments in adaptation and resilience and focus on shaping global health policy to place climate change at its center.”

Ashley Ward moderated a Dec. 9 event, “Building Heat-Resiliency: Actions and Opportunities for Healthier Cities and Communities,” hosted by the World Health Organization at the COP28 Health Pavilion. Throughout the conference, Ward connected with climate leaders, researchers and practitioners to discuss extreme heat and health.

Climate Justice

“COP28's financial pledges, while a step forward, barely scratch the surface of addressing global climate injustice,” said Kay Jowers, director of Duke’s Just Environments program. “The United States committed $17.5 million for the loss and damage fund, a new and unique initiative within U.N. climate efforts intended to compensate developing nations for the harm caused by industrialized countries. However, this amount is minimal compared to larger commitments from France, Germany, and Italy, and it starkly contrasts with the US's history of unfulfilled promises and rising emissions. This discrepancy underscores the urgent need for greater accountability. Additionally, the critical transition away from fossil fuels is currently without a clear strategy or specific targets. Lacking robust enforcement, these commitments risk being ineffective, leaving the planet and its most vulnerable populations in jeopardy.

“Looking ahead, ensuring diverse participation and open dialogue is imperative for meaningful climate action,” Jowers continued. “The choice of Egypt and the UAE as the two most recent COP hosts and Azerbaijan as the next casts a shadow over the transparency and inclusivity of these events. The limited freedom for dissent in these countries may silence those most impacted by climate injustices—the very voices that need amplification in our journey toward a just transition.”

Kay Jowers leads Just Environments, a joint program of the Nicholas Institute and the Kenan Institute for Ethics. Just Environments formalizes long-standing community-engaged environmental and climate justice collaborations between the two institutes and impacted communities. Jowers’ work focuses on analyzing state regulatory and policy approaches to addressing environmental issues and engages with environmental equity, ethics, and justice in particular.

Sustainable Infrastructure

“With infrastructure contributing to four-fifths of all climate emissions, this sector remains at the core of all climate mitigation and resilience solutions,” said Elizabeth Losos, executive in residence at the Nicholas Institute. “If you peek under the hood of COP28, you will see that many of the announcements and initiatives fundamentally rely on reforms in the infrastructure sector. For example, the UAE Leaders’ Declaration on Global Climate Finance Framework—setting out principles for making climate finance available, accessible and affordable—provides a blueprint for financing low-carbon, resilient and inclusive infrastructure.”

“Another critical need highlighted at COP28 was boosting the technical capacity of those ultimately responsible for building infrastructure—local government officials, engineers and developers. Ample knowledge and tools already exist to plan, design and construct low-carbon, climate-resilient infrastructure, but too often these resources do not reach the practitioners that could use them.” Losos added, “With literally hundreds of billions of dollars being invested across the globe in new infrastructure projects, this is a pivotal time to make sure we are building the infrastructure we want and need.”

Elizabeth Losos is helping lead a new global initiative to accelerate development of climate-smart infrastructure through virtual knowledge exchange and problem-solving among infrastructure practitioners and experts. The Nicholas Institute worked with the U.N. Environment Programme and the International Coalition of Sustainable Infrastructure to launch the Infrastructure Sustainability Learning (ISLe) Initiative at a COP28 Resilience Hub event. Starting in early 2024, three inaugural ISLe virtual learning networks will focus on post-disaster sustainable rebuilding, climate and sustainability engineering education and nature-based infrastructure solutions.