Make or break: COP28 could be a defining moment in global climate history

From extreme heat in Europe to floods in West Africa, the wildfires in Canada and record rain in China, the devastating impacts of climate change are reverberating through the world today.

Ahead of the COP28 United Nations (UN) climate change conference which is held this year in Dubai, a UN report reviewing global action to tackle climate change since the 2015 Paris Agreement called for stronger measures to reduce current emission levels, address the rising vulnerability faced by nations due to climate hazards and the need to pay special attention in supporting developing countries.

Speaking at a public lecture organised by the NUS Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions (CNCS) titled “COP28: Are we on track to averting climate catastrophe?” on 16 November 2023, NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye echoed the calls for urgent actions to be taken as he spoke of the role universities play in pressing global issues through their contributions to knowledge, innovation, and education.

“Against a backdrop of extreme weather events and a series of alarming reports by climate scientists around the world, there is clear evidence of the escalating climate impact driven by rising emissions…Climate action entails trade-offs and sacrifices; there is no easy way out. To steer the course of global action effectively and to secure buy in, decisions and recommendations must be based on the scientific insights and evidence,” he said.

With the window to avert climate catastrophe fast closing, the work is cut out for this year’s United Nations-led global climate summit. Happening from 30 November to 12 December, the main decision-making body of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) attended by world leaders, will be meeting to determine climate ambition and responsibilities, identify and assess climate measures, as well as develop climate change solutions.

Taking stock of climate change efforts

Prior to countries setting the next round of climate targets under the Paris Agreement, COP28 will take a realistic look at how far climate change action has come with the Global Stocktake, a two-year process scheduled to take place every five years.

First started in 2021 and set to conclude at COP28, the first-ever Global Stocktake aims to assess the progress on climate action since the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement and identify gaps.

To Associate Professor Angel Hsu, Department of Public Policy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the United States, what stood out was the report’s acknowledgement of “non-party stakeholders”. This refers to parties besides governments that are part of UNFCCC, such as industry players and non-governmental organisations. The report was a signal that the upcoming COP is intended to be more inclusive, taking a whole-of-society approach to policymaking in responding to climate challenges.

“When I first read this in the report, I was shocked – now everyone has to take responsibility for the world’s climate action, not just the countries,” said Dr Hsu, who was one of the panellists at the public lecture.

Financial assistance for developing nations

Besides the global stocktake, COP28 will also focus on the Loss and Damage Fund. Established at COP27 in 2022, the centralised global fund aims to provide financial assistance to developing nations most affected by climate change.  

It was finally adopted after mounting pressure from climate-vulnerable developing countries, which are usually low-carbon emitters but are most affected by climate-induced disasters.

Countries will be ironing out the finer details of the Fund – who will finance the fund, how the funds will be transferred, and so on – at this year’s COP.

Dr Aisha Al-Sarihi, Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, noted that the world is well behind on its climate goals. “There is a big gap between where we are today and where we need to be,” said Dr Al-Sarihi. Specialising in research on clean energy policy and climate economics, she also highlighted that sustainable investments need to quadruple by 2030, which is a stretched target.

“We need to find innovative ways to finance the transition – academia could play a big role in developing these solutions,” suggested Assistant Professor David Lallemant from the Asian School of the Environment at Nanyang Technological University.

With so much at stake, the conference is set to be a defining moment in the world’s climate history. Outcomes from COP28 will make or break the world’s climate change efforts.

Led by Professor Koh Lian Pin, Associate Vice President and Chief Sustainability Scientist, a team of NUS faculty members and students from different faculties is attending COP28 to observe negotiations, convene panel discussions, and learn from partners on how science can be applied to real-world climate challenges.

Stay tuned for more COP28 content on the NUS News website as well as our social media platforms!