COP 28, the annual meeting of United Nations delegates to set goals and report progress on addressing climate change, closed last week in Dubai after a two-week rollercoaster that was both promising and discouraging. When weak draft language surfaced, just a few days before negotiations were set to close, shying away from any clear call to eliminate fossil fuels, the outlook was not optimistic. But nearly overnight, representatives managed to arrive at a deal. For the first time in 28 years of negotiations, the final agreement included direct reference to the need to “transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly, and equitable manner.”

The language is not as strong as many hoped, but it still represents a historic step forward, and came as a positive surprise after controversy surrounding the oil interests of the host country.

“We’ve known from COP number one that fossil fuels are a major cause of the problem with respect to climate change, but the reality is that it wasn’t until COP28 that the words ‘fossil fuels’ were actually recognized in the agreement,” says Woodwell Climate CEO and President, Dr. Max Holmes. “It’s really late in the game, but I think it’s important that this was finally recognized. Yet words are not actions, and much more needs to be done.”

International agreements were also made to reduce methane emissions generated by fossil fuel extraction and triple renewable energy by 2030, as well as enact the agreed-upon Loss and Damage fund created last year, which will use contributions from wealthier countries to support those suffering the worst climate-related impacts.

Progress also occurred on many smaller stages at COP28. Woodwell Climate had a strong presence, sending 16 scientists and staff to advocate on a variety of issues, including increased ambition in curbing emissions, funding for adaptation measures, action around permafrost and tropical forest issues, and improvements in transparency around carbon markets. Here are some of our key highlights and takeaways from COP28.

Protecting tropical forests

One core tenet of the Center’s research is the value of protecting and restoring natural ecosystems for both their intrinsic and climate importance. A check-in on pledges to end deforestation by 2030 shows they are mostly going unmet, but the final agreement did include language that acknowledged the importance of “protecting, conserving, and restoring forests”, which Woodwell Carbon Program Director, Dr. Wayne Walker, notes was another significant inclusion this year.

“Nature has a tremendous role to play and that’s really what this section is trying to emphasize: the importance of bringing nature to bear in the mitigation conversation alongside transitioning away from fossil fuels,” said Dr. Walker.

Woodwell Climate used this year’s COP to build and deepen partnerships that advance efforts to protect the carbon-storage powerhouses that are tropical forests. For example, Woodwell Climate hosted a discussion with Health in Harmony and Pawanka Fund about the power of  investing in Indigenous-led climate solutions. 

“Woodwell has been partnering increasingly with organizations like Health in Harmony and Pawanka fund, who are really strong advocates of Indigenous self-determination”, says Dr. Walker. “Pawanka Fund is a really great example of an Indigenous-led fund that provides direct support to Indigenous initiatives focused on promoting and protecting traditional knowledge, well-being, rights, and self-determined solutions to a whole host of issues. Organizations like [them] are critical to properly compensating Indigenous peoples for their contributions to climate change mitigation.”

Climate risk and carbon markets

On December 5, Woodwell Climate announced the release of a new report in partnership with the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development (MEDD) of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The report was the culmination of a multi-year collaboration to generate a localized, customized, cost-free climate risk assessment for the country that details both challenges and solutions. 

“This report was two years in the making, and was only possible because of close collaboration between Woodwell scientists, government leaders in the DRC, and experts at the University of Kinshasa,” says Woodwell Chief of Government Relations. “Our goal was to provide an actionable risk assessment that could directly inform Congolese policymaking. We developed that, but our partnership also identified the need for increased scientific and technical capacity, as well as a new framework for carbon market regulation.” 

The assessment identified improved carbon credit integrity as a mechanism to fund climate adaptation projects in the DRC and support forest preservation as a critical natural climate solution.

“We and others think carbon markets will have tremendous potential for bringing large amounts of capital to the ground to the people into the places responsible for implementing natural climate solutions,” says Dr. Walker. “But there’s no question that right now, carbon markets are plagued with all sorts of problems. There’s a lot of work to be done if they’re to function properly, sustainably, equitably.”

Pushing for permafrost accountability

Unfortunately, neither the Arctic nor permafrost were mentioned in the COP28 final agreement and Woodwell Climate Arctic Program Director, Dr. Sue Natali, says it is crucial that changes.

“Permafrost emissions can consume about 20% of our remaining carbon budget to avoid 1.5 C, and there will be much greater emissions from permafrost if we overshoot 1.5 C,” says Dr. Natali.

Dr. Natali spoke at several events in the Woodwell Climate space as well as in the Cryosphere Pavilion during Permafrost Day. Top of mind was not only the need to incorporate permafrost emissions into global carbon budgets, but also the need for Loss and Damage funding to extend to Northern communities being displaced by thawing and eroding permafrost. Discussions around Loss and Damage funding are currently focused on supporting countries in the global south, but many Arctic communities are grappling with decisions about relocation and adaptation, and have been for decades.

“These communities who already have very limited land are losing it to permafrost thaw, wildfire, increased storm impacts. This has been going on for a really long time and they urgently need resources,” Dr. Natali said. 

Where the rubber meets the road

“These high-minded Nationally Determined Commitments are ambitious in their target setting, but the national level policy is where they become reality,” says McGlinchey. Emphasizing that we will have to wait and see how the promises made at this year’s COP are enacted by different nations. During the conference, the Woodwell Climate meeting space was visited by two US senators, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who showed interest in permafrost and other climate issues.

Looking towards COP29, which will be hosted in Azerbaijan, the hope is that ambition and national commitments will increase, because while progress was made in this year’s agreement, it was nowhere near big enough to limit warming to below 1.5 degrees celsius. With current warming at around 1.2 degrees, we will have to be swift and decisive.

“This past year was a remarkable one— the hottest on record. The impacts of climate change are here and are being felt by people here and around the world. And that adds urgency,” says Dr. Holmes.

For the full debrief of COP28, you can watch our Webinar here.