COP28 delivers ‘death certificate’ for island nations

DECEMBER 11: Licypriya Kangujam onstage at the Global Climate Action High-Level Event (closing): Uniting on the Path way to 2030 and Beyond session during the UN Climate Change Conference COP28 at Expo City Dubai on December 11, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by COP28 / Anthony Fleyhan)

In between coughs and massive chugs of coffee, majlis was the new word rolling off lips at this stage of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) COP28, in Dubai. It’s the Arabic word for “council,” an open and honest gathering to discuss issues.

During the initial majlis, COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber, who is also the minister of industry and advanced technology of the United Arab Emirates and head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), sought to reaffirm a commitment to maintain ambition and urged that the Global Stocktake (GST) produce the most pragmatic and feasible climate solutions.

The irony is not lost on most, but the Sultan also emphasised the limited time remaining and the presidency's determination to deliver by December 12. He then presented ministers and delegation heads with two critical questions:

1. How do we build transformative ambition on mitigation while addressing just and equitable transitions and corresponding support requirements?
2. How do we credibly tackle the gap in adaptation finance and action?

The Global Stocktake simplified

Essentially, GST serves as the inaugural evaluation of global efforts by countries to combat the climate crisis. COP28 carries the weight of being the first ever GST to score the UNFCCC process, commitments, and ambitions. As such, it’s meant to be the big outcome of the climate negotiations this year.

That said, this assessment of countries’ performance is anticipated to hold minimal surprises: the prevalent understanding is that we have significantly deviated from the intended path to restrict global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius as per the Paris Agreement‘s objective.

Insufficient measures are in place to tackle the root cause of climate change—greenhouse gas emissions. At the time of writing, countries are currently unable to come to a consensus over whether or not to phase out or phase down fossil fuels.

Moreover, inadequate preparations are being made to address the existing and projected exacerbation of climate change impacts, already evident and anticipated to escalate further in the future.

Adaptation needs more attention

I personally know what it feels like to be the middle child. Spoken over during family dinner and given little to no attention. And while that’s a discussion for another meeting with my therapist, I sympathise with adaptation.

Although the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA) holds immense significance within the Paris Agreement, directing global efforts towards bolstering adaptability, fortifying resilience, and lessening susceptibility to climate change — all while striving to cap the global temperature increase as near as feasible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it’s been given nowhere near the attention of this COP’s star child — the Loss and Damage Fund — which has been celebrated for its achievement, countries pledging approximately USD 750 million at this point.

Now, after being almost completely ignored for most of the summit, on the penultimate day of the COP, a new text on the GGA was released. But it is weak.

It is a convergence text where the parties found some balance and agreement, but does it do anything to adequately support climate-vulnerable countries?

A win is not always a win?

Responding to the new draft text of the GGA, Sandeep Chamling Rai, World Wildlife Fund senior advisor, Global Climate Adaptation Policy, said: “The Global Goal on Adaptation latest draft is still missing some crucial elements, despite some improvements. Vulnerable communities desperately need more finance to build resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis. However, the text only reiterates the longstanding call for developed countries to double adaptation finance without providing a clear roadmap to deliver it.”

As Simon Steill, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, has stated, the COP28 must deliver a big switch, not just in what governments must do, but also in how to get the job done.

However, there is a significant lack of emphasis on the Means of Implementation (MoI) necessary for the framework's effective implementation. The absence of concrete targets and MoI might jeopardise the framework's efficacy.

To achieve a credible outcome, negotiators must agree on an overall finance target for adaptation and how developed countries can meet their previous commitments to double climate adaptation finance.

So, as the middle child, adaptation has basically received a plate of food, after all the other siblings have already eaten. Meanwhile, it has not been asked about its favourite cuisine or if it wanted extra sauce.

Island nations again, are left in rising waters.

Watery language while floods intensify

During Sunday’s majlis, Al Jaber stated, “At no circumstance will we accept watering down against any pillar. The GST must be the most pragmatic and most real response. The world is watching; we do not have time to wait.”

However, the drama has increased here in Dubai. At approximately 5:00 p.m. on December 11, a new GST text was released. And island nations are far from happy about it.

As it was unfolding, I was in the middle of a policy briefing session at the Children and Youth Pavillion, and as I read the text along with my colleagues, we all felt the depression grow.

The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which represents the negotiating interests of SIDS, has stated that it is “gearing up for battle,” in response to the watered-down language on fossil fuels and the lack of ambition on climate adaptation.

Fossil fuel phase-out is gone, and the narrative is now framed by “actions that could include.”

Further weakening the text is language that “encourages” Nationally Determined Contributions and “invites … activities” with a “view to enhancing action.”

It all seems very much like a suggestion rather than determined and strong climate action.

According to Joseph Sikulu, Pacific managing director at, in a media huddle post-text-drop, the language is “unacceptable and far below the ambition required to keep our islands afloat.”

“This week, we felt that the goal of phasing out fossil fuels was within reach, but the lack of climate leadership shown by the presidency, and the blatant watering down of commitments to a ‘wish list’ is an insult to those of us that came here to fight for our survival. How do we go home and tell our people that this is what the world has to say about our futures?” Sikulu stated. 

On adaptation, the new text “calls on” parties to publish plans by 2025, and “invites” and “urges” scaling up of climate finance.

This is not what island nations came here for.

“We will be sticking to our guns on our long-held positions on climate change and the deadly consequences that it has brought our islands. At this hour, our negotiators are locked in discussions as the remaining hours of COP28 will be crucial,” AOSIS has declared.

The new text does not do enough to keep our islands above water.

This truly brings into question the leadership on the presidency's part and whether SIDS voices are genuinely being heard at this year's negotiations.

Red lines have been drawn

For AOSIS, the red line is “a strong commitment to keeping the 1.5c warming limit,” because “any text that compromises 1.5 will be rejected.”

“We will not sign our death certificate. We cannot sign on to text that does not have strong commitments on phasing out fossil fuels,” the negotiating block stated.

As a matter of fact, failure to meet ambitious mitigation objectives that rely on equitable transitions and sufficient support, lack of possible avenues to bridge the adaptation gap, and failure to ramp up ambition, will not lead to a strong COP28 outcome.

What's next?

Expect to see political dynamics swiftly evolve during the final stages of COP, leaving room for unexpected developments. The forthcoming next couple of hours will challenge the resolve of these leaders, whose roles are pivotal in tipping the scales in favour of ambition and steering away from the risk of a compromised outcome based on the lowest common denominator.

The COP28 president reiterated a commitment to transparency and honesty during the majlis, recognising the criticality of this stance as the endgame of COP28. However, based on the sentiments in the islands’ camp, it seems developed countries are playing games on priority tracks, instead of delivering a game-changing outcome.

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