21 Dec 2023

An empty chair - Five reflections on COP28

El Salvador drought 2014
Sean Hawkey

By Sophie Aujean, Fairtrade’s Director of Global Advocacy

From 30 November to 12 December, Dubai hosted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), known as COP28. As I returned to my home country and reflected on my experience, I shared the opinion of many other Fairtrade delegates. Overall, COP28 felt well organised, luxurious and comfortable. But lacked the genuine human voices affected by climate change. In short, it felt like an empty chair.

At COP, we don’t want to be in our comfort zone, we want to hear disruptive ideas: the climate activists, indigenous people and farmers emphasising the need for change and delivering vibrant speeches which spring people into action. It seemed petrol and oil-based economic models continue to be more relevant for politicians than the people that are suffering from climate catastrophe.

Yet, there were some glimpses of unity and hope. Here are five reflections from our experience at COP28:

1. Food systems and agriculture are taking up more space with a dedicated day.

We were extremely glad to see such a critical topic gain more traction. COP28 started with a declaration on sustainable agriculture endorsed by more than 130 countries and for the first time ever, a whole day was dedicated to food and agriculture. We co-organised two side-events addressing respectively, the role of young people in smallholder agriculture, and a farmer-centric approach to market creation and standard setting for carbon and nature. We engaged in conversations on food systems with Climate Action at their Agri-food Systems Summit, while discussing a transition to agroecology with our partner International Trade Centre (ITC) . And we would like agriculture to become even more central in negotiations - and include farmers’ voices.

Zitouni Ould-Data, Deputy Director in the Climate and Environment Division at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said it very clearly: ‘’It is critical that more and more farmers are coming to gatherings like COP and sharing their realities because we need to link-up to the reality out there, we cannot speak about food systems in a vacuum.’’

However, it was a disappointment to not have farmers mentioned explicitly in the Global Stocktake decision, while many other groups such as young people, indigenous, women, etc. are mentioned.

2. Awareness of climate and adaptation finance is high, but financial pledges are too low.

We have said it before: farmers have a crucial role to play and their knowledge on climate adaptation is indispensable. But it should not fall on their shoulders to finance the transition to sustainable production – especially when they still struggle to earn a living income.

A clear roadmap on how climate finance based on the COP26 commitments is needed. Additional details on financing expectations and targets will be critical for COP29.

3. Farmers voices are powerful. And should be heard.

We are proud of the energy and commitment our delegation, especially from producers. We took part in seven discussion session on climate finance, helping to position the needs of farmers for more financial mechanisms. Climate action needs rethinking.

The highlight happened on Saturday 9 December, when Ana Laura Sayago, representative of CLAC and organic honey producer in Argentina, spoke in front of the main plenary in representation of the Farmers’ Constituency and farmers worldwide. Ana Laura shared her message with Maness Nkhata, CEO at Lakeshore Agro-processors Enterprise LAPE in Malawi and representative of the World Farmers’ Organization; together they shared messages of sorority and urgency.

4. Transitioning away from fossil fuels - High hopes that fall short.

It’s a historic agreement: for the first time ever, in 28 years of international negotiations on climate, COP28 nations adopted a deal to 'transition away' from fossil fuels. The final agreement – the UAE Consensus – calls for a ‘’just, orderly, and equitable’’ transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems.

Yet, we deeply regret the absence of a clear commitment to ‘’phase-out’’ fossil fuels. The call for a ‘’phase-out’’ was left out of the agreement, due to powerful lobbying from oil-producing countries. This is despite the fact that 72% of the countries attending COP28 were in favour of a ‘’phase-out’’.

Combined with the lack of financial commitments needed to support low-income countries in their transitioning away from fossil fuels and implementing climate resilience measures, the agreement fails to address the urgency of the climate crisis.

As stressed by Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General: “To those who opposed a clear reference to phase out of fossil fuels during the COP28: Whether you like it or not, fossil fuel phase-out is inevitable. Let’s hope it doesn’t come too late.”

5. Carbon markets – Credibility concerns were not addressed.

Carbon markets can help reduce emissions more affordably by offering financial rewards for projects that cut down on greenhouse gases. Despite their potential, these markets have faced credibility issues. They require strong environmental and human rights safeguards.

Negotiators sought to establish clearer oversight for credit markets and define accounting methods for various credit types with the launch of a central system. Unfortunately, no consensus was reached, leaving critical questions about the permanence of claimed reductions unresolved. The need to address these issues will persist into COP29, presenting a disappointing outcome for those striving to establish robust and trustworthy carbon markets.

Policy makers and companies have still a chance to revive hopes in all of us, by bringing people at the centre of their commitments.

Let’s do not repeat the image of an empty chair again in COP next year.