CLIMATEWIRE | DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Now the real work starts.

The first few days of the COP28 climate conference featured so many lofty declarations and flashy promises that you’d be forgiven for asking what delegates are still doing here. But the main negotiations have only just gotten underway.

At the core of this year’s summit sits something called the “Global Stocktake,” often abbreviated to GST — a nondescript name that conceals its vital role in international climate efforts.

In short, it’s about drawing up a report card on where the world stands eight years after signing the Paris Agreement, and how countries plan to fix their inevitable shortcomings. That plan coming out of COP28 will help determine whether the world can stave off the worst impacts of climate change or careen toward unlivable temperatures.

German climate envoy Jennifer Morgan called the stocktake the “heart” of the Paris climate accord; Toeolesulusulu Cedric Schuster, chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, labeled it a “lifeline” for especially vulnerable countries like his native Samoa.

The outcome of this obscure process is also what high-ranking ministers will be haggling over when they arrive for the second week of COP28 — and what the United Arab Emirates hosts will be judged on in the end.

“What makes this COP unique as compared to the previous COPs? First and foremost, it’s the Global Stocktake,” EU lead negotiator Jacob Werksman told reporters on Monday.

So what is it? Let’s take a look.

What are we even talking about?

The Global Stocktake broadly refers to a thorough assessment of how much progress countries are making toward the Paris Agreement targets, which committed countries to limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius and ideally to 1.5 C compared to the pre-industrial era.

The process consists of three components. The first stage, gathering all the relevant information, began two years ago. The second phase, evaluating that data, ended this summer.

The final task — the response to this assessment — concludes at COP28. That’s the hard part.

Under the Paris accord’s terms, countries have to conduct this exercise every five years.

Hang on, the assessment already happened?

Yup. You’ll sometimes hear that countries will conduct an assessment of their climate efforts while in Dubai, but the United Nations already published its report summarizing the findings in September — concluding that the world is falling short of its Paris goals.

“That assessment has been done, it is clear we are not on a track,” Morgan told a press conference in Dubai last week. With current efforts, she noted, “we will see a temperature rise of 2.5C to 2.9C.”

She added: “That is unimaginable.”

Beyond 1.5C, climate impacts like extreme weather or sea-level rise get substantially worse. Scientists warn that overshooting that threshold risks triggering irreversible tipping points like dramatic polar ice loss, which would further exacerbate warming.

So what’s happening at COP28?

Negotiators in Dubai are discussing what countries should do with that report, which gave strict instructions to retain any hope of hitting the 1.5C target: First, cut 43 percent of greenhouse gas emissions this decade (compared to 2019 levels), then hit net-zero emissions by 2050.

But there are profound divisions over how to get there.

“The first component is taking stock of what the gaps are,” said Tom Evans, who tracks the stocktake negotiations in Dubai for think tank E3G. “Second, what do you do about these gaps? And that’s where the political flashpoints are.”

What could that response look like?

A lot of things, but the idea is for everyone from the Paris Agreement — that’s nearly 200 countries — to endorse a coherent plan by the summit’s end.

Again, not easy.

The document is expected to both look back at what went wrong and then look ahead with guidelines on how to remedy those shortcomings. That roadmap should include a climate wish list — everything from cutting emissions to preparing communities for climate change fallout to financing for both.

So … words on a page. Does that even matter?

It does, for a few reasons.

First, the text will give clear directions to countries as they draw up their next climate action plans. The Paris Agreement requires governments to submit new plans by COP30, which takes place in Brazil in 2025.

Second, those words send a powerful signal to markets, local governments and more. If nearly 200 countries agree on a text that says a coal phaseout is necessary, investors will take the hint.

With the stocktake, “we have the opportunity to take a set of decisions … that finds the clarity that business leaders need to invest in the future,” Morgan said.

The outcome will also test the Paris accord’s integrity. These regular check-ins and the requirement to then update climate plans are meant to ensure everyone is upping their efforts over time.

“The effectiveness of the Paris Agreement is at stake,” Evans said.

And what do countries want?

The end result should set out what to do about planet-warming fossil fuels, as well as efforts to prepare for a warmer future and steps to ensure poorer countries have the resources to do that, as well.

“No one is trying to tear the whole thing down,” said Evans.

That doesn’t mean countries are close to an agreement.

Urgent calls for a fossil fuel “phaseout” — a much-debated term — are especially contentious.

Many developing countries say they need more financial support to back ambitious language on fossil fuels and other efforts to reduce emissions.

Meanwhile, the EU, the U.S. and climate-vulnerable countries are trying to ensure new plans don’t exempt any industries and cover all greenhouse gasses, not just carbon dioxide — something China recently said it was on board with.

Going in the other direction, several countries whose economies depend on oil and gas exports — Russia and Saudi Arabia among them — are trying to push for language that would allow for the continued use of fossil fuels.

What’s the UAE’s role here?

The UAE is running the show and must shepherd the stocktake to a conclusion. At some point, the officials in charge will have to produce a draft text for countries to accept or reject.

COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber — who, controversially also helms the UAE’s state-run oil giant — has repeatedly insisted he would push for the “most ambitious response possible” to the stocktake. But he has remained vague on what that might look like.

Still, Evans said, “They’re aware that it’s the centerpiece of their COP. The shine of those early pledges will fade, and they’ll need to produce something.”

How are the negotiations going?

There are already some rocky signs.

As of Monday evening, negotiators hadn’t produced a detailed draft text, despite spending some 10 hours talking behind closed doors on Sunday.

A text outlining possible “building blocks” was released on Friday, but it’s more of a broad summary that left all the hard questions unanswered. Regarding the energy sector, for example, options included “phasedown/out fossil fuels” and “phasedown/out/no new coal.” In other words: All options are on the table.

What’s next?

Over the coming days, negotiators will try to agree on as many sections of the text as possible, but their bosses will take over in the summit’s second week to resolve the thornier questions.

This week’s talks will “inevitably lead to some very important political questions for ministers to resolve in the second week,” said Werksman, the EU negotiator. “Exactly what those questions are, we can’t fully speculate on — but we imagine that the issue of how we’re going to address fossil fuels will be top of the list.”

Technically the deadline is December 12, but if past COPs are any guide, overtime is possible.

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.

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