Reflections on the Dubai Climate Change Conference (COP28) 

By Mitchell Lennan

This blog post explores the significance for the ocean of the outcomes of the UN Climate COP28, held in Dubai from 30 November to 12 December 2023. It provides some reflections on the outcomes of COP28, with a focus on loss and damage, the Global Stocktake, and children’s human rights, and concludes with an outlook for future Hub activities at the ocean-climate nexus.  

Mitchell Lennan (University of Aberdeen) and Ann Skelton (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child) at COP28.
Setting the Scene  

Since the establishment of the much-anticipated mandate to integrate the ocean into all areas of work under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the 26th Conference of Parties in Glasgow (COP26) in November 2021, the One Ocean Hub has been involved in an unprecedented amount of work at the ocean-climate nexus. This includes, among other things, submissions to all three advisory opinions on climate change at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the International Court of Justice, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, an interdisciplinary special issue on ocean-based climate action, as well as a suite of publications, submissions to consultations, podcasts, conference and workshop presentations, and Empatheatre performances in no less than three different UN fora.  

In parallel to Hub climate activities, the ‘Glasgow Mandate’ on ocean-based climate action has expanded through the encouragement for countries to implement national ocean-based climate action under the Paris Agreement in 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh (COP27) and the formalisation of the annual two-day Ocean-Climate Dialogue in Bonn from 2023 with dedicated sessions on coastal ecosystem restoration (including blue carbon) and fisheries and food security. In addition, the latest synthesis report on nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement indicates that a growing number of States are reporting ocean-based climate action under the Paris Agreement that: 

Of the 106 NDCs of island and coastal States submitted from 1 January 2020 to 11 October 2022, 73 per cent included at least one target, policy or measure aimed at ocean-based climate action, of which 59 per cent included ocean-based adaptation action, 48 per cent ocean-based mitigation action and 13 per cent action that links to both mitigation and adaptation goals. 

New or updated NDCs reflect an increased recognition of the ocean’s role in strengthening climate action.28 A total of 10 per cent of the 148 new or updated NDCs submitted between 29 March 2019 and 1 October 202329 include a reference to ocean changes, such as acidification and coral bleaching, and/or climate-driven impacts on the ocean such as sea level rise. A total of 56 per cent of the 148 Parties integrated coastal and marine nature-based solutions within new or updated NDCs as part of mitigation or adaptation measures. 

Of the 158 Parties with an adaptation component in their NDCs, 30 per cent identified ocean ecosystems as a priority sector for adaptation and 11 per cent developed quantified targets for both fisheries and ocean ecosystems. 

Despite the promising developments in this context, there is a wide margin for improvement and a marked need to ensure that any ocean-based climate action supports both biodiversity and human rights. Notwithstanding the Glasgow Mandate and the subsequent developments for human rights highlighted here and in previous Hub posts, the ocean is still far from the mind of most international climate negotiators and experts.  

Against this background, this blog post explores the significance for the ocean of the outcomes of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, held in Dubai 30 November to 12 December 2023, provides some reflections on the outcomes of COP28 and concludes with an outlook for future Hub activities in the ocean-climate space. It builds on the insights form the One Ocean Hub’s participation at COP28 against the benchmark of previous expectations by Hub researchers on COP26 and COP27, participation and inputs to the Ocean-Climate Dialogue on ocean-based climate action at the UNFCCC and in other international processes), and expectations for COP28. 

Loss and Damage 

As reported elsewhere, COP28 started out positively when the Parties adopted a decision to operationalise the new Loss and Damage Fund that was agreed last year in Sharm el-Sheikh. Several Parties announce pledges to the Fund, but their total amount remains far short of what is needed. Last year, we wrote that despite the clarification that climate change mitigation and human rights are interlinked and that loss and damage under Article 8 of the Paris Agreement are closely related to the right to remedy and the principle of reparations, as highlighted in the 2022 report by UN Special Rapporteur on Climate Change and Human Rights, Ian Fry.

Nevertheless, the decision establishing the Fund makes no mention of human rights. However, the decision does mention non-economic loss and damage, as well as slow-onset events, which are recognised by the UNFCCC’s Cancun Adaptation Framework to include ocean acidification and sea level rise. In any case, all forms of loss and damage represent serious threats to human rights and must be treated as such.

To that end, the Hub has responded to call for inputs by the UNFCCC regarding views on the 2nd Glasgow Dialogue with respect to two workshops on addressing loss and damage to be held in 2023, with a view to ensuring that the ocean, ocean culture and ocean-related livelihoods are duly considered moving forward. The Hub has also prepared a response to a consultation on Human Rights Council resolution 53/6 which focuses on the impact of loss and damage from the adverse effects of climate change on the full enjoyment of human rights, exploring equity-based approaches and solutions to addressing this. In addition, the Hub has raised the issue of interconnectivity between human rights and loss and damage in its amicus brief to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. 

The first Global Stocktake 

One of the key outcomes of COP28 was the first Global Stocktake – a five-yearly global assessment of all climate action by Parties since the Paris Agreement came into force. This resulted in a decision calling on Parties to contribute in a nationally determined manner, to:  

  • Triple renewable energy capacity globally and double the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030;  
  • Accelerate efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power; 
  • Accelerate efforts globally towards net zero emission energy systems, utilising zero- and low-carbon fuels well before or by around mid-century;  
  • Transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerate action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science;  
  • Accelerate zero- and low-emission technologies, including, inter alia, renewables, nuclear, abatement and removal technologies such as carbon capture and utilisation and storage, particularly in hard-to-abate sectors, and low-carbon hydrogen production;  
  • Accelerate and substantially reduce non-carbon-dioxide emissions globally, including in particular methane emissions by 2030;  
  • Accelerate the reduction of emissions from road transport on a range of pathways, including through development of infrastructure and rapid deployment of zero and low-emission vehicles; and 
  • Phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that do not address energy poverty or just transitions, as soon as possible. 

These calls from COP28, if implemented fully, have the potential to contribute to a healthy ocean through reduction of climate impacts on marine biodiversity and the ocean system, including warming, acidification and deoxygenation. In addition, as we wrote in 2021 after the Glasgow Climate Pact at COP26 included the ocean for the first time, that ‘specific commitments on fossil fuels are also relevant for the ocean, as the production of fossil fuel is linked to the production of plastic, much of which ends up contributing to ocean plastic pollution, as highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics.

live ceiling exhibit at COP28 – Photo: Mitchell Lennan

We also stated that serious progress in emissions reductions is needed to prevent further negative impacts on the ocean in terms of loss of coral-reef ecosystems, fish stocks shifting out of the tropics and toward the poles and the arising risks for the economic and food security, as well as the health and culture, of local communities dependent on the ocean and the ecosystem services it provides. Moreover, serious reductions in emissions are needed to maintain the overall function of the ocean and its biodiversity to function as a carbon sink and maintain the global climate system. 

These new commitments are far less than what is needed to mitigate climate change. Climate experts have highlighted the “watered down” text of the outcome, and stressed that reduction of emissions from fossil fuel use will ultimately depend on action at a national level. While it is a step towards “the beginning of the end” for fossil fuels, the Hub has advocated for more effective, inclusive, ecosystem- and human rights-based further action to be championed outside the international climate change regime, to urgently protect and restore the ocean’s contributions to climate regulation, human wellbeing and planetary health. 

What is then the significance for the ocean of the Global Stocktake decision? 

The preamble of the Stocktake decision recognises the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, which is understood to include and depend on a healthy ocean. In addition, the preamble recognises the importance of marine ecosystems acting as sinks for greenhouse gases (see the Hub’s ongoing research on the importance of blue carbon here and its significance for human rights here). The body of the decision: 

  • Further emphasises the importance of conserving, protecting and restoring nature and ecosystems towards achieving the Paris Agreement temperature goal, including through enhanced efforts towards halting and reversing deforestation and forest degradation by 2030, and other terrestrial and marine ecosystems acting as sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases and by conserving biodiversity, while ensuring social and environmental safeguards, in line with the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework;  
  • Notes that ecosystem-based approaches, including ocean-based adaptation and resilience measures, as well as in mountain regions, can reduce a range of climate change risks and provide multiple co-benefits; 
  • Invites Parties to preserve and restore oceans and coastal ecosystems and scale up, as appropriate, ocean-based mitigation action; 
  • Notes the importance of transitioning to sustainable lifestyles and sustainable patterns of consumption and production in efforts to address climate change, including through circular economy approaches, and encourages efforts in this regard. 

All of these are generally very positive developments and reaffirm many of the Hub’s findings on the interconnectivity and interdependency of the ocean and biodiversity for the climate. The reference to the Global Biodiversity Framework and social and environmental safeguards is promising at it links to the connection between biodiversity conservation and restoration with human rights and wellbeing. This is reiterated in the next point on adaptation and ocean-based mitigation action, and links to the Hub’s ongoing work on blue carbon with the promotion and protection of human rights.  

That said, the fact the term “ocean-based mitigation action” is separated from oceans and coastal ecosystems draws cause for concern due to the growing discussion on ocean-based carbon dioxide removal technologies. On the side-lines of the negotiations, there were numerous side events on ocean-based carbon-dioxide capture, removal, storage etc. many of which were supported by industry. Of the small fraction I was able to attend, speakers displayed an extremely limited knowledge on the potential risks and impacts for ocean-dependent biodiversity and human rights, along with scarce knowledge of the applicable regulatory framework to these technologies. Lobbying by fossil fuel industries at COPs receives the majority of attention by the media and public, and while this is justified for obvious reasons, it is important for the ocean community to be aware of the risks of promoting techno-fixes for climate change under the term of ocean-based mitigation.  

Finally, the point on patterns of production and circular economy links directly with plastic production, use and disposal, and arguably also with “economy-wide” reduction targets that encapsulate fisheries or any other use of the ocean, including deep-seabed mining.  

Children’s Human Rights  

Encouragingly, the decision on the Global Stocktake called on parties to implement climate policy and action that is gender responsive, fully respects human rights and empowers youth and children. The most awaited development for children’s human rights, notably their human right to be heard, is the paragraph of the decision that mandates: 

the Subsidiary Body for Implementation, at its sixtieth session, to hold an expert dialogue on children and climate change to discuss the disproportionate impacts of climate change on children and relevant policy solutions in this regard, engaging relevant United Nations entities, international organisations and non-governmental organisations in this effort. 

This follows a similar development to the inclusion of the ocean at COP26, where after a decade of advocacy children are now officially recognised in the UN climate change process. On the one hand, this is welcome progress, which is likely to support the inclusion of a range of children representative and children rights experts in the dialogue. On the other hand, whether children’s views will be considered in the main areas of work of the Paris Agreement as a result of this new dialogue remains uncertain. The Hub is working with the networks on children’s human right to a healthy environment to reflect on lessons learned from previous Ocean-Climate Dialogues to enhance the changes for this new expert dialogue on Children in Bonn in June 2024 to lead to meaningful outcomes.  

To support these efforts, the Hub has also continued efforts to raise awareness about international human rights law, children and the climate on the side-lines of negotiations. To that end, the Hub co-organised with the Alana Instituto and Child Rights International Network a COP28 side-event “General comment 26 on children’s rights and the environment with a focus on climate change: how can it be game changing for COP decisions through the lens of child rights” on 9 December 2023. The event highlighted how the General Comment No. 26 can help to ensure that all climate decisions safeguard the rights of the most vulnerable, particularly children, and cooperate with language on policy coherence at COP decisions. In addition, prior to COP28, the Hub had contributed to the CERI policy brief to underscore: 

  • In the context of just transitions, protecting children’s right to a healthy environment through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, safe and sufficient water, healthy and sustainable food, and non-toxic environments; 
  • Ensuring that any ocean-based climate action promotes the protection of children’s rights and support alignment, recommended at the 2023 Dialogue, with the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.  

In short, the outcome of COP28 demonstrates that the integration of the ocean into the actual work of constituted bodies and work programmes under the UN climate change regime remains slow. That said, implementation at a national level according to reporting obligations under the Paris Agreement has increased as shown by the 2023 synthesis report of nationally determined contributions. There is a concern that much discussion on ocean-based action focused on experimental techno-fixes such as ocean-based carbon dioxide removal, as opposed to ocean nature-based solutions that can also support the protection of children’s right to a healthy environment.  

Future Hub activities in this space include: 

  • An article reflecting on the relevance of the outcomes of COP28 for future ocean-based action;  
  • Support for the first children’s dialogue in the UN Climate process, as well advocacy for a Special Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change focusing on the climate change impacts on children and youth; 
  • An article on ocean-based carbon dioxide removal technologies and their impacts on biodiversity and human rights;  
  • Ongoing engagement with the UN Climate Change negotiations, including attendance at both the Bonn Climate Change Conference (SB60) in June 2024 and the Baku Climate Conference (COP29) in late November 2024; 
  • Attendance of the 2024 UN Biodiversity Summit – CBD COP16 (21 October–1 November 2024 Colombia), where the importance of biodiversity in both mitigating and adapting to climate change is firmly on the agenda. 

The Hub is grateful to the University of Aberdeen for the generous financial support for Mitchell Lennan’s time in Dubai.  

Listen to Mitchell’s podcast on the Hub’s work at the ocean-climate nexus here

Photo: Mitchell Lennan at COP28