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COP28: Stanford experts on ‘loss and damage’ and other topics to watch at the U.N. climate summit

Scholars from the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability discuss their hopes and expectations for international climate talks taking place this month in Dubai.

Representatives from nearly 200 countries will gather in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates this month for the United Nations climate change conference known as COP28. 

Below, six scholars from the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability describe their hopes and expectations for this year’s summit, where negotiators will take stock of progress on the 2015 Paris Agreement and coordinate climate action for the coming year. Our experts also discuss the topics they will be watching most closely, including commitments to invest in adaptation and reduce methane emissions, and potential agreement around compensation for damages wrought by global warming.

“The world cannot continue to lag on systematic investments in emissions reductions, adaptation, and international assistance,” said Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, who will be in Dubai to participate in the climate talks along with other Stanford experts in fields ranging from food systems to policies for incorporating the value of healthy ecosystems into management and planning decisions.

Jump to expert bios

Find Stanford scholars at COP28 

What will you be watching for most closely among the outcomes from this year’s climate summit? 

Chris Field: A new IPCC Synthesis Report and initial country submissions and synthesis for the Global Stocktake underscore the giant gap between where we are and where we need to be to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement. Much of the discussion will be on ideas for accelerating progress. At the same time, the hosting of COP28 by the UAE shines a spotlight on questions about the role of oil and gas in our energy future. I will be looking for progress on commitments to decrease emissions from oil and gas. 

COP28 continues enormously important discussions of financial assistance for the poorest countries. The world cannot continue to lag on systematic investments in emissions reductions, adaptation, and international assistance. It is hard to be optimistic about big breakthroughs at COP28, but I am hopeful that real progress at the summit will be an important factor in accelerating action. 

Rob Jackson: Beyond financial help for poorer countries to overcome energy poverty using clean energy, I hope to see new commitments to reduce methane emissions, the next most important after carbon dioxide. Methane is the only tool we have for slowing warming over the next decade or two. Slashing fossil fuel use helps with both – lower carbon dioxide emissions and less methane leaked into our air. Someday we also need to address emissions of nitrous oxide, which comes mainly from fertilizers used to grow crops.

I would feel more optimistic about the COP if the leaders of the world’s two biggest emitters – China and the United States – were attending. We’ve blown past any chance to stop temperature increases at 1.5 °C, and people are realizing how close 2 °C is. Policymakers are even starting to talk about 2.5 or 3 °C as “more feasible,” which is like playing Russian roulette with the Earth.

Policymakers are even starting to talk about 2.5 or 3 °C as 'more feasible,' which is like playing Russian roulette with the Earth.

Rob Jackson Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor and Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment and at the Precourt Institute for Energy

William Barnett: It’s better not to get distracted by debates around how much progress we have or have not made, and will it be 1.5 or 2 or 2.5 degrees of warming. There’s a groundswell across multiple sectors and firms that are transforming to more sustainable approaches to production, with innovations in key areas such as greenhouse gas removal, renewable energy, food and water security, circularity and waste, and biodiversity. These are innovations that are not yet sufficient, but are moving in the right direction. COP is a chance for these innovators to touch base and share their progress. 

When it comes to publicity around COP, there’s a tendency to focus on the top decision makers and their commitments, but those commitments alone do nothing. It’s better to think of COP as an annual update by the thousands of institutions globally that are working every day, all year, on the sustainability revolution. 

If there were to be one big development that I would like to see, it would be for the Global North to put real money behind its verbal commitments around environmental justice. Climate adaptation is costly, and it is happening now. We in the Global North debate over how much we will pay, in money, for such adaptation. The Global South, meanwhile, pays for climate adaptation with their lives. Dealing with this stark, unjust reality is at the heart of environmental justice, and my hope is that this year at COP we make progress toward creating a more just transition. 

Adaptation is a critical component of successfully managing the risks of climate change now and in the coming decades, both in the U.S. and around the world.

Noah Diffenbaugh Kara J Foundation Professor and Kimmelman Family Senior Fellow in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability

Noah Diffenbaugh: The Paris goals are ambitious and countries have made a lot of progress towards those goals, including very tangible action like the Inflation Reduction Act here in the U.S. However, even if the U.S. achieves rapid decarbonization like the Biden administration and many states, corporations, and other institutions have set as a goal, the U.S. is still certain to experience further climate change, including further intensification of extreme events like heatwaves and heavy rainfall. This means that adaptation is a critical component of successfully managing the risks of climate change now and in the coming decades, both in the U.S. and around the world. 

Alicia Seiger: I will be watching for how things shake out with respect to carbon market rules and reparations. Voluntary carbon markets are failing to launch, yet again, and compliance markets remain an insufficient mechanism for appropriately managing climate risk. 

One of the biggest wins from last year’s COP was an agreement to create a “loss and damage” fund to compensate countries who contributed the least to climate change and are suffering the most from climate damages. This year, I’ll be watching how negotiators reconcile the tensions between developing countries, who want concrete commitments, and rich countries, who want contributions to the fund to be voluntary. 

Preliminary negotiations targeted the fund size at $500M and focused on the World Bank as the administrator. Developing countries want to see more funds and have considerable skepticism about the bank given its history of saddling poor countries with debt. Attending to the injustice of climate damages is one of the most important functions of COPs and, at least to date, one multilateralism has yet to get right. 

Jayson Toweh: At last year’s COP, they started presenting a framework for loss and damage – so, for folks in countries that have experienced the brunt of climate impacts to get resources and funds to move forward. But there has not been any actual pen to paper saying how much any given country is paying. I’m interested in seeing that develop more.

Attending to the injustice of climate damages is one of the most important functions of COPs and, at least to date, one multilateralism has yet to get right. 

Alicia Seiger Managing Director, Sustainable Finance Initiative, Precourt Institute for Energy

Can you describe the role of the private sector in shaping the success or failure of this year’s COP? 

Alicia Seiger: Given the petroleum revenue interests of this year’s host country, there is already a lot of controversy over the potential for undue private sector influence. At the center of the storm is the question of whether the final agreement, in the context of fossil fuel use, will pair the word “phased” with “out” or “down”. My view is that the private sector has a much more important role to play than wordsmithing multilateral agreements that don’t directly translate to domestic policies. 

I’d like to see the private sector positively align corporate and climate interests by advocating for the rapid adoption of robust carbon accounting principles. Distinct from disclosure, applying time-tested financial accounting practices to GHG emissions will help firms operate with clear incentives and obligations to lower emissions throughout global supply chains. 

Emissions are currently tracked using top-down estimates and clouded by indeterminate overcounting. Companies increasingly have the technology to flip the narrative and apply a bottoms-up approach whereby all emissions are counted, and only once. The development of proper accounting helped pull the world out of the Great Depression and built the foundation of modern capital markets nearly a century ago. The private sector can help pave the way for a truing up of climate accounts by moving from counting carbon to accounting for carbon. 

You’ve commented that investors are taking a bet on climate change whether they act or not. To what extent is this true for nations? 

Alicia Seiger: It’s even more true! That’s because investors are able to transfer climate risk to sovereigns. The price of this risk takes the form of increasing disaster relief, unemployment benefits, health care costs, and national debt. Many smaller nations recognize the cost of inaction and have implemented strong policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Take for example Bhutan, which, with more than 70% of its land covered in trees, sequesters more carbon than its residents emit. 

Unfortunately, the world’s largest emitters are taking a much bigger bet on climate without properly accounting for the associated risks. Taxpayers are paying for climate damages whether their countries have enacted climate policy or not. The longer high-emitting countries wait to implement right-sized policy mechanisms, the more everybody loses.

Media Contacts

Josie Garthwaite

Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability
(650) 497-0947

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