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Joseph MacNamara

Environmental Scientist


At the time of COP28 held in 2023, we experienced the hottest year on record. Parts of Greece, Spain, Sardinia, and Italy saw temperatures above 45°C, leading to devastating wildfires – a trend that continued in Canada and Hawaii. As air temperature increases, so does the ability of the air to hold water vapour; record-breaking rains were also seen in 2023, impacting many places including Spain, South Korea, South Africa, and China.

In this article we explore the science behind climate change, the role, and outcomes from COP28 and highlight what you can do to contribute towards reducing emissions.

What’s the science behind climate change?

The concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) – and other greenhouse gases (GHG) such as m (CH4) – in the Earth’s atmosphere are rising due to human activity through the burning of fossil fuels, agriculture, or as a result of land use change and construction.

Normally, greenhouse gases work to trap energy from the Sun in the atmosphere, this acts like insulation to keep the planet habitable.  However, too much insulation, as a result of GHG concentration, traps too much heat. Prior to the mid-1700’s, atmospheric CO2 concentration was consistently around 280ppm (parts per million), and in 2022, it was 418.56ppm. Whilst carbon dioxide is a relatively small part of our atmosphere, the increase due to human activity is resulting in global warming, leading to more extreme weather due to the increase in energy trapped in the system.

By 1990, scientific consensus was that a rise in global temperature of 2°C above the pre-industrial average (pre 1800s) would significantly increase the risk of unpredictable and extensive damage due to the resulting shifts in climate. We are already witnessing the impact of global warming hence the need to limit global warming to 1.5°C, as stated within the Paris Agreement[1]. To do so, global emissions must fall by 7% every year to 2030.

What did COP28 achieve?

Conference of the Parties (COP) is an annual international climate summit held by the United Nations, where governments negotiate and discuss global climate action. COP28 was held from 30 November to 12 December 2023 and marked the conclusion of the first Global Stock Take (GST), which is a review of the progress that UN member states were making towards combatting climate change.

COP28 concluded that generally progress is not happening quickly enough. This led to the decision to speed up climate action across all areas by 2030. The following are key highlights[2]:

Signaling the ‘beginning of the end’ for the fossil fuel era

There was recognition that greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 43% by 2030 from 2019 levels to prevent global warming of 1.5C. To achieve this, there was a call for action to triple global renewable capacity and double energy efficiency improvements by 2030. Other actions include accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, with developed countries expected to continue to take the lead.

New funding for loss and damage

Delegates formally agreed to establish a loss and damage fund to support the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Whilst we are only just starting to feel the impacts of climate change in Europe, developing nations have been facing devastating floods, droughts, and sea-level rise for years. The decarbonisation of this fund is a significant step forward to strengthen the resilience of nations most vulnerable to the immediate impacts of climate change.

Enhancing global efforts to strengthen resilience

A framework and targets were agreed for the Global Goal on Adaptation, covering the themes of water, food, health, ecosystems, infrastructure, poverty eradication, and cultural heritage. The framework aims to guide adaptation planning and strategies at all levels, aligning finance, technology, and capacity building to achieve context specific goals.

Linking climate action with nature conservation

Governments were called on to consider ecosystems, biodiversity, and carbon stores when developing national climate action plans, using the best available science in tandem with the knowledge of indigenous peoples, which can provide valuable insights into local geographies and successful land management. Reversing deforestation alone has the potential to eliminate 14% of global emissions.

There will always be skepticism of the language countries agree to and decisions to limit phaseout language continues to limit the impact COP’s have in accelerating progress towards decarbonisation targets. Everyone hopes these yearly negotiations will lead to a paradigm shift, but the reality is that many countries still show little evidence of transitioning away from fossil fuel production and use.

As a result, the onus is now on everyone to turn the COP text and final agreements into meaningful action on the ground.

What can we all do to help reduce emissions?

There are multiple solutions that we can all implement to contribute towards addressing the impacts of the climate crisis. Often, the simplest solutions are the most effective. To minimise your climate impact, consider these:

  1. Consider how you’re communicating

Research has revealed that we should focus on how we’re communicating the issue of climate change to ensure stakeholder buy-in. Use of technical graphs and drawings, scientific reports, and highly specific terminology is essential in the industry context but can reduce the impact of messaging to other stakeholders in your audience. Tailor your approach by utilising relatable analogies to convey the effects of climate change, to improve the likelihood of an individual to view climate change as a serious threat.

A district cooling infrastructure project with an objective of improving heat resilience in a community could be communicated as a solution to a medical problem. When facing uncertainty, this allows the audience to relate their concern to that of a medical problem that would need resolving, rather than disengaging.

  1. Make the climate friendly option the default

Utilise behavioural and psychological insights to improve climate performance of your projects. When selecting between options, people often choose the default more frequently when no preference is attached. By making the climate friendly option the default, you increase the rate it will be selected.

In projects, one example could be making recycled steel or ‘green’ steel the default, and then justifying when this is not feasible. This will help identify sticking points preventing industry-wide decarbonisation. As steel production accounts for 7% of global emissions, this example alone shows the considerable impact this industry shift could represent.

  1. Greening your pension[3]

Selecting green pension options is estimated to be 21 times more effective at cutting your carbon footprint than giving up flying or going vegetarian. UK pension schemes currently invest £88 billion in fossil fuel companies. A switch to green pensions has the potential to invest £1 trillion in climate solutions by 2035.[4]

What are the future implications of climate change and COP29?

Currently, 2024 will be hotter than previous years and it is expected to end with an average global temperature more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. It is likely that we will cross the 1.5°C limit in the early 2030s.

So, what impact will the resolutions adopted at COP28 have? Will they prevent our future hothouse Earth? COP29, to be held in November 2024, is expected to build on the global commitments agreed last year – and is sure to face similar skepticism. The ultimate impact of COP is the work of people and organisations on the ground utilising the momentum to influence this entire system change, and we are seeing significant progress.

Sweco’s Technical Director for Net Zero Cities Dr Katherine Maxwell provided an extended overview of COP28 as part of a series of wider reflections during Oxford’s Green Action Week in February 2023. You can download her full report below.

[1] United Nations (2023). What is The Paris Agreement. [online] Unfccc.int. Available at: https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement#What%20Is%20The%20Paris%20Agreement?.

[2] United Nations Climate Change (2024). COP 28: What Was Achieved and What Happens Next? [online] Unfccc.int. Available at: https://unfccc.int/cop28/5-key-takeaways#end-of-fossil-fuels.

[3] Make My Money Matter (n.d.). Is Your Pension Fueling The Climate Crisis? [online] Make My Money Matter. Available at: https://makemymoneymatter.co.uk/pensions/.

[4]The Behavioural Insights Team (2021). Greening Pensions: A Behavioural Perspective. [online] www.bi.team. Available at: https://www.bi.team/publications/greening-pensions-a-behavioural-perspective/.