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COP28: The climate landscape from a landscape architect’s perspective

Sweco author: Simone Withers, Landscape Architect

The backdrop to the COP28 summit was a year of climate turmoil, with wildfires ravaging Canada and Europe and widespread flooding here in the UK and elsewhere – with extreme weather events continuing into the New Year. In fact, 2023 was the hottest year on record and so never has there been such a critical need for some decisive leadership from our world leaders on the climate issue.

Indeed, a scientific report released in December warned that the Earth is near the brink of five catastrophic climate tipping points, with the potential for three further tipping points set to tip if global temperatures rise more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Against this backdrop, the COP28 summit marked the first checkpoint for the Paris Agreement, conducting a global stock-take to assess the progress in emission reduction and holding all parties of the Paris Agreement accountable for their actions.

Initial Discussions

Priorities for the summit in November included: discussions around accelerating the transition to renewable energy and slashing emissions, reforming climate finance, putting nature and people at the centre of climate action, and aiming for the most inclusive COP to date.

During the first week of the discussions, the following announcements were made:

  1. The UAE President announced a $30 billion fund for climate solutions, aiming to attract $250 billion in investments by 2030;
  2. $700 million has been pledged to assist lower-income countries with climate loss and damage and principles have been outlined to improve access to affordable finance;
  3. Over 130 countries have agreed to record agricultural emissions in their climate plans and organisations are coming together to promote regenerative agriculture;
  4. 118 countries have agreed targets to triple renewable power generation capacity to 11,000 GW, and double energy efficiency this decade; and
  5. Fifty oil and gas companies have also committed to near-zero methane emissions by 2030 and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from operations by 2050.

Final Agreement

The final agreement sealed at COP28 does not include an explicit commitment to phase out fossil fuels, but to transition away from them, recognising the need for speedy and meaningful emission reductions to achieve the 1.5°C limit. It calls for global renewable energy capacity to be tripled by 2030 and for the phase down of unabated coal power to be hastened.

It also urged the development of a list of zero and low-emission technologies including renewables, nuclear, abatement and removal technologies such as carbon capture and storage as well as low-carbon hydrogen production.

The final agreement also included key targets and commitments to nature-based solutions and biodiversity as follows:

  1. An emphasis on the importance of conserving, protecting and restoring nature and ecosystems;
  2. A commitment to stop forest loss and degradation and reverse this by 2030 and other ecosystems acting as sinks and reservoirs for greenhouse gases; and
  3. Recognises the 2022 Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework which includes a target to protect 30% of nature by 2030.

Countries which are signatories to the COP28 agreement will be expected to put forward emission reduction targets, which align with the 1.5°C limit target, and incorporate the nature-based commitments above into their next national climate plans before COP30 in 2025.

Implications for Landscape Architecture and the Environment

With the target of tripling of global renewable energy capacity by 2030, there is likely to be an increased Government drive towards renewable energy projects in the UK. Given this, over the next few years we are likely to see an increase in planning applications for renewable energy projects such as solar farms, wind farms, and associated infrastructure such as battery storage. This in turn will create opportunities for landscape practices to undertake Landscape and Visual Assessments and Appraisals to identify and assess the effects of change resulting from the development both on the landscape and on people’s views and visual amenity.

The commitments to forest regeneration and biodiversity included within the final agreement will be important if countries are to achieve the Paris agreement’s temperature goals as forests function as vital carbon sinks. However, despite the progress made in this year’s summit, no consensus was reached during discussions on funding for nature conservation and on the role of carbon markets. Without a clear route to implementation, it is uncertain yet whether any extra funds will trickle down to local governments to pursue nature related projects, including forest regeneration schemes.

As regards to the final agreement on fossil fuels, there has been a mixed reaction from climate advocates. Criticisms have included the absence of a defined path for collecting the huge amounts of finance needed for developing countries to move away from fossil fuels and the inclusion of loopholes on technologies like carbon capture and storage, which allow fossil fuel companies to continue to use these as an off-set mechanism to avoid addressing the issue of dirty fuel.

Conclusions

COP28 painted a mixed picture. Some great progress has certainly been made, but arguably the final agreement doesn’t go far enough in ending the use of fossil fuels. The inclusion of a number of loopholes on fossil fuels and the lack of clarity on funding for nature conservation was also not unnoticed.

Perhaps we were expecting too much of our world leaders and ultimately the compromise reached on fossil fuels was always a more realistic outcome of the negotiations. After all, 2023 was the first year in decades of climate negotiations that fossil fuels and a 2030 deforestation goal have been mentioned in a COP decision, which is a notable achievement.

However, in terms of what the enduring legacy of COP28 will be and whether it will have any meaningful impact on climate change and landscape architecture practice in the long term, only time will tell. In the meantime, we will all count down with anticipation the days until the next COP summit in November, as Azerbaijan hosts.