A Tradee at COP28: My Impressions of the UNFCCC Climate Change Negotiations

By Dr. Jan Yves Remy

The Dubai team preparing for 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) promised that it would “Unite. Act. Deliver.” when the world met in December 2023 to take forward climate action.    And although some – including our small island developing states – might have wished for a more ambitious outcome, it is hard to deny that COP28 did just that!  In welcoming almost 80 000 representatives of governments, civil society, businesspersons, and the media to Dubai, the organizers can boast that this COP was the largest and most inclusive COP held yet.  As one of its attendees, I felt privileged to be part of this meeting of humanity to help solve the greatest existential threat of our time.  

Many of us went to Dubai, not to follow the formal negotiations – which fell under the remit of our government representatives – but to witness and contribute to the discussions in the “Blue” or “Green” Zones which had been earmarked for stakeholders wishing to share perspectives, and even protest against, the climate negotiations.  For me, the major draw was the inauguration of “Trade Day” on 4 December, organized by the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Trade Centre (ITC), the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC).   For us “tradees”, the acceptance of a Trade Day marks a crucial transition point in the public perception that trade is antithetical to the climate; rather, we want the world to see trade policy as a necessary element for helping countries meet their climate targets under their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs); generating the investment and trade flows for the low carbon transition; and curbing the protectionist tendencies by industrialized countries to pursue industrial policies in manner that harms the economic interests of less industrialized ones.  At the “Trade House” Pavilion, the organizations co-hosted 39 panel discussions, launched green tool kits for small entrepreneurs, endorsed steel standards principles for measuring greenhouse gases, and issued technical notes and reports for mapping trade measures in NDCs.  These initiatives should help WTO members promote a more climate-friendly outcome at the upcoming Ministerial Conference meeting in February 2024.

The trade system can also help with accomplishing some of the mandates emerging from the Global Stocktake exercise at COP28 – the first inventory conducted of what countries have accomplished, and what more they must do, to meet their climate ambitions.  While it was disappointing to learn that we are not on target to meet our 1.5 degrees Celsius target, and are falling short on reducing emissions, investing in technology, and meeting financial commitments to developing countries, trade can meaningfully contribute in the future by:

  • Incorporating climate-friendly trade policies in strengthened NDCs
  • Promoting the decision to transition out of fossil fuels by disciplining the use of fossil fuel subsidies that distort trade and harm the environment
  • Facilitating greater transition to renewable energy systems by enabling greater trade in green technologies, goods and services through, for instance, a green/sustainable trade agreement
  • Addressing the lack of adequate financing to fund the developing country transition by repurposing subsidies to renewable subsidies; implementing the Bridgetown Agenda for reform of the financial system; operationalizing the agreed Loss and Damage Fund; returning rebates collected through carbon border tax adjustment mechanisms to developing countries; encouraging the development of carbon markets in a fair and equitable way to ensure that developing countries get credit for their natural carbon sinks, without sacrificing their integrity and facilitating greenwashing; creating dedicated funds to increase the capacity of developing countries to compete fairly in the green economy.

The Global Stocktake also highlighted the need for just solutions “founded on meaningful and effective social dialogue and participation of all stakeholders, including Indigenous Peoples, local communities and governments, women, and youth and children”.  This is a belated, but very welcome, signal that multilateral climate action must promote justice and equity if it is to reverse the negative consequences that the blind pursuit of neo-liberal policies has caused to our societies and the environment.  I was heartened to see so many youth representatives, indigenous communities, women’s groups and others at COP, and in particular representatives of those groups in CARICOM.  I welcome the work of the Caribbean Climate Justice Alliance in launching the Caribbean Climate Justice and Resilience Agenda 2023-2030 whose focus is to highlight the impact of climate on our region and propose ways that SIDS and marginalized groups in them can take corrective measures to mitigate their worst effects.   In that same vein, the discussions at COP by our CARICOM policymakers, politicians and academics highlighted how important it is to work across silos to ensure that the region’s voice and priorities are heard loud and clear in all fora.

From my experience at COP, here are a few suggestions for the immediate attention of CARICOM decision-makers:

  • Complete the trade element of the Bridgetown Agenda 2.0 – trade is now being seen as an indispensable part of creating fairer global outcomes for our countries
  • Host a CARICOM meeting that brings together Trade and Climate communities to harmonize our advocacy in international negotiations (WTO Ministerial and UNFCCC COPs); and at the technical level, the CDB and CCCCC should finance a technical workshop using NDCs as a means of promoting greater coherence in our trade and climate policy
  • Pursue a more inclusive and just approach that involves CARICOM’s civil society in the formation of technical positions and in representation at future COPs – COP29  (in Azerbaijan) and COP30 (Brazil)
  • Collaborate more closely in hosting COP side events – while it was heartening to witness so many CARICOM country pavilions, a joint approach to programming would have made it easier to support regional events
  • Ensure a greater focus on “telling our story” through consistent media engagement between COPs, and live coverage during future COPs

Dr. Jan Yves Remy is Director of Shridath Ramphal Centre for International Trade Law, Policy and Services at the UWI, Cave Hill (www.shridathramphalcentre.com); and Co-Lead of the Remaking Trade for A Sustainable Future Project (www.remakingtradeproject.org).