December 3, 2023

How to understand the COP28 climate talks in four charts

By Nick O’Malley
Updated December 4, 2023 — 8.43amfirst published November 30, 2023 — 1.04pm
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Until recently, climate change has been viewed as what the former Bank of England governor Mark Carney described as a “tragedy on the horizon” – a catastrophe that we knew was coming, but one which would hit future generations rather than our own.

As the world gathers for yet another round of climate talks – COP28 in Dubai – it is clear this is no longer the case. Extreme warming is hitting us now.

2023 is set to be the hottest year on record.Credit: Marija Ercegovac

In January, the World Meteorological Organisation declared the previous eight years to have been the hottest on record, around 1.15 degrees Celsius warmer than the pre-industrial period.

This year has blown even those records away, and according to one preliminary analysis, November 17 was the first day that the global average temperature was 2 degrees above the pre-industrial average.

The world has heated on average in lockstep with our burning of fossil fuels, precisely as climate scientists have warned for decades.

But the extreme impacts of climate change have hit harder and faster than expected.


Climate change is an infernally difficult political problem for the best-intentioned governments not just because it was once, as Carney suggests, an over-the-horizon problem that must be tackled immediately, but because tackling it demands global as well as national action.

It needs co-operation between countries that caused most of the existing heat as they developed by burning fossil fuels, and those which reasonably insist on their right to lift their populations out of poverty, in part by burning even more fossil fuels.

Many of the latter, particularly in parts of Asia and Africa, and in small island states, are already suffering the worst impacts of warming caused by their wealthy peers.

The most significant common tool humanity has to untangle this mess is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the global climate treaty that came into force in 1994. Its signatories meet annually at the Conference of the Parties, or COP.

Under this treaty, signatory nations – all but Iran, Libya, and Yemen – agree that they have “common but differentiated responsibilities” to address climate change. In simple terms, the treaty acknowledges that the rich nations which put out most of the greenhouse gases have to act faster and help pay for poorer nations.

The UNFCCC led to both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, under which countries agreed to pursue policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to keep warming under 2 degrees, and as close as possible to 1.5 degrees.

So far, it is not working. Emissions continue to grow, and we are headed for more than 2 degrees of warming. Each year we delay actions to get us on track means that we must cut emissions more steeply to meet the targets – think of setting a New Year’s resolution to lose a set amount of weight by Christmas, but only beginning your diet in December.

Each year of delay means future action must be even more dramatic, expensive and potentially disruptive.

But the COPs are having a real impact. Without the action they have catalysed there would be far more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The International Energy Agency now predicts that with current policies in place, emissions will peak by 2025, which is sufficient to arrest warming at 2.4 degrees by 2100.

Such warming would be catastrophic, but with the policies in place before the Paris Agreement, that temperature would have been 3.5 degrees.

This year at COP, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and his climate chief Simon Stiell will call for more action to be taken more quickly.

“If we continue as we are, and I strongly hope we will not, the Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets will cross a deadly tipping point,” said Guterres, during an Antarctic visit before the COP.

“The solutions are well known. Leaders must act to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, protect people from climate chaos, and end the fossil fuel age.”

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Nick O’Malley is National Environment and Climate Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. He is also a senior writer and a former US correspondent.Connect via email.


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