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Halfway towards 2030 climate targets, what to expect from COP28?

“It’s often said that it is darkest before the dawn,” says world-renowned sustainability and corporate responsibility expert John Elkington as we discuss this summer’s wildfires and floods, what is likely to be the hottest year ever recorded, and what the United Nations Climate Change Conference can do about it at the upcoming COP28 meeting.

Nick van Mead

Nick van Mead


Elkington - co-founder of think-tank Volans, author of 21 books and member of the Neste’s Advisory Council on Sustainability and New Markets - will be in Dubai for the COP28 meeting from 30 November to 12 December 2023, alongside hundreds of presidents and government ministers, CEOs, environmental activists and industry lobbyists.

This year’s “Conference of the Parties” marks the halfway point between the 2015 Paris Agreement (signed at COP21) and 2030, by which point the world’s governments are pursuing efforts to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, and well below 2C. They also agreed to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to net zero - the level at which GHGs from human activity can be absorbed naturally - between 2050 and 2100.

COP28 also sees the first five-yearly Global Stocktake (GST), conducted by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which describes it as “like taking inventory. It means looking at everything related to where the world stands on climate action and support, identifying the gaps, and working together to chart a better course forward to accelerate climate action.”

An advance distribution version of the GST highlights the Paris Agreement’s crucial role in speeding up climate action in recent years. It states: “The Paris Agreement has driven near-universal climate action by setting goals and sending signals to the world regarding the urgency of responding to the climate crisis (...) and has led to contributions that significantly reduce forecasts of future warming.”

The pace of innovation - around renewable energy, products such as sustainable aviation fuel, new technologies such as power-to-X and novel raw materials such as algae - give reason for hope, and heralds a new generation of post-fossil business models and economies.

But crucially,  the GST also urges more action on all fronts, noting that the world is not on track to meet the Agreement’s long-term goals. Seventeen key findings include that emissions are rising too fast to meet the 1.5C by 2030 target (they would have to peak within the next two years, but are still climbing) and that reaching net zero by 2050 would require “absolute economy-wide emission reduction targets” at a cost of “trillions of dollars”. 

The GST gives us a better sense of the gap between what we should be doing and what we are managing to achieve, Elkington says, but warns that “it won’t be a pretty picture - we are a long way off the targets”.

John Elkington

"I have the sense that we are in an exponential process."

John Elkington

Despite this, he still sees some cause for optimism. “I have the sense that we are in an exponential process,” he says. “I think that within two or three years this whole process is going to go ballistic. When it does happen it’s going to happen much faster and be more painful than expected, especially for those companies and economies that are anchored in fossil fuels.”

This year’s deadly heatwaves, wildfires, floods, droughts and storms mean the world has little choice but to wake up and take notice. The narrative for a long time has been that action needs to be taken for future generations - but with the impact being felt here and now it is clear that we also need to do it for ourselves. 

“I think people will wake up with an absolute jolt, having denied this for so long,” says Elkington. “Even the wilder modeling and forecasts are being outpaced by reality, and the realization is that if we don’t take action then we will lose everything that we hold dear.”

“This is an existential challenge for humanity,” continues Elkington. “In 15-20 years, I think we will be looking at a totally transformed economic landscape. A huge number of companies will have disappeared - and new ones arrived - it will be a moment of absolute market convulsion."

What are the priorities we can expect to be discussed at COP28?

  • In his “letter to parties”, COP28 President Al Jaber said that the GST process, and immediate response package, “will need substance to make it real”. He has urged all parties, observers and other stakeholders to come to COP28 with contributions for a sector-by-sector response to the GST with a focus on closing the gaps to 2030.

  • Al Jaber added: “Phasing down demand for, and supply of, all fossil fuels is inevitable and essential. Strengthened policies to achieve this goal are required.”

  • COP28 will work to advance action on adaptation and loss and damage, building on the work done during COP27 at Sharm el Sheikh. 

  • Thematic days include finance and trade on 4 December, energy and industry on 5 December, and urbanization and transport on 6 December.


Nick van Mead, an award-winning city journalist with more than 20 years at the Guardian and the Associated Press, most recently as deputy editor of Guardian Cities.