Reflections on COP28

Another COP-out? Or did COP28 in Dubai achieve genuine progress on climate action? There are strong arguments for both, but no one could say that it has put the world on course to limit global heating to 1.5C. Any UN process seeking unanimous agreement from all member states is likely to end in a messy compromise. The real test of what was agreed will be how economies around the world react to this and the subsequent policies put in place by governments.

Fossil Fuels Get a Mention

For the first time, the elephant in the room of fossil fuels was mentioned in a COP closing text. Incredible, given when the very first COP happened 28 years ago, I was already learning at school that fossil fuels were contributing to the ‘greenhouse effect’. However belated, this is a significant step towards a future moment when coal, oil and gas are fully ostracised, cast out into the cold like smoking indoors. Simon Stiell, who leads the UN’s COP process, called it the ‘beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era’.

The language on fossil fuels in the final text calls for a ‘transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems. This is still short of what is needed. There needs to be a full phase-out of fossil fuels in energy systems, and ideally all other sectors of the economy. At the GSMA, we recently agreed on a new Climate Policy. with the mobile industry, which supports a phase-out. This will take time because the existing fossil fuel infrastructure can’t be closed overnight, and we still need to see further progress on clean energy technology cost and performance. But given human ingenuity, declaring a full phase-out by 2050 would be an incredible rallying call to action to direct research and innovation endeavours.

Tripling Renewable Energy

The COP text also called for a tripling of renewable energy by 2030. This is significant because the International Energy Agency says it’s essential to limit global heating to 1.5C. Mobile network operators are targeting at least 64TWh of renewable electricity by 2030, which is equal to the annual electricity use of Austria. So, the COP28 ambition is welcomed by the industry, and our new Climate Policy calls on governments to expand renewable energy access. This means improving market access so the private sector can invest in new renewable electricity capacity, which will both help companies meet their carbon reduction targets, and help countries decarbonise their electricity grids. There also needs to be massive investments in grid infrastructure to maximise the benefits of renewables and increase electricity access.

In some regions, this is much harder than in others. In Dubai, the GSMA hosted a session at the International Chamber of Commerce partner pavilion, inviting the World Bank, International Energy Agency and mobile operator MTN to discuss energy challenges across Sub-Saharan Africa. The IEA highlighted a striking projection – that by 2030, the majority of new electricity connections in Africa could be from stand-alone systems and mini-grids. This has major implications for how mobile networks and internet access could expand and presents an opportunity for network operators to be ‘anchor tenants’ to help develop such mini-grids.

Doubling Energy Efficiency

Moving from renewable energy to reducing energy use, there was the inclusion of a target to double energy efficiency improvements in the COP28 agreement. This is vital as each unit of energy saved means one less unit of fossil fuel consumption or new renewable capacity will need to be built. Energy efficiency is an ongoing concern for telecommunication networks as electricity is a major operational cost. 5G is the most energy efficient network yet, using up to 90% less energy to move each bit of data around, and so support from governments to roll out 5G and fibre, retire older networks and allocate spectrum efficiently, will all contribute to doubling energy efficiency.

Using energy more efficiently would also be helped by the rollout of green digital solutions that support the net zero transition. Smarter energy systems are a perfect example: digital connectivity combined with cloud computing is helping balance intermittent but predictable renewable energy supply from many sources with customer use and battery storage. These systems could help save an overbuild of power generation accounting for 16,000 TWh by 2050, saving around $2 trillion per year.

To highlight both the greening of the ICT sector and greening by the ICT sector, at COP the GSMA was a key partner for the official launch of the ITU’s Green Digital Action initiative. GSMA members BT, e&, Orange, Tele2 and Telefonica were amongst the first companies to sign up. They committed to target net zero before 2050 and publish a climate transition plan showing how they will get there. If you’re wondering what to include in a climate transition plan, we will be publishing a discussion about this in a session we had at COP with climate leaders the Exponential Roadmap Initiative, BT, Telefonica and Ericsson.

Adaptation and Resilience Take Centre Stage

On a related note, adaptation and resilience are topics at COP that gain more prominence each year as the effects of a rapidly warming climate are felt around the world. 2023 was the hottest year yet, leading to more devastating consequences such as Libya deluged by rain that destroyed a quarter of the city, Derna, and killed an estimated 10,000 people. Given the prevalence of extreme weather events, the need for early warning systems is more crucial than ever. The GSMA is supporting the Early Warnings for All initiative that aims to provide access to warnings about extreme weather events to all people globally by 2027. GSMA members Globe, KDDI, MTN, Safaricom, Telefonica, and Veon are all signatories.

Much Ambition, and More Progress is Needed

The world will continue to watch to see if the warm words at COP28 transform into cooling policies for the planet. For the mobile industry’s part, the GSMA will be publishing the latest progress report on climate action in late February 2024, with more analysis than ever on how energy use, renewables and emissions are changing. Look out for our blog soon after that picks through the key findings.