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Like many from around the world, last year our team returned from COP28  both invigorated and exhausted.

In this thought piece for Alliance Magazine, Carbon Technology Research Foundation CEO Dave Hillard reflects on the week and shares his feelings and insights on the landmark event.

A constant haze of pollution hangs over Dubai, blocking out the stunning night skies usually experienced if you are deep in the desert. Dubai is a modern city of amazing high-rise buildings, architecture, lights and beachfront hotels. A massive 16 lane highway with a constant flow of traffic runs through the length of the city and stands as a homage to the fossil fuelled vehicles that dominate road transportation globally, and a significant contributor to the climate crises we find ourselves in.

This is where the desire to make a difference led me on 29th November 2023 at the beginning of the COP28 climate conference. The irony of the event and the place and what the COP is trying to achieve are very evident, as well as the deep and difficult place we find ourselves in, a species that has compromised the integrity of the very planet that sustains us.

However, COP28 was an impressive event by any count. One hundred thousand people, a vast venue, thousands of events, debates and discussions! In a world divided by conflict, division, inequality, and nationalist selfish politics, at COP you got a feeling of global community united in its desire to take action to fix the wicked problems we now face. A place where people from around the world were able to unite around a common goal in the interests of everyone on the planet, present and future generations.  Yes, different approaches, opinions and perspectives, but for the vast majority of people present, it was about finding solutions and raising ambition – be it from business, indigenous people, youth, philanthropy, international organisations and civil society.

‘Despite this, COP28 made you feel we must make every effort we can, every fraction of a degree counts and every small action taken counts. Philanthropy big and small was present and making its voice heard.’

The daily announcements built a sense of action, starting with the operationalization of the Loss and Damage fund on day one and a initial commitment of $700m (some way off the $100bn a year required), followed by numerous commitments on health, finance, nature, gender, methane, carbon markets, oceans, renewables and energy transition, nuclear energy (how that has turned around from foe to friend!) and many more. Out of the official negotiations, for the first time, explicit words on the ‘transition away from fossil fuels’. Not as strong a statement as some were hoping for, but nonetheless the first explicit recognition of the beginning of the end for fossil fuels and reflective of the momentum and commitment to action coming from all sectors working together to drive change outside of the political negotiations.

As you digest and step back from the intensity of the event and put it back in perspective, it is a chance to pause and reflect. The global stocktake, the foundation for COP28, was unequivocal in its assessment and we remain far off track of where we need to be to limit warming to 1.5 degrees (to avoid the worst impacts of climate change). It is accepted by many that this target is already lost, and we are in the territory of how long will we be in ‘overshoot’ before we can hope to limit further warming.

We currently remain on track for a potentially catastrophic 2.8 degrees by 2100. Tipping points and positive feedback loops threaten to push the pace of irreversible change and we have already moved from the Holocene to the Anthropocene epoch, never to return. The rate and pace of change needed is extraordinary, for example tripling renewable energy and doubling energy efficiency by 2030. For the area that Carbon Technology Research Foundation is working in, the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, one gigaton (twice the weight of everyone on the planet) of CO2 must be removed by 2030, rising to 10 gigaton by 2050.

We currently have no proven solutions that can deliver this kind of scale of greenhouse gas removals and more research and development is desperately needed across the range of different options, which at the last count numbered around 32. Many talented people are working hard on all these fronts and the sector is set to grow very rapidly as projects develop and expand.  Equally, huge effort is being invested to address the first order priority of reducing emissions and enabling those most impacted now and in the future to adapt to the changes heading our way. It remains not enough and it is late, we are reaching the end of the climate runway and we are not moving fast enough to slow the rate of dangerous climate change, with an uncertain future ahead.

Despite this, COP28 made you feel we must make every effort we can, every fraction of a degree counts and every small action taken counts. Philanthropy big and small was present and making its voice heard. I witnessed huge amounts of passion, energy, hope, optimism, innovation and dynamism and the incredible sense of purpose that people have to solve grand challenges! I came away from COP28 inspired by many amazing people, daunted by size of the challenge ahead, impressed by the commitment of so many to make progress, from the official negotiating tables to the boundless climate start-ups. The future will happen and it is everybody’s job to make that a positive one for our children, grandchildren  and generations beyond. It is possible.