Pontifical Academy on COP28: ‘Pleasantly surprised’, but much more needed

Although Pope Francis was not able to attend the COP28 climate change conference in person, his message had an impact there. That’s according to Joachim Von Braun, President of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, who was on the ground in Dubai.

By Joseph Tulloch

COP28, this year’s annual UN climate conference, came to a close on Wednesday, calling for the first time for a global transition away from fossil fuels.

The agreement – known as a ‘global stocktake’ – was unanimously agreed on by almost 200 countries.

While many have welcomed it as a step in the right direction, others have said it does not go nearly far enough.

Vatican News spoke to Joachim von Braun – the head of the Pontifical Academy for the Sciences, who was on the ground in Dubai for the COP– to get his reaction to the deal.

Listen to our interview with Joachim von Braun

In the interview, von Braun suggested that “disappointment is appropriate” regarding many aspects of the deal, which ultimately took a “softer” line than many had hoped.

In his address to the COP assembly, for example, Pope Francis had called for the international community to ‘phase out’ fossil fuels, but the final document contained only a weaker commitment to ‘phase down’ their usage.

Nevertheless, he said, even this softer language represents a “breakthrough”, and von Braun thus described himself as “pleasantly surprised” by the final outcome.

Equally, while praising “improvements” in climate financing, he stressed that not enough has been done to help the global poor, who will suffer the consequences of climate change the most.

Von Braun also stressed that, although Pope Francis was not able to attend the summit for health reasons, he was “there in spirit”, and his message, delivered by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, “got a lot of attention.”



The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for reasons of style

Joseph Tulloch, Vatican News: What is your initial reaction to the COP final document?

Professor Joachim von Braun, President of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: COP28 experienced a lot of global attention, so the expectations were high. I must say my expectations were not as high, having been around on the campus in Dubai. But I’m all in all pleasantly surprised about the final outcome document.

I was reading earlier a statement from CAFOD, the UK branch of Caritas, which said that the Pope “may be disappointed” by the outcome, because he had pushed for stronger action. Do you think that’s accurate?

If we look at the statement of Pope Francis that was presented at the beginning of COP28, we see a significant congruence with some key points in the outcome document. Pope Francis had asked for phasing out carbon emissions related to coal, oil, and gas. Well, the formulations there are softer, and that’s why disappointment is appropriate. But for the first time, “phasing down”, that’s a formulation in the outcome document, the so-called ‘stock-taking document’ to be formal, and it’s a breakthrough.

And the focus on transition to Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 is also new. We would have wished for an end to coal and an end to gas and an end to oil by 2050, as was also the wish of Pope Francis.

Our interview with Joachim von Braun

Our interview with Joachim von Braun

Another theme that’s important to the Holy See is help for poorer countries, which are not the leading cause of climate change, but will suffer the majority of the consequences. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about the steps that were taken towards a Loss and Damage fund for poorer countries.

The address by Pope Francis had a call for a focus on poverty, respect for indigenous peoples, a focus on food and agriculture and water, resilience and sustainability. These topics we find in the outcome document. However, not strongly enough.

The idea is that we move to climate justice by transferring more resources to low-income countries where climate change – the climate crisis, I would say – shows the biggest impact. These resources are too small, still too small. There are improvements in climate finance –  90 billion are currently on the table, with the idea to double these climate finance resources in the coming years. The Green Climate Fund also got more resources, 12 billion.

But the problem is the focus on the poor would require a lot more finance for climate adaptation and that’s not yet happening. For instance, in the critical sector of food system and agriculture there’s only 4% of climate finance and that matters most for the poor.

We’re talking about the Pope’s message, and the Holy See’s message, but as we know the Pope wasn’t able to be there in person for health reasons, and I’m wondering what difference you think that made to the Pope’s message and to the Holy See’s diplomacy at this COP?

I think it was properly recognized that Pope Francis couldn’t come for health reasons. He was there in spirit, and the voice of Cardinal Parolin, Secretary of State, got a lot of attention. I think that was appropriately recognized.

And, by the way, there was a faith pavilion on the campus right in the middle of it, which I also visited, and interacted with some of the delegates there. So the idea which we had promoted here from the Vatican’s Academy of Sciences, namely the dialogues between science and faith for climate change, does continue, and that process must continue in the future. We will engage in that.

We had on the table here a moment ago a statement produced by your Academy, and I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about that?

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences has been engaged in climate science matters and climate policy matters for about 10 years already. And in the run up to COP 28, the Academies of Science and Social Sciences came together and, building on a conference which we had last year, drafted a statement of our perspective, what needs to change at COP28.

Let me just highlight three points.

We ask for a new approach, which combines bending the warming curve, accelerating adaptation – so dealing with the acute climate crisis from the perspective of poor people, the bottom three billion – and investing in transforming our economic systems. The transformation includes also a focus on changing our consumption habits.

Secondly, we call for a broader inclusion of local communities. We cannot leave the climate policy agenda to heads of states and the COP process. So we call for a meeting of mayors and governors and local people and civil society and corporate actors for a conference which we plan next year in May here in the Vatican.

And thirdly, we ask for a much stronger focus on science and sharing science, because adaptation and dealing with climate risks also is a problem of climate change and health, and  requires knowledge, science, education. The world scientific communities need to come together to share scientific insights with low-income countries in order to strengthen our capacity to deal with climate problems.

You said something about the Faith Pavilion at COP and some of your experience there. I believe I’m right in saying this is the first time there’s ever been a Faith Pavilion, and I wonder if there’s anything more you wanted to say about that?

In the preparation of this COP, faith communities came together and lobbied for a more significant positioning in the ‘market of opportunities’ of the COP. You can imagine that on the campus of Dubai, there are hundreds of organizations who present their thoughts, their technologies, and their concerns. Since the COP in Glasgow, so two years ago, faith-based communities have come together with science communities.

I think that’s the real novelty. It’s not just faith, it’s not just science, but it’s faith and science, articulating what needs to happen from a perspective of scientific insights and moral and ethical perspectives. The two must go together and there is some progress to be felt in this COP and the previous one.

It’s very impressive how inter-religious it is – there’s representation from many Christian denominations, from the Muslim Council of Elders, and so on …

That’s right. In the faith and science dialogues, we had top representatives of more than 30 world religions, so Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jain and what have you.

Why do they come together? Because they care for Earth – Mother Earth, some of them call it – and they care for the future of humanity.

Is there anything you want to add?

Maybe one more point. It is time to think fundamentally about the need for reform of the COP processes. These COP processes have played an important role, especially since the Paris Agreement, which articulated that we need to try to control global temperature increases at most to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But we need much more action-oriented communities to come together. That requires local government, more inclusiveness of people who are affected, and forming coalitions of the willing. The complete consensus of 200 plus countries at these COPs makes consensus building too difficult. We have already lost too much time.  And that’s why communities of science, faith, investment, corporate, government at different levels need to come to a governance reform on transforming climate policy.