Eyes are turning to Dubai, looking for action on climate change. For the 28th time, leaders, scientists, executives, and advocates, among tens of thousands of people, will gather together at the 2023 UN Climate Conference (COP28) to discuss how the world should ‘survive’ the climate crisis. July 2023 is confirmed to be the hottest month on record. The ‘era of global boiling has arrived’, warned the UN secretary general.

Controversy has already overshadowed the conference. The President-Designate, Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, who also chairs one of the biggest oil companies on earth, has faced regular criticism. The differences in priorities between developed and developing nations are also at the fore. Debate is heated about the pace of moving away from fossil fuels. Negotiations on the ‘Loss and Damage’ fund (which seeks to provide assistance to those most impacted by climate change) are still at a blockade.

Action is the prominent theme of COP28. It must be a ‘can-do COP’. The warning of the first global climate stocktake will be carefully assessed at the conference. The ‘World Climate Action Summit’ will host world leaders to push forward efforts to ‘implement and transform key climate related decisions into concrete actions and credible plans’.

The latest IPCC reports highlight that well-aligned policies and governance is crucial in bringing in effective climate action. However, the landscape is uneven. Cumulatively, US and EU-28 countries have contributed most to global emissions. Yet, emerging economies now shoulder the heaviest burden to slash carbon emissions, as they emit around two-thirds of current annual greenhouse gases. Addressing the climate crisis hinges on their attitudes and action.

China has pledged to peak carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve ‘carbon neutrality’ before 2060. Progress has been made in deploying renewable energy. China produces more solar energy than the rest of the world combined and could potentially achieve its renewables targets years ahead of time. The success of clean technology is underpinned by reductions in costs, but also by strong and consistent state support in investment, supply chains, manufacturing, research, and innovation policy. Despite this, far more action is needed in China to align policies with a 1.5oC temperature limit.

Similar situations are found in Brazil and India. Brazil intends to hit its net zero target by 2050, building on its historical advantage in hydropower. However, current climate policy is still deemed ‘insufficient’. In 2023, India surpassed China as the most populous country on earth and faces the difficult task of decarbonising a rapidly growing economy while simultaneously reducing poverty and raising living standards for millions. Debates persist surrounding whether there are tradeoffs between economic growth and achieving net zero by 2070. Nonetheless, India has had notable successes in LED lighting and electric bus policies, and big plans on green hydrogen.

In this era of climate policy action and implementation, there is substantial pressure on governments to get decisions right. Ex-ante (before the event) policy appraisal involves looking at the available policies, and attempts to assess what their impacts might be. Despite its pivotal role in policy design and decision-making, little research has been done on the perceptions, approaches, and practice of policy appraisal, especially in emerging economies.

In our recent study, we did exactly this.

We found three issues in current practice. First, despite notable progress, current appraisal methods fail to fully consider the risks and uncertainties of climate policies. The available models are not capable of telling us exactly what the policy consequences would be. Like finding direction with a pale torch in a pitch-dark night. The night is full of danger, but the torch can only enlighten so far and so little. This is in part due to the inherent limitations that cost-benefit analysis faces in light of large uncertainties and also because of shortcomings in many existing computational modeling tools. To address this, not only are models that properly consider system feedbacks and wider uncertainty needed but also new or supplementary decision-making methods are required to enable better decisions to be made in areas of significant uncertainty.

Second, the societal and environmental benefits of climate policies are not adequately reflected in appraisal outcomes. The torch is even half blind, which caused the abandonment of a right path, leaving a significant part of the benefits of the choices unaccounted for. Relying on CBA means that analysts can face difficulty in integrating unquantifiable factors into the appraisal of a policy. This can lead to such concerns being undervalued or excluded completely. Given the transformational nature of many climate policies, long-term non-monetisable benefits may not be reflected in appraisal outcome, potentially damaging the prospects of useful policy recommendations.

Third, political considerations can sometimes overrule appraisal outcomes. This is not always bad for climate policy as considerations like net zero targets can make certain policies look more favourable than the cost benefit analysis otherwise suggests. As the UK’s COVID inquiry has demonstrated in recent days, the interaction between decisions and evidence is complex, but a great deal can be gained from ensuring robustness and transparency from both sides. Evidence needs to be supplied to decision-makers in a form that is clear with any analytical assumptions declared. Meanwhile, the basis upon which decision-makers chose policies should be transparent to avoid political manipulation. The climate policy appraisal process should develop into a trustworthy ‘gatekeeper’ to increase the credibility, accountability, and effectiveness of climate policies.

Climate change is a monstruous challenge facing humankind, but our tools are still primitive and broken. If these three weaknesses of climate policy appraisal can be addressed in the next few years, then there is hope that the kind of high-level plans and commitments that come out of COP28 can be implemented in an effective and just manner.

Jin Qin, Department for Land Economy at Cambridge University

Cormac Lynch, Department of Geography, University of Exeter

Peter Barbrook-Johnson, Senior Research Associate at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, University of Oxford