COP28 preview: Here’s everything you need to know about the climate conference in Dubai
We’re now in the very final preparations for COP28, which begins in Dubai on Thursday (30 November). Read on for the answers to all your COP28 FAQ, including who’s attending, what the key negotiating topics are, and much more.
What are COPs? And who attends them?
‘COP’ stands for ‘the Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’. The aim of these events is for nations to provide updates on efforts to reduce emissions and improve climate resilience and to agree on new targets and measures to increase ambition and delivery.
COPs have been held every year since 1995 and, each year, the COP Presidency rotates among the UN’s recognised regions – Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Western Europe, Central and Eastern Europe and other nations.
COPs are attended by world leaders on the first few days and official negotiating delegations for the duration. Other policymakers, including environment, energy and climate ministers, also attend. Over the years, the presence of other groups – known as non-state actors – has gradually increased. COPs are now attended by NGOs, city and town representatives, citizens’ groups, businesses, faith groups and all manner of other organisations.
COP28 officially begins in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), on Thursday 30 November. It is due to finish on Tuesday 12 December. Organisers are aiming to attract more than 60,000 people.
How are COPs organised?
Once a country makes a successful bid to the UN to host a COP, it must select a president-designate for the summit. Environment or energy secretaries are a popular choice.
The UAE’s choice is its special envoy for climate change, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber. He is also the chief executive of the nation’s state-owned oil and gas business, ADNOC, which makes him a controversial pick.
COPs are usually held at existing event venues and staffed by temporarily expanded workforces within the host government. COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, for example, was at the Scottish Event Campus. COP28 will be at Expo City (pictured).
There are concerns this year about whether a significant proportion of the COP28 workforce are employed by, or have other interests in, ADNOC. The Guardian reported in July that ADNOC decision-makers were able to read email chains sent to decide on the Presidency’s key messages and how it would respond to media requests for comment.
It has since emerged, thanks to investigative journalism work spearheaded by the Centre for Climate Reporting and the BBC, that the UAE planned to agree new oil export deals on the sidelines of COP28. This is not unprecedented; government representatives have long struck deals including those in high-carbon sectors outside of the venue but during the summit. However, it does raise even more concerns on whether the UN should draw harder lines on what is permissable during COPs.
Every COP has two main zones – blue and green. The blue zone houses the official negotiating room, country pavilions and the media centre. It is where world leaders give their initial address during the first two days, also. Only selected attendees are given access to the blue zone.
The only people allowed in the negotiation rooms are official negotiators, ministers, facilitators and a select group of observers. Businesses and other so-called ‘non-state actors’ are not asked to directly add their input.
The green zone, meanwhile, is open to all attendees. It will play host to side events and pavilions and desks manned by businesses, academic organisations, NGOs and civil society groups.
What happened last year at COP27?
The general consensus is that the agreement struck at COP27, which took place in Egypt in November 2022, was not strong enough.
This summit concluded with a final text that did not mention phasing out all forms of fossil fuels – something that had been proposed in the draft. Oil and gas exporters reportedly pushed for weaker language around ‘phasing down’ and advocated the mention of ‘low-emissions’ energy rather than clean or renewable energy, opening the possibility for carbon capture at fossil fuel plants to be framed as an alternative to renewables and nuclear. Also advocated was a pledge to reduce “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies rather than all fossil fuel subsidies.
One glimmer of hope was the long-awaited agreement on the creation of a loss and damage fund, following U-turns from the likes of the US and EU. The fund is still to be operationalised but this should happen soon after a blueprint was agreed upon earlier this month.
There were also several notable initiatives launched outside of the negotiating room at COP27.
Barbados’s Prime Minister Mia Mottley kick-started an international stream of work intended to reform the global financial infrastructure to better unlock flows of international climate finance. E3G has a useful explainer of her ‘Bridgetown Agenda’ here.
From the COP27 presidency itself, we saw a new ‘Sharm-El-Sheikh Adaptation Agenda’ programme, headlined by a pledge to improve climate resiliency for at-risk places that are home to some four billion people.
What has happened since COP27?
It is widely accepted that the last 12 months have presented many new and deepening challenges in global geopolitics. Only time will tell how the COP28 presidency will deliver a day of conference proceedings relating to relief, recovery and peace after a year of extreme weather, war and divisive elections.
Regarding UN-led international diplomacy on the environment specifically, COP negotiators this year have something they didn’t at COP27 – an updated global biodiversity treaty.
The treaty was agreed upon in December 2022 after more than two years of meetings which were challenging to deliver during the Covid-19 pandemic. Its headline ambition is halting nature loss and degradation this decade, then bringing about restoration at an unprecedented pace and scale. Key commitments include setting aside 30% of land and sea for conservation and restoration, plus reforming at least $500bn of environmentally harmful subsidies each year.
We can expect discussions at COP28 on balancing land use for nature with the need to scale renewable energy and the need to safeguard human rights.
More recently, in June, negotiators gathered in their hundreds for the annual intersessional climate talks in Bonn. Observers noted that there was not a particularly strong display of ambition, which UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres swiftly called out.
Then, in September 2023, the UN hosted its annual General Assembly in New York to track progress towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. For the first time, the UN tagged on a new one-day climate summit and would only let government representatives speak if they had “credible, serious and new” plans to announce.
September was a jam-packed month that also included the G20 summit in India. This concluded with mixed progress on the energy transition. Nations rallied behind a vision to triple the world’s renewable energy generation capacity by 2030 but failed to reach any new agreements on energy efficiency or reducing fossil fuel supply.
What are the key negotiating topics this year?
Already, fault lines are deepening around approaches to the energy transition. Nations are broadly split between backing an agreement to phase out fossil fuels and remove all subsidies, and between wanting a weaker ‘phase down’.
This debate was on display at COP27. The UAE and other petrostates advocated for a text which would enable them to use carbon capture as a substitute for shifting their energy generation mix away from fossil fuels. We can expect this again in 2023; the UK has indicated that it would support a weakening of language here just to ensure global agreement.
Coal will be another frontier in the debating rooms. A new coalition of the UK, Canada, Germany, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Panama, Niue, Slovenia, Vanuatu and Spain will advocate for a total coal phase-out. China, India and Russia are expected to counter this.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has stated that aligning the global energy system with net-zero by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C trajectory, means ending fossil fuel expansion immediately and properly preparing to decrease demand and supply.
Loss and Damage
As already mentioned, a loss and damage fund was launched at COP27. Following a series of sticky debates this year, nations finally agreed on the basics of operationalising this fund in recent weeks. All eyes in the Global South will be on COP8 to await further details of putting the fund into motion.
Observers have stated that the major blocker to operationalising the fund so far has been the US. It has been reported that it is categorically refusing to pay in if there is any chance that China could benefit from the funding.
We can also expect debates on whether an historic shortfall of international loss and damage finance should be rectified by back-payments from wealthy, high-emitting nations.
Linked to this, nations will doubtless be asked to provide a progress update on improving adaptation efforts through initiatives like the Sharm-El-Sheikh Adaptation Agenda.
Heath and food
COP28 is the first with an entire presidency programme day dedicated to health. This is happening on Sunday 3 December.
The presence of health organisations from the public and private sectors, plus academia and civil society, has been steadily increasing at COPs. There are hopes that the links between the climate crisis and public health can be acknowledged in the final outcome texts for the first time.
The COP28 Presidency has also made much fanfare around the dedication of Sunday 10 December to food. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation is set to publish the first official global roadmap to 1.5C-aligned net-zero ahead of this day. At the summit, organisers will encourage other nations to better embed plans to reduce food sector emissions and enhance the resilience of their food systems into their Paris Agreement pledges.
There is a risk that the UAE will lean heavily on technological solutions for agriculture to distract from its reliance on fossil fuels.
How will COP28 impact businesses?
As noted above, COPs are becoming ever more of a pull for large multinational businesses. Opportunities to sponsor these summits or hold events in the host city are attractive propositions for networking and reputation-building.
But many businesses do question how major global agreements, written in mostly jargon and vague language, will impact them.
Agreements struck at COPs, if they are of the importance of Paris, do trickle down to impact national policy. These changes can provide businesses with the carrots and/or sticks needed to accelerate their low-carbon transitions and work to improve climate resilience.
Most governments now conclude that non-state actors will have to deliver the change on the ground to make meeting national climate targets – the majority of which are developed with the Paris Agreement in mind – possible.
edie has recently published a free-to-access Business Primer Report for COP28. You can download your copy here.
edie is also hosting the write-up of a recent pre-COP28 roundtable which convened a dozen decision-makers at businesses. You can read their thoughts on how UN summits impact businesses here.