Last reviewed 31 October 2023

December’s world conference in Dubai will review whether huge low-carbon promises made in 2015 to keep the world cool are working — and what must be done urgently if they are not, Jon Herbert reports.

The world’s 28th UN Climate Change Conference — COP28 — will open for business and intense international negotiations in Dubai on 30 November 2023, hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

From 30 November to 12 December 2023, 198 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) member nations will face potentially embarrassing reviews of how well their carbon-reduction promises, made under the binding COP21 Paris Agreement international treaty on climate change in 2015, are working.

Technologies, finance and the politics of keeping cool

The member nations will also sit down together to repair diplomatic fences, resolve issues and try to work out how to make and keep the world cool and safe before the middle of this century.

In addition, they will focus on innovative, yet-to-be-developed technologies, plus whether prosperous nations should provide finance that the Global South urgently needs to transition to net zero.

The outcome is so important that Vatican sources say Pope Francis may attend COP28 to drive home his recent appeal for united action to curb global warming.

Taking stock of the Middle East crisis

Due to its geographical position, Dubai is now a key international conference hub. COP, incidentally, stands for Conference of the Parties.

It is anticipated that air travel route changes could potentially be the only disruption to COP28 resulting from conflict on the Mediterranean side of the Middle East. However, the environmental, economic and political consequences of failure at COP28 could ripple around the world.

Each country will in effect get “marks out of 50” for progress in delivering their individual Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to help reach net zero emissions by 2050.

The idea is to check NDC progress this year and every five years afterwards. The aim is to sharpen ambitions and performance, starting with updated targets in 2025.

Pessimistic outlook

If, as expected, this first “global stocktake” does not show an effective balance of emissions released into and removed from the atmosphere, all necks will be on the low-carbon block, including not only countries, governments, regions, cities, communities and organisations, but also businesses, which will be expected to work even harder to cut their carbon footprints voluntarily or face more legislation.

COP28 President, Sultan Al Jaber, wants a “game-changing” summit, but says the stocktake must identify where action is missing while producing a workable plan to get individual countries on track.

It is also not clear how extra green investment finance will be raised, which clean technologies will be given priority funding and whether sectors such as energy and heavy industries will be singled out.

For the world it is not enough

Given the extreme weather seen around the world in 2023, organisations like the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) will be asking if the current net zero strategy goes far enough, or if we need to become carbon-negative rather than carbon-neutral by 2050.

COP28 will focus on climate adaptation as well as mitigation under four key themes of health, water, food and nature, and be the first COP to involve high-emissions sectors and private organisations.

The debate about whether fossil fuels should be phased out or just phased down has raised questions about Dubai’s credentials to manage the net-carbon agenda as both a conference host and a major oil and gas producer.

The EU has agreed to push for the phasing out of all fossil fuels. This could position the EU bloc as “one of the most ambitious negotiators” at the summit.

The choice of Sultan Al Jaber as COP28 President, while he is also CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), has raised questions about his impartiality over fossil fuel use. He has addressed these issues in depth in pre-conference interviews.

What must the world do?

COP27 in 2022 concluded that keeping temperature rises down to no more than 1.5°C and limiting climate change was not yet achievable without more emissions reductions and removals.

COP27 discussions also went beyond stopping climate change impacts and on to adaptation (living with change), plus help for affected nations with billions of people to cope with loss and damage.

A number of priorities emerged as a result. They included a much larger decarbonisation role for the private sector, plus a long-term focus on building resilience — the ability to bounce back quickly.

Private and public sector organisations and companies are being urged to actively invest in green renewable energy technologies, commit on a large scale and, where possible, take new clean technologies to world markets.

On the green innovation theme, there is a growing emphasis on carbon capture and storage technology, sustainable agriculture and hydrogen, plus increasingly efficient solar and wind farms.

Nature-based solutions like reforestation and improving biodiversity to protect nature are important alternatives to technology, particularly on a large scale.

COP28: climate action plan

Sultan Al Jaber has outlined the UAE’s strategy for COP28, with priorities under the 2015 Paris Agreement divided into the following “four pillars”, or four “Fs”.

  • Fast-track the low-carbon transition.

  • Fix climate finance.

  • Focus on people, lives and livelihoods.

  • Full inclusivity.

The plan is based on the “tougher, and safer” goal of 1.5°C rather than any dilution to 2.0°C. Delivering this “single north star” will need a “transformational plan for mobilising finance”.

The “global stocktake” suggests that the world is way off track, but rather than name and shame individual countries, they have been asked to submit updated NDCs that meet the 1.5°C goal.

The “phase-down” of fossil fuels is “inevitable” and “essential”, Sultan Al Jaber says. However, while more than 80 countries want COP28 to commit to “phasing out fossil fuels entirely”, the indications are that he feels fossil fuel extraction is not incompatible with tackling the climate crisis.

The COP28 President wants fossil fuel executives to be part of COP28 and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in line with 1.5°C by improving extraction efficiency and plugging methane leaks under their Scope 1 direct, Scope 2 bought-in and Scope 3 extended supply chain responsibilities.

COP28 is also expected to agree on new commitments to double energy efficiency, triple global renewable energy capacity to 11,000GW and double hydrogen production by 2030.

Climate finance will be a major point of contention. Developing countries lack essential finance to become low-carbon economies. The President wants a “comprehensive transformation” of the World Bank and other finance institutions, plus private sector funding, to meet the promise that should have been met by 2020 for richer countries to provide $100 billion (£76.5 billion) annually.

COP27 agreed to set up a loss and damage fund for rescue and rehabilitation in countries worst affected. The President says it is “absolutely imperative” that COP28 achieves this.

COP15: nature and biodiversity

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s first COP (COP1) was held in 1994. The most recent — COP15 in 2021/2022 — was the largest ever with nearly 20,000 leaders and representatives.

The resulting Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework aims to accomplish the following.

  • Protect at least 30% of terrestrial, inland water and coastal and marine areas.

  • Ensure at least 30% of degraded areas are under effective restoration.

  • Commit $200 billion annually to increase biodiversity by 2030.