What can Cop28 really achieve?

Climate summit in UAE proves controversial as UN warns world is falling short of global warming targets

Sultan Al Jaber, COP28 president, speaks during the Energy Session at Al Waha Theater
Summit president Sultan Al Jaber, head of Dubai's state oil company, allegedly hoped to use the event to lobby for gas and oil deals
(Image credit: Stuart Wilson / COP28 via Getty)

Delegates from almost 200 countries gathered in Dubai last week to discuss the future of fossil fuels at the UN's Cop28 climate summit. 

The centrepiece of the 12-day meeting is a stocktake of the world's progress towards meeting emission-reduction targets agreed in Paris eight years ago. These committed countries to limiting global warming to no more than 1.5°C (or at the outside 2°C) above pre-industrial levels. A recent UN report found that the world was falling well short of that goal, and that, to have any hope of meeting it, it would need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by almost half by 2030.

Another major point of discussion at the summit is the question of how to help the developing world tackle the ravages of climate change. At Cop27 in Egypt last year, delegates agreed to set up a "loss and damage" fund for vulnerable nations. They've now drawn up plans for how this fund should be run, and started putting money into it. 

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The United Arab Emirates pledged $100 million last week, a commitment matched by Germany. The UK contributed $40 million; the US $17.5 million. Altogether, $725 million been raised so far.

What the papers said

As one of the world’s leading petrostates, the UAE makes an odd venue for a summit on climate change, said The Daily Telegraph. And the fact that the event is being presided over by Sultan Al Jaber, head of the state oil company, has only fuelled scepticism.

To make things worse, said The Guardian, it was reported last week that Al Jaber hoped to use the event to lobby for new oil and gas deals (he denies this), and that he'd recently suggested that it's not possible to phase-out fossil fuels "unless you want to take the world back into caves".  We must hope that, despite this unpromising backdrop, the summit succeeds. "Cop28 is a critical moment of danger – and opportunity."

The window for meaningful change is closing, said The Independent. The world is making progress on cutting emissions, and the case for tougher action is widely accepted, but it all comes down to speed. Against the 1.5°C target of global temperature rise, the world is already on track to hit +1.4°C this year. Every fraction of a degree makes a huge difference. 

According to the UN, the difference between keeping below 1.5°C, rather than 2°C, would be ten million fewer people losing their homes to rising seas, and a reduction in coral reef loss from 99% to 70%.

Since the holding of Cop1 in Berlin in 1995, this annual event has mushroomed in size, said Ben Spencer in The Sunday Times. The 2013 Cop ("Conference of the Parties") was attended by just 8,000 people. This year's summit, by contrast, has attracted more than 100,000 attendees. A lot of the action now takes place on the edges of the conference, among informal groups of countries and other interested parties. For many companies, Cop has replaced the World Economic Forum as a place to do business. 

As one delegate put it: "Why go to Davos in January when you have seen everyone you need to at Cop in December?"

It's easy to be cynical about these summits, said Louise Boyle in The Independent. The private jets, the backroom deals, the "greenwashing of autocratic regimes" – it can all seem like a bit of a con. But for all their flaws, these meetings do achieve something. They help frame the debate and generate clear goals. Cop21 in Paris produced the 1.5°C target; Cop26 in Glasgow brought key agreements on tackling methane and reversing forest loss. 

These summits have helped deliver incremental improvements, agreed Peter Prengaman in The Hill (Washington). Although the world is currently falling short of the 1.5°C target, it's on "a much better path" than it was 10 years ago, when it was on track to warm 4°C by 2100. Besides, if not through Cop, how else can the world collectively address climate change? It's the "only game in town".

The Cop process helped kickstart the race for clean technology, said Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Daily Telegraph. But that race now has its own momentum. China is rolling out an additional 210 gigawatts of solar power this year, "not far short of the entire installation worldwide the year before". 

The US is ploughing $2 trillion into clean tech in a bid to catch up with Beijing on electric cars and battery technology. Europe, afraid of being left behind, is also investing heavily in the industries of the future. All of these things are happening independently of the Cop process, while Cop itself is "becoming a venue for vested interests – Big Oil, Industrial Meat, Old Auto, you name it – trying to slow down the post-carbon juggernaut".

What next?

Almost 120 countries have agreed in Dubai to triple renewable energy capacity worldwide by 2030 and to double the annual rate of energy efficiency improvements. The deadline for agreements is the last day of the summit on Tuesday, says Zia Weise on Politico, "but if past Cops are any guide, overtime is possible".

It's the turn of eastern Europe to host the next Cop, says The Guardian. But with Russia vetoing EU nations, and Armenia and Azerbaijan vetoing each other, that leaves only seven, mostly small states, who might struggle to meet the costs of hosting Cop. 

Under the default option, Cop29 would be held in Bonn, in Germany, with Al Jaber once again presiding.

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