COP28 – What You Need to Know About the Upcoming Conference in Dubai: A COP Under Pressure

COP28 will take place in the United Arab Emirates from November 30th to December 12th, against a backdrop of doubts about the presidency's ability to achieve an ambitious agreement. It will be an opportunity to draw up the first global assessment of the Paris Agreement, and to build on the achievements of COP27.

Analysis note of the Global Observatory of Climate Action

  • Author: Climate Chance
  • Date: October 2023
  • Summary:
    • A highly debated choice of presidency: Is there a real impact?
    • COP28, a pivotal moment in the ambition cycle

COP28 will take place in the United Arab Emirates from November 30th to December 12th, against a backdrop of doubts about the presidency’s ability to achieve an ambitious agreement. The goal is to save the objectives of the Paris Agreement: to limit global warming « well below 2°C » compared to the pre-industrial period, and preferably to 1.5°C. This COP will also be an opportunity to assess the global progress of the Paris Agreement and to solidify the achievements of COP27, particularly in terms of loss and damage.

A highly debated choice of presidency: Is there a real impact?

While the decision to hold COP28 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has raised eyebrows, the question remains: to what extent do the presidency and the conference’s location influence the negotiations and their outcomes? In the past, the presidency has been able to influence the official agenda. For instance, in 2017, COP23, under the Fijian presidency, was dubbed the « Islands COP » for highlighting the vulnerability of small island states, and the Chilean presidency attempted to make COP25 the « Blue COP » by including ocean-related issues. In retrospect, COP27 in Egypt can be described as the « Loss and Damage COP » following the historic creation of this new fund.

In this context, the choice of a country that derives 55% of its budget from fossil fuel revenues and ranks among the world’s largest producers and exporters of oil is a matter of debate. The UAE is also the sixth-largest per capita emitter of CO2, with 22 tCO2 per capita in 2021.

The past has shown that the choice of the host city also affects the atmosphere at the negotiation table; the relative failure of COP15 in Copenhagen was partly attributed to the discomfort of the location and the cold weather. The choice of Dubai, specifically Expo City, built for the 2020 World Expo, is presented by the UAE as a commitment to sustainability through the reuse of an existing site. The pavilions of States and civil society organizations will be housed in permanent buildings rather than the usual temporary stands. However, in parallel, the city of Dubai threatens to withdraw from C40, an international network of climate-committed megacities, due to perceived overly ambitious mitigation goals for 2030.

The appointment of Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber to preside over COP28 in the UAE has also sparked controversy, especially among environmental organizations. As the UAE’s Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology and the head of the giant oil company ADNOC (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company), he is also the founder of Masdar, a state-owned renewable energy company based in Abu Dhabi. This is one of the arguments put forward by the UAE to promote hosting COP28. Al Jaber’s deep knowledge of energy systems could be an asset in finding « realistic, practical, and pragmatic solutions to accelerate global energy transition, » says Al Jaber in an article  published in France’s Journal du Dimanche.

The UAE was the first country in the Middle East to adopt a « Net Zero by 2050 » National Strategy in 2021. The UAE’s new NDC sets a target to reduce annual emissions to 185 MtCO2e by 2030 (excluding land use), an ambition 14% higher than the previous target set for 2022 and 13% higher than current emissions levels. This more robust NDC has led Climate Action Tracker to upgrade the UAE’s overall rating from « very insufficient » to « insufficient », i.e. aligned with a +3°C warming trajectory. However, the analysis stresses that the UAE’s climate policies still need to be substantially improved if the country is to meet its new target.

The UAE became the first country in the Middle East, alongside Belarus, to join the exclusive club of countries with civilian nuclear energy since the Paris Agreement. The UAE is investing heavily in solar energy and is on track to achieve its goal of 30% « clean » energy capacity by 2030 and 50% by 2050. However, such developments will not reverse the rise in emissions. The term « clean » energy, rather than « renewable » or « low-carbon, » opens the door to low-maturity technologies that can sustain the oil and gas industry, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) or hydrogen and ammonia production.

Due to all these factors, experts and NGOs will be particularly attentive this year to the influence exerted by the oil and gas industries after Charm el-Sheikh. The last COP in Egypt had already garnered significant attention by bringing together a record number of fossil fuel industry lobbyists. 636 lobbyists representing coal, oil, and gas,which is  more than any national delegation except the UAE’s.

COP28, a pivotal moment in the ambition cycle

Regardless of the presidency’s priorities, several topics will be on the negotiation table during COP28 from November 30th to December 12th in Dubai. Eight years after COP21, the first Global Stocktake will mark a pivotal moment in the ambition cycle of the Paris Agreement.

Parties will also address the transition to a sustainable economy, including phasing out fossil fuels and tripling renewable energies, as well as the needs and reparations for the most vulnerable countries affected by the climate crisis.

The first Global Stocktake of climate action

COP28 will be the culmination of the Global Stocktake, an exercise launched in 2021, marking a pivotal moment in the ambition cycle to review and evaluate collective progress in achieving the agreement. This ambition extends beyond emissions reduction and encompasses adaptation, means of implementation, and equity, including financial matters and just transition.

The conclusions of this first global stocktake are likely to be unsurprising: states’ commitments fall short of the Paris Agreement’s objectives, and Parties will be encouraged to strengthen their ambition and scale up their action. According to the IPCC, global emissions must decrease by 43% between 2019 and 2030 to stay below the 1.5°C threshold. However, the current commitments of the 193 Parties to the Paris Agreement would only reduce emissions by 0.3% by 2030 compared to 2019 levels. In its 2022 Emissions Gap Report, UNEP estimates that full implementation of the commitments would limit warming to at best 2.4-2.6°C above pre-industrial levels.

The two subsidiary bodies of the UNFCCC responsible for facilitating the technical dialogues that have marked the preparation of the global assessment have condensed the results into a report published in early September 2023. At the end of COP28, the global assessment should lead to a decision by the Parties, as well as a political declaration without a vote.

The phase-out of fossil fuels and the tripling of renewable energies

A recurring theme at successive COPs, the energy question weighs heavily on the next edition too: the phase-out or gradual reduction of fossil fuels will be at the heart of civil society’s expectations. After considering the idea of reducing fossil origin emissions rather than directly tackling fuel production (via energy efficiency or carbon capture, for example), Mr. Al Jaber, faithful to his dual role, expressed his conviction that a gradual phase-down was « inevitable. » But he added that this transition is contingent upon the establishment of a new energy system. This position aligns with the diversification policy pursued by the UAE’s economy and Gulf oil powers in recent years, which has accelerated the deployment of renewable energies.

This is why the other major commitment of the COP28 presidency is to push for the adoption of an objective of tripling the annual rate of deployment of renewable energies by 2030. The EU calls for a « voluntary and non-binding » commitment, leaving freedom to the states. The current growth of renewable energies is already rapid, with a doubling of wind power and a quadrupling of solar power in the mix since 2015. Annual additions of renewable capacities have exceeded fossil fuels since 2012 and are now five times greater. Only the maintenance of investments in the construction of new fossil energy capacities slows down the progression of « low-carbon » energies in the global electricity mix (38% in 2022). The trend is therefore more towards an accumulation rather than a transition.

Frans Timmermans, former European Commissioner for the Environment, presented the European Union’s position for COP28 to commit to the gradual elimination of fossil fuels on a global scale. He also clearly set limits on the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS). The use of the term « unabated » fossil fuels, meaning those not linked to carbon capture or storage devices, will be at the heart of the COP28 debates. The UAE presidency of COP28 is calling for an accelerated energy transition based on carbon capture and CO2 storage devices.

Today, the CCS sector also reveals a strong dependence on fossil industries. Historically, the majority of CCS projects have been funded through enhanced oil recovery (EOR): 20 out of 30 operational sites store their carbon in oil wells to extend their lifespan, thereby reducing the actual contribution of CCS to global mitigation efforts. Globally, there is only one CCS facility located at an industrial site… in the United Arab Emirates: Abu Dhabi CCS captures 90% of emissions (0.8 Mtpa) of a steel mill in Mussafah and injects it 43 km away into oil fields.

Implementation of the loss and damage financing mechanism

Established at COP27 in 2022, the fund for financing losses and damages to vulnerable countries severely affected by climate disasters represents a significant advancement for climate action. However, many details still need to be clarified, especially regarding the sources of funding. Whether contributions take the form of grants, subsidies, or loans, it is a contentious issue that will have consequences for the debt of beneficiary countries.

The beneficiaries are not yet precisely identified either: developing countries, with a focus on the most vulnerable countries, are eligible, but the definition of climate vulnerability and the determination of a vulnerability threshold remain to be determined. Does a country like China fall on the side of contributors or beneficiaries? The resolution of this question remains open, as the funding for losses and damages has been placed under the auspices of the Paris Agreement, which, unlike the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol, does not include the distinction between developed (Annex 1) and developing (non-Annex 1) countries.

As the discussions in Bonn have shown, a precursor to what will happen at COP, the thorny issue of North-South financial flows heavily influences the negotiations, whether in the case of losses and damages, adaptation, mitigation, or the energy transition

Find out more with the Observatory’s analysis notes