Today begins the 28th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai: COP28. Over the next two weeks, more than 200 countries will be negotiating—again—the steps they need to take to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. How have things been going since Paris? What are the expectations? “Much more is needed from the European Union, the United States, and from China.”
A number of key topics are on the COP28 negotiating agenda: the reduction of fossil fuel use, the content of the Climate Damage Fund for countries subject to the negative impacts of climate change, and the strengthening of a fund to benefit developing countries' energy transition, among other things.
In addition, for the first time since the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, a mid-term review, the Global Stocktake, has been conducted: Where do we stand on the goals set at that time? The report shows that most countries are not on track when it comes to meeting climate goals. “This fact could lead countries to be extra willing to do much more now, but that also depends a bit on the president,” says Joyeeta Gupta, Professor of Environment and Global South Development at the University of Amsterdam.
In 2015, the Paris climate summit was held: COP21. Despite the slow diplomatic process, a historic agreement was reached with the main goal of limiting global warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius. We know this as the Paris climate agreement. In 2017, the United States withdrew from the accord under President Donald Trump. In 2021, the United States rejoined under President Joe Biden. “If you look at the results since Paris, you see limited progress across the board. This was reconfirmed in the interim evaluation report, the Global Stocktake,” Nollkaemper said.
President Sultan al-Jabr and fossil fuel ambitions
This is a fair comment. The chairman of the summit is Sultan al-Jabr of the United Arab Emirates. In addition to being Minister of Industry, he is also the CEO of the state-owned oil company ADNOC. His position is logically being viewed with suspicion when it comes to negotiating fossil fuel reductions.
“You can consider this COP and its 27 predecessors as an oil tanker that can only be moved very slowly,” says University Professor of International Law and Sustainability, André Nollkaemper. “In terms of international cooperation, it is perhaps the largest operation in human history. The role of the president, and his credibility in it, to get all countries, NGOs, and companies involved is crucial. So any crack in his legitimacy also undermines his effectiveness in terms of negotiations. It is therefore quite harmful and worrisome that he has no independent authority at the moment, given the conflict of interest with the fossil industry.”
Gupta also has her doubts about the Sultan's role. “Most people are skeptical about his role for good reason and fear that he is delaying the achievement of the goals. His network in the industry is very important. He has already made a positive push to work on emissions reductions from the fossil fuel industry. But at the same time, he is making deals to increase fossil fuel exports. That is also what makes this COP so unpredictable. Still, despite all the skepticism, I hope he will achieve something, a sort of ‘Dubai deal.’ That would give him a good name in the history of climate negotiations.”
In any case, political ambition from Europe is not lacking. For example, the European delegation led by Wopke Hoekstra is said to be pushing for the inclusion of a paragraph on quitting fossil fuels on behalf of the EU, reports NOS—with an exception for emissions that can be offset or captured. Nollkaemper thinks a much firmer commitment is still needed. “Most countries in the world are showing the will to take steps, but they are to a large extent being overtaken by economic growth and population growth worldwide. So much more is needed, from the European Union, the United States, and China. And heading into the COP, it's ultimately 100 percent a matter of political will. In that sense, I have seen little reason in recent months to be hopeful about it.”
In addition, both Gupta and Nollkaemper believe that Europe, America, and China need to take ownership when it comes to the climate damage fund. “Ultimately, the consequences of climate change, for the most part, are our problem, the problem we created here in the West. But countries in the Global South, meanwhile, are suffering the negative consequences,” Gupta stressed. “It is essential, and our responsibility to enable those countries to also make the sustainable transition and mitigate the effects of climate change,” says Nollkaemper.
Despite mounting tensions in the run-up to the COP, it’s an open question as to exactly what will be agreed upon there. Nollkaemper prefers to pin his hopes on significant developments that will put pressure on states and companies along the sidelines. “Don't get me wrong, the COP is super important. But a lot more happens around it. From a legal perspective, for example. Next year there is a very important court case in The Hague in which the court has been asked to articulate very clearly what the obligations of states are to reduce climate emissions and what the legal consequences are if they don't comply. That may ultimately give additional teeth to limit the ‘leeway’ of states.”
“The outcome of a COP cannot be predicted at all,” Gupta stresses. “In The Hague (COP6, 2000), we thought we would make great strides but nothing happened; in Copenhagen, we thought something great would come out of it (COP15, 2009), and nothing happened. Still, I am hopeful. With the predecessor of the Paris Climate Agreement, the Kyoto Treaty (1997), most countries and experts thought there would be no treaty. So we were all especially surprised when a deal did come out of it and the United States joined in. That's when I learned that the outcome of these kinds of conferences is totally unpredictable. So it is still guesswork,” Gupta said.