COP28: Your crib sheet for the world’s most important climate change conference

Dr Joshua Wells - Principal Political Consultant for environment and climate change policy


It’s that time of the year again when leaders and negotiating teams from nations big and small gather to discuss how to lower greenhouse gas emissions and prevent and mitigate damaging climate change. Dubai is hosting the 28th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP28. Here is a primer on COPs in general and this year’s edition in particular.

What is COP28?

COP28 is the 28th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The first COP took place in 1995 and paved the way for annual international meetings to discuss how to control climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and protect biodiversity. COP28 is taking place in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, between 30 Nov-12 Dec. This year the world has been reminded the risks of climate change: the summer was the Northern Hemisphere’s hottest in recorded history, with Greece recording its most intense burst of wildfire emissions ever. Maui, Hawaii, suffered the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.

Good COP, bad COP

There have been good COPs and bad COPs (or not so good COPs). Notable COPs include COP3 in 1997 which produced the Kyoto Protocol which committed rich industrialised nations to reducing their emission by 5 percent between 2008 and 2012 from a 1990 baseline and laid the foundation of the carbon credit market. COP15 built on these efforts with the Copenhagen Accord, which set out a commitment to cap the global temperature and to raise funds to help developing countries address climate change. But it also ditched a 1.5C target, leading Lumumba Di-Aping, chief negotiator for the G77 group of 130 developing countries, to say the deal had "the lowest level of ambition you can imagine. It's nothing short of climate change scepticism in action.”

But a few years later, Paris hosted arguably one of the most significant COPs in 2015, where leaders set the goal to limit global warming to well below 2C, preferably to 1.5C. The Paris Agreement, signed by 196 parties at COP21 in the French capital, was a landmark deal because it established a binding deal for all nations to combat climate change and adapt to its effects. It created Nationally Determined Contributions, climate pledges that each party is required to develop that articulate how they will contribute to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, long term goals to provide financing to developing countries to mitigate climate change, and a global stocktake to periodically assess collective progress. COP26, hosted by UK in Glasgow resulted in the Glasgow Climate Pact and Paris Rulebook. These agreements helped build on the Paris deal, for example by increasing transparency on emissions and setting common timeframes for reductions, but did not represent as significant a step forward.

Experts say COPs are imperfect and have arguably taken too long to achieve too little, but they remain a vital forum and are so well established it would probably be counterproductive to reinvent the wheel. As Darrel Moellendorf, chair of international political theory and philosophy at Goethe University Frankfurt, told Dods before COP27, “There is no other game in town.”

What are the key topics at COP28?

There are four priority issues for COP28: how to respond to the global stocktake (GST), the mitigation working program, the global adaptation goal, and climate finance, including so-called loss and damage. The global stock take (GST), a two-year process which will happen every five years, will provide a comprehensive assessment of progress since adopting the Paris Agreement. This will be the first ever stock take, making it comparable to the first time the doomsday clock was set, and also takes place at the halfway point of the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. The UN says the stock take will help align actions on climate change, but brace yourselves: a 8 Sept report warned “action is needed to increase both the mitigation ambition of NDCs and the implementation of measures to achieve their targets,” and added that adaption efforts were “fragmented, incremental, sector-specific and unequally distributed across regions.” While the UAE has said it will not be naming and shaming countries, all nations were required to submit updated NDCs.

The mitigation work programme, or MWP, is a legacy of the UK’s COP26, which seeks to “urgently scale up mitigation ambition and implementation” to help reach the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement. This work was due to produce at least two annual global dialogues focusing on specific themes, with the 20203 one being accelerating a just energy transition by focusing on the issues of power and transport systems.

The Global Goal on Adaptation was established as part of the Paris Agreement and aims to enhance countries’ capacity to strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change. One of the key challenges has been setting target, which would require agreement on who should pay for the adaptation efforts.

That leads on to climate financing, a key issue at every COP, and debate about who pays for funding for everything from water and food security to renewable energy and resilient relief systems. In 2009, COP15 set the goal of $100bn annually for adaptation financing by 2020 – a target that has yet to be hit as some argue may be insufficient. Last year the UN Environment Programme estimated developing countries’ annual adaptation needs to be $160-340bn by 2030 and $315-565bn by 2050. Loss and damage is a key concept, and refers to the idea that richer developed nations should compensate less wealthy and vulnerable countries for climate change-related disasters they suffer. It is frequently the most contentious issue at COPs. Although loss and damage mechanism was agreed at COP19 in 2013 and put into the Paris Agreement in 2015, there is still no agreement on how to finance it. The Vulnerable Twenty Group (V20), a coalition of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries, said in a report in June 2022 that their economies had lost an estimated $525bn (£446.8bn) in the last 20 years—about one fifth of their wealth--due to the impacts of climate change.

What are the chances of progress?

The spate of climate-related disasters and record-breaking temperatures this year means leaders are under huge pressure to deliver actionable results at COP28, and the global stocktake should emphasise that. But there is no guarantee of progress. The fact the COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber is also the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) has understandably raised eyebrows and questions about a conflict of interest. His apparent effort to shift the focus of the talks to phasing down fossil-fuel emissions rather than phasing out the use of fossil fuels has triggered concerns about a lack of ambition. But the focus on adaptation and loss and damage has fuelled hopes for progress, on a neglected and contentious area for climate policy.

COP28: What to expect and why it matters for the UK - Free Webinar

November 23, 2023 - 10am

Register here: why-it-matters-for-the-uk-free-webinar-tickets-751561800577

Join us for a webinar and panel discussion on the COP28 UN climate change conference, hosted by Dr Joshua Wells, Principal Political Consultant for environment and climate change policy at Dods. The webinar will include opening statements from a panel of climate experts followed by questions and answers. Submit your questions in advance or online in the chat on the day. Our guests will include:

  • Chris Skidmore MP, Chair of the Independent Review of Net Zero and the former minister who signed the UK’s 2050 Net Zero commitment into law
  • Professor Mark Maslin, Professor of Earth System Science at UCL
  • Camilla Born, former Deputy Director of Strategy in the COP26 team, and Chair of Trustees
  • for Climate Outreach
  • Dustin Benton, Policy Director at Green Alliance and former Chief Analytical Advisor of the
  • National Food Strategy for Defra.

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