Tens of thousands of people are heading to Dubai in early December for COP28, the annual international climate summit convened by the United Nations.
With time quickly running out to prevent fossil fuel pollution from causing irreversible harm, discussions between global leaders, negotiators, climate advocates and industry representatives have shifted to how the world should adapt to more deadly heatwaves, stronger storms and catastrophic sea level rise.
Despite the widespread impacts of the climate crisis, the annual negotiations have been contentious. The road to consensus on solutions has proven rocky, and has highlighted divisions between rich countries — which emit a majority of the world’s planet-warming pollution — and poor nations, which have contributed the least.
Here’s what to know about the world’s most critical climate change conference.
What is COP28?
A little over 30 years ago, more than 150 countries signed a UN treaty to limit the alarming rise of planet-warming pollution in the atmosphere. While the science behind human-caused climate change was still young, scientists knew even then it would be life-changing.
The first COP — the “Conference of the Parties” to that agreement — took place in Berlin in 1995. Member states have been convening on climate change almost every year since. In 2015, at COP21, more than 190 countries approved the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, but preferably to 1.5 degrees.
Although the Paris Agreement was a landmark moment and set the world on a path that scientists supported, it didn’t get specific about how countries should achieve its goal. Since then, COPs have sought to make the plans attached to the Paris Agreement more ambitious and to be more specific about the changes society would need to make.
The controversy at COP28
The climate summit is hosted at a different location each year. While there have been other host countries mired in controversy, the backlash to this year’s host — the United Arab Emirates — has been particularly sharp; not only is the UAE a major oil-producing nation, it has also appointed a top fossil-fuel executive as its COP president.
Critics say it’s a conflict of interest to have Sultan Al Jaber, the head of the UAE’s national oil company, taking charge of the most important climate conference of the year. In facing that criticism, the UAE has embarked on a major campaign to boost its green credentials ahead of the summit, CNN has previously reported.
In May, more than 100 members of the US Congress and the European Parliament called for Al Jaber to step down, claiming that his role could undermine negotiations.
Some key players — including US climate envoy John Kerry — have praised Al Jaber’s appointment. The UAE has rejected criticism that the country is unfit to host the world’s largest climate summit, with the COP28 team previously telling CNN that the UAE was the first in the Middle East to set 2030 and 2050 emissions reduction targets.
The big names attending COP28
Heads of states and governments deliver speeches in the first days of the summit. More than 160 member nations, including the UK, France, Germany and Japan, have confirmed their attendance.
Perhaps the highest-profile attendees will be King Charles III, who will deliver an address at the summit’s opening ceremony.
Pope Francis was planning to be the first pontiff to attend COP, but the trip was cancelled Tuesday following his doctor’s advice.
The Pope’s state of “influenza and inflammation of the respiratory tract has improved,” but the “doctors have asked the Pope not to make the trip planned for the next few days,” Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni said in a statement. “Pope Francis accepted the doctors’ request with great regret and the trip was therefore cancelled.”
Absent from the speakers list are US President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping — the leaders of the world’s top polluting countries. In mid-November, Biden and Xi pledged to significantly ramp up renewable energy in lieu of planet-cooking fossil fuels, and agreed to resume a working group on climate cooperation.
Leaders from major oil-producing countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Russia and Iran, are among those attending.
There are concerns that the Israel-Hamas war could overshadow action on climate this year, particularly in the Middle East. But representatives from both Israel and the Palestinian territories are listed to speak in the first week.
The UAE has also invited many fossil fuel executives to the climate talks, where they are expected to announce new commitments to decarbonize. A list of Wall Street financial heavyweights led by BlackRock CEO Larry Fink will also be present, after missing the summit in Egypt last year.
COP28’s global stocktake
It’s been eight years since the Paris Agreement, yet the world has made barely any progress on slashing climate pollution, and the window is “rapidly narrowing” to do so, according to the agreement’s first scorecard — the global stocktake — which was published in September.
COP28 will be the first time that countries will be going into the negotiation rooms with an analysis that shows how seriously off-track they are on their climate targets.
“It tells us clearly that the world is not on track to achieve our global climate goals,” Melanie Robinson, the global climate program director for the World Resources Institute, told CNN.
“But it also offers a really interesting concrete blueprint [and] mountain of evidence on how we can get the job done, so it should be a wakeup call of what we need to do but with a roadmap to get there.”
COP28’s biggest issues
Some of the biggest concerns that will take center stage in Dubai are continuations from COP27 in Egypt: finalizing a “loss and damage” fund and discussing how to ramp down planet-warming fossil fuels.
A major debate among the parties has been whether to “phase out” or “phase down” fossil fuels. At COP27, a number of nations, including China and Saudi Arabia, blocked a key proposal to phase out all fossil fuels — including oil and gas — and not just coal.
“The most important thing is the outcome at this COP sends a really strong signal that the world must rapidly shift away from fossil fuels,” Robinson said. “I would note that it’s important for the language to refer to all fossil fuels.”
Another focus this year will be on the so-called loss and damage fund, which countries included in last year’s agreement. The fund would help shuttle money from the richest countries, which are responsible for the vast majority of the climate crisis, to poor countries, where the impacts have hit hardest.
The goal is to get the fund up and running by 2024. With time running out, a special committee met in Abu Dhabi in early November and recommended the World Bank host the fund and serve as its trustee temporarily for four years.
The loss and damage fund is a delicate and nuanced issue, said Nate Warszawski, a research associate with WRI’s International Climate Action team. “I do think this could be one of the key issues that makes or breaks the COP,” he told CNN.
CNN’s Ivana Kottasová contributed to this report.
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