Why it matters what happens at COP28, the UN climate conference being held in Dubai

The conference will have a drastic effect on climate policies going forward.

November 30, 2023, 5:08 AM

The most important discussions around climate change are set to begin in the United Arab Emirates, where world leaders, scientists and environmental advocates will discuss strategies for best ways to efficiently mitigate climate change in the coming years.

The 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP28, kicks off Thursday in Dubai. The conference is the forefront of establishing ambitious policies at a global scale to promote the rapid mitigation of warming temperatures.

The awareness and accountability that established at the climate conference is one of its most important purposes, experts told ABC News.

In 2023, headline after headline from scientific reports confirmed how the effects of climate change are already here. Earlier this month, the Fifth National Climate Assessment, issued every five years by the U.S. government, found that climate change is making it harder to "maintain safe homes and healthy families." Earth capped off its hottest 12-month span on record at the close of October, a report by nonprofit Climate Central that analyzed international climate data found. And a study published in Nature Climate Change in October found that the planet may be unable to remain below the threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming at current emissions projections.

Extreme weather events such as record-breaking wildfires, coastal erosion, more intense storms and droughts have been plaguing regions all over the world in recent years.

"Everybody in the world has, in the last year, seen the effects of climate change," Austin Whitman, CEO and founder of The Change Climate Project, a nonprofit that aims to drive the demand for voluntary decarbonization, primarily with consumer brands, told ABC News.

PHOTO: A woman walks past banners at the UNFCCC COP28 Climate Conference the day before its official opening,  Nov. 29, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
A woman walks past banners at the UNFCCC COP28 Climate Conference the day before its official opening, Nov. 29, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

This is why COP28 will be integral in the fight against climate change.

What is COP28?

COP stands for Conference of the Parties, referring to the annual meeting of countries that are part of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This year is the 28th time they have met, which is why it is called COP28.

This body has been responsible for the most significant international steps on addressing climate change, including the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol.

A growing awareness to the effects of climate change is what makes this year's climate conference different, Whitman said.

"Unfortunately, that's a function of global temperatures rising to levels that they've never seen before," he said. "This cop is especially important, just given that the urgency is now being felt by people every day."

The world can not afford to "kick the can down the road any longer," Jean Flemma, director of Ocean Defense Initiative, a marine conservation nonprofit, told ABC News.

"We have seen the implications of climate change happening right now in real time before our eyes: the flooding this summer, the heat waves, the droughts," she said. "It's all happening, and we need to act. It is urgent that we act now."

Who's in charge of the climate conference?

The United Arab Emirates is hosting COP28. The summit rotates through different parts of the world, and the UEA successfully won the bid to host this year.

The president-designate of the conference is Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, who also serves as CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

There has been intense criticism that Al Jaber's role with a fossil fuel company is a conflict of interest with the climate conference. There have also been reports that the UAE has used the COP28 meetings to broker oil deals, Al Jaber denied those allegations on Wednesday.

"These allegations are false, not true, incorrect and not accurate," Al Jaber told journalists during a live news conference, according to The Associated Press.

PHOTO: COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber walks through the venue for the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Nov. 29, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber walks through the venue for the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Nov. 29, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Kamran Jebreili/AP

Al Jaber has defended the role of fossil fuel industry representatives in the talks, saying they must also be held accountable. As president of COP28, his role will be to coordinate the summit and keep the final agreement on track.

In a statement in January, after he was designated as president-designate, Al Jaber said, "The UAE is approaching COP28 with a strong sense of responsibility and the highest possible level of ambition."

Al Jaber echoed that statement on Wednesday.

"Please for once, respect who we are, respect what we have achieved over the years and respect the fact that we have been clear open and clean and honest and transparent on how we want to conduct this COP process," he said.

"There was a lot of talk about marching into the lion's den," Whitman said of the host country's ties to the oil industry. "You're basically trying to negotiate agreements, to curb carbon emissions in a country whose economy is a hundred percent driven by fossil fuels which generate carbon emissions."

What is on the schedule at COP28?

The conference officially begins on Thursday, but the main events will occur on Friday and Saturday, with statements from world leaders in attendance. The summit is scheduled to end on Dec. 12, but these talks famously go into overtime and wrap later than scheduled.

PHOTO: A general view shows smoke rising from forest fires in the community of Bella Altura, in San Buenaventura, Bolivia, Nov. 23, 2023.
A general view shows smoke rising from forest fires in the community of Bella Altura, in San Buenaventura, Bolivia, Nov. 23, 2023.
Claudia Morales/Reuters

U.S. President Joe Biden is not expected to attend, but Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry and Vice President Kamala Harris will represent the U.S. The presidents of Israel and Palestine are expected to speak early Friday morning, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will also speak later that day.

What's on the climate conference agenda?

The biggest ticket item this year is the global stocktake, the first official "report card" for how well countries are doing at meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. The short answer is, the world is far off track.

Recent reports from the U.N. and independent groups have pointed to a major gap between countries’ promises on reducing emissions and scaling up clean energy, and what needs to happen to fulfill the Paris Agreement goals to limit warming to 1.5℃. This includes tripling the amount of renewable energy by 2030.

"Greenhouse gas emissions are still rising," Flemma said. "The promises that countries have made to cut pollution?remain, at this point, insufficient to address the risks of warming."

PHOTO: Pedestrians walk along a risen dirt road, recently reclaimed from floodwater, Nov. 29, 2023, in Benitu, South Sudan.
Pedestrians walk along a risen dirt road, recently reclaimed from floodwater, Nov. 29, 2023, in Benitu, South Sudan.
Luke Dray/Getty Images

The dream of a broadly and globally coordinated policy is likely no longer a reality, as the last move in that direction occurred in 2015 when the Paris Agreement was enacted, Whitman said. The U.S. also needs to take a look at drastically reducing its own emissions, since it is the second-largest emitter in the world, Flemma said.

"What we'll see is smaller bilateral agreements between countries," he said. "We'll see pledges and promises made by companies to take voluntary action. We'll see hopefully loud voices from activists standing up for folks who aren't heard from typically in the main stage at these conferences."

Fossil fuels will be at the center of that debate with conversations about whether to move to phase them out as quickly as possible or lean on technologies like carbon capture to reduce their emissions. There will likely be a lot of talks and disagreement around specific language like "phase out" or "phase down," but ultimately it comes down to questions about whether fossil fuel-supporting countries are going to make significant steps to move away from coal, oil and gas.

There will also be conversations about the role of carbon capture and nuclear energy in achieving global climate goals.

PHOTO: An oil drill pump amidst the sand dunes in the desert of the Gulf emirate of Dubai, Aug. 30, 2022.
An oil drill pump amidst the sand dunes in the desert of the Gulf emirate of Dubai, Aug. 30, 2022.
Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

Finance is another big item on the agenda. Last year, at COP27, the parties agreed to create a fund to help developing countries with irrevocable losses linked to climate change -- known as "loss and damage." Developing countries are expected to lose between $290 and $580 billion per year by 2030, so COP attendees will be pushing for richer countries to contribute much more to that fund.

There will also be a lot of attention on any deal negotiated between the U.S. and China as the biggest emitters, with many expected to keep an eye on how global tensions around the wars between Israel and Palestine or Russia and Ukraine affect the talks.

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