At COP28, the stakes have never been higher
The UN climate conference has officially kicked off in Dubai, UAE, and the stakes are higher than ever. More than 70,000 attendees from governments, civil society and the private sector have gathered to discuss a global response to the climate emergency.
For almost three decades, the Conference of Parties (COP) of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have met almost every year to address the escalating climate crisis.
Over the years, the summits have ranged from utter failure, such as Copenhagen’s COP15 (dubbed ‘Brokenhagen’), to occasional successes, notably the 2015 Paris Agreement that emerged from COP21.
"Despite repeated warnings and mounting evidence highlighting the urgent need to address climate change, the world has consistently failed to curb emissions, which continue to rise year after year. In 2022, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a record high"
This year, COP28 comes on the tail end of what is set to be the hottest year on record, characterised by extreme temperatures and catastrophic weather events that have devastated livelihoods around the world.
In Libya’s coastal city of Derna, torrential flooding left an estimated 20,000 people dead or missing. In Lahaina, Hawaii, 115 people were killed and thousands of acres of land burned in a devastating fire. In the Horn of Africa, prolonged drought has pushed more than 23 million to the brink of famine. Across the world, a summer of scorching heat caused raging wildfires from Canada to Greece.
Experts have consistently asserted that, unless urgent and decisive climate action is taken to cut global emissions, these events are just a taste of what is yet to come.
“The era of global warming has ended, the era of global boiling has arrived,” warned the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in July.
In 2015 at the 21st COP summit in Paris, countries reached a landmark agreement that laid out a plan to keep the rise in global temperature below a threshold of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, an increase that will already result in significant changes to the global climate.
To achieve this, countries each set non-binding nationally determined contributions (NDC’s) determining their targets for lowering emissions by 2030.
This year represents the halfway point between the initial NDC’s and the 2030 target. In September, the UN’s first-ever Global Stocktake report to assess progress found that the world is far off track to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement and avert catastrophic climate impacts.
It warned that the window to take decisive action to keep global warming under the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold set in the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement is "rapidly narrowing".
Even if countries fulfil their current pledges, an unlikely prospect based on actions taken so far, the world is on track to reach a disastrous 3°C temperature rise by 2100, warns a recent UN report.
In the MENA region, the situation is even more dire. The region is one of the most climate-vulnerable on earth, warming at a rate twice the global average.
Despite repeated warnings and mounting evidence highlighting the urgent need to address climate change, the world has consistently failed to curb emissions, which continue to rise year after year. In 2022, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a record high.
Can COP28 finally rein in fossil fuels?
At the very heart of the escalating climate crisis are fossil fuels, including coal, oil, and natural gas, which are the primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
Previous COP climate summits have encountered challenges in adopting explicit language to "phase out" fossil fuels. Both the COP26 and COP27 conferences in Glasgow and Sharm el Sheikh ended on a disappointing note in this regard, opting instead for a pledge to "phase down".
This year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has already called for a complete phase-out of fossil fuels. “I think it would be a pity if we would stay in a vague and noncommittal ‘phase-down’ whose real meaning would not be obvious for anybody,” he told AFP before boarding his flight to Dubai.
"In a strong start to the conference, COP28 has already reached a deal on Loss and Damage funding on its first day, with several countries already pledging money towards it"
But the language from COP28’s UAE presidency has done just that.
Sultan Al Jaber, the president of COP28, has said that phasing down fossil fuels “is inevitable and it is essential”, but has maintained that it is not feasible to cut all emissions immediately.
Al Jaber, who is himself the CEO of the UAE’s state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc), has also paved the way for a significant presence of fossil fuel delegates at the climate summit.
At today’s opening ceremony, Al Jaber emphasised the important role that the oil and gas industry must play in climate negotiations.
“Let history reflect the fact that this is the Presidency that made a bold choice to proactively engage with oil and gas companies,” he told delegates, encouraging them to “work together”.
However activists are worried that a strong fossil fuel lobby will only derail talks and hinder the commitments that need to be made to meet the 1.5°C target. Despite a global energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, oil and gas giants made record profits in 2022.
Given the presidency’s position and strong resistance from some of the world’s biggest economies (India has already insisted that coal will remain its main energy source), COP28 is likely to follow in the footsteps of previous summits.
What needs to be achieved to prevent disaster?
To get back on track for the Paris Agreement, global emissions must be cut by 43% by the end of the decade. At COP28, the focus must be on urging nations to significantly ramp up their NDCs, specifically their commitments to cut emissions.
The prospect is daunting, but Guterres has insisted that the 1.5°C target remains within reach. “It is not dead, it is alive,” he said. “The only thing that is still lacking is political will.”
At the opening ceremony, UNFCCC executive director Simon Stiell laid out a two-year roadmap spelling out the steps that must be taken. In 2024, at the COP29 summit, Stiell said that all countries will submit their first Biennial Transparency Report to show each country’s individual progress. In 2025, all countries must submit revised NDCs.
“This takes us to COP30, where every single commitment — on finance, adaptation, and mitigation — has to be in line with a 1.5-degree world,” Stiell told delegates today.
Another key issue at this year's summit is climate finance. At COP27, a historic agreement was reached to establish a Loss and Damage fund for countries most vulnerable to the climate crisis, a step that developing countries had been campaigning for decades.
In a strong start to the conference, COP28 has already reached a deal on Loss and Damage funding on its first day, with several countries already pledging money towards it.
What is clear from the atmosphere on the opening day of COP28 is that the stakes have never been higher. The next two weeks will prove pivotal in the global effort to respond to the escalating climate emergency.
With the world on the precipice of climate disaster, COP28 is a crucial opportunity for world leaders to course correct onto a path towards a sustainable future.
The New Arab will have continuous coverage of COP28 from Dubai. Click here for more
Nadine Talaat is a London-based journalist writing about Middle East politics, borders and migration, environment, and media representation. She is a Deputy Editor with The New Arab's editorial team
Follow her on Twitter: @nadine_talaat