This week, world climate leaders are gathered in Abu Dhabi for “pre-COP,” the agenda-setting preview for this month’s COP28 climate summit in the UAE. Taking place against a backdrop of increased geopolitical discord and what is set to be the hottest year on record, this year’s COP is ripe for disagreement and gridlock. This week and later this month when COP28 commences (November 30 to December 12), leaders and negotiators will discuss a number of thorny issues, including emissions reductions, tracking the 2015 Paris Climate Accords, compensation for countries impacted by warming, and increasing renewals capacity, setting the global agenda for climate efforts in the year to come.
In an introductory document, the UAE has called on countries to step up with new pledges and a plan to address a lack of funding for countries hit hard by climate change impacts, and in its own action plan has called for initiatives such as tripling the world’s renewable energy, eliminating methane emissions by 2030, reducing unabated fossil fuel emissions by 2050, and mobilizing public and private funding for climate adaptation. This COP will also provide a forum for the first official assessment of humanity’s efforts to respect the 2015 Paris Climate Accords and its ambition to limit global warming "if possible to 1.5 degrees C" since the pre-industrial era. The world has already warmed 1.1 degrees C from pre-industrial times, and scientists have emphasized that significant measures are required to avoid surpassing the 1.5 degree “point of no return.” The COP28 “stock-take” will conclude with a declaration on progress, as well as recommendations and political messaging on key issues.
There is more potential for discord than there are areas of agreement, however. While all parties at COP agree that emissions cuts, which scientists say are crucial to reversing warming, are necessary to some extent, it will be a touchy subject at the summit, whose president, Sultan al-Jaber, is also the head of the UAE’s state oil company, ADNOC. Traditionally, the UAE and other oil-producing countries have strongly opposed strict language on fossil fuel emissions, and this year al-Jaber has called for “a responsible phase down of unabated fossil fuels” by 2050. “Unabated” fossil fuels refer to those produced and used without interventions that substantially reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted (unlike, for example, fossil fuel producers that use carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology). While countries that produce and rely on fossil fuels have adopted this qualifying language to continue utilizing traditional fuel sources as they develop mitigation technologies, critics have broadly denounced this distinction as “meaningless.”
Additionally, fully funding previous pledges of climate adaptation money will be a headline issue at this year’s COP. In 2009, countries at COP15 made a pledge to mobilize $100 billion per year for climate adaptation in developing countries by 2020, which was reiterated and extended to 2025 at COP21 in Paris. In its over 10-year lifetime, this goal has never been met – a sore spot for low-income countries needing financing and a stark reminder of the difficulties of realizing lofty climate pledges.
Finally, a key issue under debate will be the specifics of loss and damage compensation for lower-income countries impacted by climate change. Lower-income countries have long sought a loss and damage fund, feeling that they are unfairly impacted by extreme climate events indirectly precipitated by the disproportionate contributions to greenhouse gas emissions from high-income countries. Parties agreed on the fund in principle for the first time at last year’s COP in Egypt, but now will have to iron out the thorny issues of who will contribute to the fund and how much, who will administer the fund, and how disbursements will be determined.
This month’s COP28 summit will take place against a backdrop of increased geopolitical tensions – since last year’s summit in Egypt, Russia has invaded Ukraine, and a full-blown conflict between Israel and Hamas has broken out in the Middle East. Meanwhile, U.S.-China and EU-China relationships have continued to fracture, with Western countries vying with both Russia and China for geopolitical influence and military dominance throughout the rest of the world. Geopolitical considerations will tinge all issues discussed at this year’s conference, which both Russia and China will attend at a ministerial level.
Global disagreements are at the forefront of loss and damage discussions, for example. The U.S. refuses to contribute to the fund if China, which often negotiates with developing countries in other UN forums and classifies itself as a “developing country” at the World Trade Organization, stands to benefit from any disbursements. Other proposals for funding schemes expand the payees from high-income states to both high-income and high-emitting states, potentially including wealthy countries such as Saudi Arabia and host UAE. The U.S. has also used funding plans as another arena to push back on problematic Chinese influence in international financing, calling for all funding to be in the form of grants and concessional loans to avoid the debt traps of which China is often accused.
The U.S. and European partners are seeking to significantly expand – even triple if the UAE’s goal is met – renewables capacity while also limiting the sharing of cutting-edge, renewable-related technology to China to dull its competitive edge and avoid intellectual property theft. The U.S. has moved decisively to curb U.S.-China tech sharing, imposing a ban on certain U.S. tech investments in China, limiting the sale of advanced semiconductor chips to China, and levying import duties on solar panels manufactured in China. The EU has begun to step in the same direction in limiting tech trade with China; Brussels last year unveiled a clean tech plan that offers generous government subsidies for domestic production of clean technologies, and as pre-COP kicks off, it is investigating whether to impose tariffs on Chinese-produced electric vehicles. China has criticized all these moves as protectionism, while at the same time making its own moves to leverage itself in Western markets, including by restricting the export of graphite (which is a key component in semiconductors and electric vehicle batteries, among other things) and imposing its own semiconductor ban. While leaders in both Washington and Beijing have expressed hope that the two countries can cooperate on climate change issues, the outlook is dim.
The escalating conflict in the Middle East could also impact the summit. If the conflict fuels instability in the Persian Gulf or threats to the Suez Canal, disruptions to the tight oil market could cause global economic shocks. In light of the increasingly insecure global oil market, world leaders may be coming to the summit more concerned with pursuing shorter-term energy security rather than a long-term, riskier energy transition. A risk-averse conference could lead to less ambitious agreements and less money pledged.