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COP28: What is it, why is it important and why is an oil boss in charge?

World leaders, scientists, and activists will descend upon the United Arab Emirates this week for the COP28 negotiations. What is at stake?

COP28, the world’s most urgent climate summit, is about to kick off – and it’s being run by an oil CEO.

World leaders, scientists and activists will descend upon the United Arab Emirates this week for the COP28 negotiations. With a new UN report predicting a “hellish” 3C of global heating this century, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

But this year’s talks are even more controversial than usual. The UAE is the world’s fifth-largest oil producer, and Sultan al-Jaber – the country’s choice of COP28 president – is also the head of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

“This appointment goes beyond putting the fox in charge of the henhouse,” said Teresa Anderson, global lead on climate justice at development charity ActionAid.

“The UN Climate Summit is supposed to be a space where the world holds polluters to account, but increasingly [it’s] being hijacked by those with opposing interests.”

Yet with 2023 set to be the hottest year on record, failure is not an option. So what can we expect from COP28? Here’s everything you need to know.

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What is COP28?

Every year, diplomats, heads of state, and advocates meet to discuss the global response to climate change. This process is known as COP.  

COP28 stands for the ‘28the Conference of Parties’. The ‘parties’ are countries that signed up to the UN’s first climate treaty in 1992, pledging to tackle “dangerous interference with the climate”. This year’s conference runs from 30 November to 12 December, but will probably overrun by a day or two.

It’s a huge affair: Rishi Sunak, King Charles III, Pope Francis and Bill Gates will be among the summit’s 70,000 attendees.

Where is COP28 and why is the location controversial?

COP28 will be hosted in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The UN’s five regional groups takes it in turns to host COP – this year, it’s the Asia-Pacific Group’s turn.

But the choice of host country has been controversial. Burning fossil fuels is the single most significant cause of climate change, but it’s the largest source of the UAE’s wealth.  

The summit will be convened by oil industry executive Sultan Al Jaber. His company has announced plans to pour $150bn into oil and gas expansion over the next five years. It’s kind of like if the CEO of Marlboro cigarettes ran a seminar on lung health.

But Al Jaber has defied calls to step down, defending his commitment to the green transition. His supporters cite his “useful” links to the private sector and his investments in Abu Dhabi’s flagship renewable energy company.

Criticisms of Al Jaber reflect a broader concern around the fossil fuel lobby, which is a huge force at COP. According to analysis released last week, oil, coal, and gas lobbyists thronged to the UN climate talks at least 7,200 times in 20 years. The real figure is likely much higher, as the analysis only reflects those attendees who declared their affiliations.

“The UN has no conflict-of-interest rules for COPs,” said George Carew-Jones from the YOUNGO youth constituency at the UNFCC. “This unbelievable fact has allowed fossil fuel lobbyists to undermine talks for years, weakening the process that we are all relying on to secure our futures.

“Young people around the world are losing faith in the COP process – we desperately need strong safeguards on the role that oil and gas firms are playing in these talks.”  

Have previous COPs been successful?

Given the intense fossil fuel presence, some activists think COP is an exercise in greenwashing – a chance for politicians and polluters to talk a big talk about the green transition while deflecting calls for real change. At COP26 Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg famously slammed the “blah, blah, blah” of delegates who “pretended to care” about our future.

But for all their flaws, COPs are the biggest forum on climate change we have – and one of the only ones where smaller, less powerful countries can have a say. 

Past iterations have produced real achievements; For example, COP21 produced the landmark Paris Agreement in 2015, the legally binding international treaty that sets out to keep global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

At last year’s COP27 in Egypt, richer countries agreed to set up a ‘loss and damage fund.’ This will fund climate adaptation in the countries that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, who are also least responsible for planet-warming emissions. Nonetheless, there is still a gap between talk and action – the project is not yet up and running.

What will be on the agenda at COP28?

The world is not meeting its climate targets. We are on course for a disastrous 2.5-2.9C of warming, a temperature hike that would bring sweltering heatwaves, punishing droughts and intense flooding around the world.

“Present trends are racing our planet down a dead-end three-degree temperature rise… the emissions gap is more like an emissions canyon,” UN secretary general António Guterres said. “A canyon littered with broken promises, broken lives and broken records.”

At COP28, delegates will try and reach a consensus on how we should course correct. 

They will release a ‘global stocktake’ – the first formal assessment of whether nations are on track to keep warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius. They also hope to finalise the “loss and damage fund”.

Significantly, delegates may agree to officially endorse a fossil fuel phase-out. 

Different countries are calling for different things. The USA is calling for an immediate end to new coal-fired power, while the EU is pushing for a phase-out of ‘unabated’ fossil fuels (fuels that aren’t offset by carbon capture).

The fossil fuel industry faces a “moment of truth” at this year’s conference, said Dr Fatih Birol, head of energy watchdog the International Energy Agency.

“It must choose: keep fuelling the climate crisis or embrace the shift to clean energy,” he warns.

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