Explainer: What is COP28?

As the COP28 climate summit approaches, we explain what will be discussed, and why controversy surrounds the UAE-hosted meeting
<p>Many environmental groups and commentators have expressed concern that COP28 being hosted by the United Arab Emirates – a major fossil fuel producer – could result in weak outcomes (Image: Martin Meissner / Alamy)</p>

Many environmental groups and commentators have expressed concern that COP28 being hosted by the United Arab Emirates – a major fossil fuel producer – could result in weak outcomes (Image: Martin Meissner / Alamy)

COP28 is this year’s crucial UN climate summit, the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The meeting will bring together the 198 signatories to the convention, which meet every year to discuss efforts to limit climate change and adapt to its effects. All UN member states plus the European Union are parties to the UNFCCC.

Since the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015, climate COPs have focused on implementing it and making progress towards its aims of restricting global warming to “well below 2C” and “pursuing efforts” to keep it to 1.5C.

When and where will the COP be held?
Who is the president?
What will be discussed?
Why is COP28 controversial?
What outcomes will developing countries be looking for?

When and where will the COP be held?

COP28 will be held in the United Arab Emirates from 30 November to 12 December 2023. The venue for the summit is Expo City Dubai, a huge site in the south of the city, first built for the World Expo 2020.

Who is the president?

As announced in January, the COP28 president will be Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, who is both the UAE’s Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology, and CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. This appointment has attracted criticism from environmental groups, with many seeing these roles as conflicting.

Sultan Ahmed al Jaber speaking behind podium
Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the COP28 president, is also CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Image: Kamran Jebreili / Alamy)

What will be discussed?

A major focus of discussions will be the first Global Stocktake, which is scheduled to conclude at the summit in Dubai. This two-year process has involved collecting information on parties’ progress on climate action, identifying gaps, and thereby assessing the overall implementation of the Paris Agreement. COP28 is expected to adopt a resolution on what the stocktake shows, and the direction it indicates for climate action. This may include fresh pledges from governments.

The Global Stocktake report, released in September, concluded that the world is not on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. In early October, the UNFCCC Secretariat also released a synthesis report.

In July 2023, the COP28 president declared that the summit would focus on four “paradigm shifts”, concerning:

  • fast-tracking the transition away from fossil fuels;
  • transforming climate finance arrangements;
  • the role of people and nature in climate action;
  • and ensuring inclusivity at the summit, including for women, Indigenous peoples, local communities, youth and subnational actors.

How these aims can be achieved under a presidency that is heavily investing in fossil fuels and places severe restrictions on freedoms of speech and assembly remains a controversial sticking point.

One topic likely to attract attention at COP28 is progress on a fund for loss and damage, into which developed countries would pay to support developing countries in dealing with the irrevocable losses caused by climate change. Agreement to establish such a fund was a hard-fought success for developing countries at last year’s COP27 summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, but its efficacy will depend on how it functions and how much money it can attract.

The agreement at COP27 was to establish the loss and damage fund within two years, so with this deadline still in the future, it may not be high on the agenda for all government negotiators. However, civil society groups and developing countries are likely to argue that progress on establishing the fund has been inadequate, and to call for greater urgency and redoubled efforts.

Why is COP28 controversial?

Many environmental groups and commentators have expressed concern that COP28 being hosted by the United Arab Emirates – a major fossil fuel producer – could result in weak outcomes, at a point when efforts to curb fossil fuel use need to be drastically increased if limiting warming to within 2C is to remain possible.

The appointment at COP28 president of Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of one of the world’s largest oil companies that continues to invest heavily in extraction of the fossil fuel, has come under particular criticism. Greenpeace said it was “deeply alarmed” by the appointment, stating: “There is no place for the fossil fuel industry in the global climate negotiations.” Christian Aid said: “The conflict of interest is obvious … having an oil baron running the global climate talks is like putting an anti-vax conspiracy theorist in charge of the response to Covid-19.”

Al Jaber, for his part, has pitched himself as a figure who can keep fossil fuel companies at the table in negotiating a “phase down” in oil and gas use – language that remains contentious, with many countries and campaigners pushing for a firmer deadline for the “phase out” of fossil fuels.

Civil society groups from around the world have also raised concerns over the UAE’s restrictive laws around protest and freedom of expression, especially given that large public demonstrations are typically held in the host city during climate COPs. In early October, the United Kingdom sought assurances from the UAE at the United Nations over how the summit host will ensure freedom of expression and assembly around COP28.

What outcomes will developing countries be looking for?

Developing countries will be looking principally for one thing at COP28: money, and lots of it.

The issue of financial assistance from those most responsible for climate change to support those facing the worst impacts and highest adaptation costs has dogged climate negotiations for almost two decades. Developed countries have consistently failed to match the pledge made in 2009 to provide US$100 billion per year in climate finance by 2020 to support climate action in developing countries. And even this is far less than what poorer countries will need to decarbonise their economies and adapt to the impacts of climate change, now estimated to be in the trillions of dollars per year.

The Summit for a New Global Financing Pact, held in Paris in June 2023, brought to the fore issues such as developing countries paying more to service their debts than they receive as climate finance. Developing countries demanded a restructuring of the World Bank and its affiliates; more concessional and grant-based financing; and debt cancellations for the least developed countries. These issues are almost certain to come up again at COP28.