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COP28 has begun - alongside alarms about record global heating

Today, the annual United Nations climate conference starts. From today and all the way through December 12th, thousands of people – including government leaders and representatives, business officials, scientists, and activists – will gather at COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to discuss and agree on policies aimed at staving off the growing threats of climate change.

COP28 is the 28th annual “Conference of the Parties”. But not all top government officials will attend the conference this time around. Among the top three emitters of greenhouse gases, only India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to attend the conference. Chinese President Xi Jinping will not attend the conference. And US President Joe Biden has announced that he will not travel to the COP28 climate summit. Instead, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry will lead the US delegation. According to Biden's schedule, he will instead meet the Angolan president and carry out a ceremonial Christmas tree lighting.

So, what will the delegates discuss and what kind of outcomes are expected? 

The first “global stocktake” is expected to be released following the conference. This is supposed to be the first assessment since the Paris Climate Accord in 2015, and it will evaluate how participating nations are doing in efforts to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, as agreed in Paris, France, during COP21.

Spoiler: they are not doing that well.

Global emissions and temperatures are still rising rapidly, and we are starting to reach the “tipping points” for irreversible and runaway climate disaster. According to a new report that the UN Meteorological Organization WMO released today, 2023 will be the hottest year on record – and next year is expected to be even worse.

“Record global heating should send shivers down the spines of world leaders. And it should trigger them to act,” UN chief António Guterres said. “We have the roadmap to limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst of climate chaos. But we need leaders to fire the starting gun at COP28 on a race to keep the 1.5-degree limit alive,” Guterres said.

Climate negotiations at these conferences have a long history of nations failing to deliver on their commitments. And unfortunately, that hasn’t changed. Progress from nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions has been slow and inadequate, and nations are severely failing to reach the watered-down goals they set for themselves in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Unless major efforts are made to cut greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures could reach 3 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average by the end of the century – a level that would be a disaster for our modern human civilization, and all life on this fragile blue earth.

Delegates at the COP28 are also expected to agree to a plan that will accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels. But scientists and activists are worried that the final COP28 agreement won’t call for a “phase out” of fossil fuels, and that it will instead call for a “phase down” of fossil fuels. Obviously, the latter is a much more watered-down and weaker language.

Every participating nation must agree to every single word of the final agreement, so any substantial progress has proven difficult in the past. And just like in past conferences, the debates surrounding the final agreement will most likely be intense and last long into the late hours. There will be diplomatic backstabbing between the “North and South”, and many secret meetings between top government officials and diplomats will take place. And there will be countless revisions until a final agreement can be unveiled at the very last minute – mostly to save world leaders’ reputation. Furthermore, any agreement reached is not binding.

This has obviously led to criticism, with critics calling these events a waste of time and activists accusing world leaders of making empty promises. This year, there is extra controversy surrounding the host nation and the conference’s president. As mentioned before, the conference will be held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is world's fifth largest oil producer. And the president of COP28 this year, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, is also the head of UAE's state-owned oil company. BBC News has already reported on leaked briefing documents that shows that al-Jaber has planned to use the conference to make oil deals.

Michael Jacobs, a professor at England's Sheffield University who focuses on UN climate politics, said to BBC that it looked "breathtakingly hypocritical."

"I actually think it's worse than that, because the UAE at the moment is the custodian of a United Nations process aimed at reducing global emissions," he told the BBC. "And yet, in the very same meetings where it's apparently trying to pursue that goal, it's actually trying to do side deals which will increase global emissions."

During the coming days, we’ll see what kind of progress – if any – world leaders will make. Hopefully, for all of our sake, the conference will not be yet another failure.


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