How to solve a problem like COP28

As the world looks towards the next annual UN Conference of Parties (more commonly known as COP28), we take a look at possibly the most controversial gathering to date.

The objective of COP is to bring nations across all geographies together to review progress towards both collective and country-specific actions to limit climate change – and in particular, identify and agree to address the challenges that still remain.

Since COP’s inception in 1995, all 27 conferences have delivered progress on actionable commitments, though it would be fair to say that some have been of variable success. And there seems to have always been a level of disappointment that commitments agreed have not been as rigorous as needed. At COP26, for example, while there was significant progress made on drastically reducing methane emissions, there was failure to agree “loss and damage” finance for countries that will be particularly impacted by climate change. And while this was eventually resolved at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, there was then considerable frustration at the lack of further emissions cuts.

However, concerns over the efficacy of COPs to date, pale in comparison to those expressed around COP28, scheduled for 30 November 2023 to 12 December 2023 in the UAE. As one of the world’s wealthiest oil states, its commitment to shift the world off planet-heating fossil fuels has been greeted with considerable scepticism. Concerns over holding the conference in a nation state which has 30% of its GDP linked to the extraction and production of crude oil, were initially countered by optimists hoping that the country’s greater engagement would encourage a faster transition away from fossil fuels. However, some of the concerns now appear to have been justified.

While the UAE has pledged to reach net-zero by mid-century and to help raise $20 billion for renewable energy projects by 2035, it is also investing more than $100 billion to increase its oil production by nearly a million barrels per day over the next four years.

In recent weeks, it has been revealed that the president of COP28 – Sultan Al Jaber, who is also CEO of ADNOC, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company – has had access to COP’s highly restricted email correspondence, potentially providing valuable intelligence to both ADNOC and the UAE government.

UN climate chief, Christiana Figueres, called the situation “extremely dangerous” and it has been compared to having “a tobacco multinational overseeing the internal work of the World Health Organization.”

Al Jaber has also been accused of attempting to “greenwash” his image after it emerged that members of his team had paid editors to remove certain references from Wikipedia, including the multi-billion-dollar oil pipeline deal he signed in 2019.

The hosting of such a high-profile event has also brought the country’s dismal human rights record under renewed scrutiny.

The severity and regularity of the negative stories has started to turn COP28 into a public relations battle, with at least three major international communications agencies declining to help Al Jaber’s team secure the promotional deals needed.

Whether the conference and its outcomes will be a success, is too early to tell. But what can be expected is a growing groundswell of criticism which may well overshadow this critically important event.