What is COP28 and why is it important?

Explaining the key issues at the COP28 summit in Dubai.

Explainer
Published 15 September 2023 Updated 30 November 2023 6 minute READ

COP28 comes at a decisive moment for international climate action. Temperature records are being repeatedly broken and climate impacts felt in unprecedented wildfires, floods, storms and droughts worldwide. The UN’s global stocktake synthesis report shows much more must be done to meet the goals of the landmark Paris Agreement. COP28 presents a critical opportunity to put the world on a more sustainable path.

What is a COP?

The United Nations (UN) annual climate change conference, also known as the ‘Conference of the Parties’ or ‘COP’, brings together world leaders, ministers and negotiators to agree on how to address climate change. The negotiating parties include governments that have signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol and/or the Paris Agreement. The COPs are also attended by thousands of representatives from civil society, the private sector, international organizations and the media.

Since COP21 in 2015, the COPs have revolved around how to implement the Paris Agreement, which has three main goals: keep global average temperature rise to ‘well below’ 2°C and pursue efforts to limit the rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels; adapt to climate change and build resilience; and align finance flows with ‘a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development’.

The COP is hosted by a different country each year. COP28 will be hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and will take place between 30 November–12 December 2023 in Dubai. The host country appoints a president to lead the talks, who plays an important role in consulting with governments and other stakeholders, providing leadership and vision and – ultimately – brokering the agreements generated.

Dr Sultan al-Jaber, minister of industry and advanced technology for the UAE and managing director and group CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC Group), will preside over the negotiations in Dubai. Al-Jaber’s position within the fossil fuel industry, alongside growing influence of fossil fuel lobbyists at COPs more generally, have caused controversy and raised concerns about impartiality in the climate talks.

COP decisions are taken by consensus. Coupled with the differing needs and interests of parties, this means reaching agreement can be a painstaking and highly charged process.

Key issues to watch at COP28

COP28 is important for several reasons, not least because it marks the conclusion of the first global stocktake (GST), the main mechanism through which progress under the Paris Agreement is assessed. It is clear the world is not on track to meeting the agreement’s goals, but the hope is that governments at COP28 will come up with a roadmap to accelerate climate action.

Other critical tasks facing negotiators in Dubai include getting the loss and damage fund (established at COP27) up and running and agreeing on a framework for the Paris Agreement’s global goal on adaptation (GGA). Other issues that are likely to receive much attention, and which may be reflected across several negotiating streams, include energy transition and food systems transformation. And, as is often the case, discussions and negotiations on climate finance are likely to be centre stage.

GST: a course correction for climate action?

The purpose of the GST is to assess the world’s collective progress towards achieving the goals and purpose of the Paris Agreement, and provide guidance to governments on how to strengthen action, support and international cooperation on climate change. The GST takes place every five years. The first one began at COP26 in 2021 and will conclude at COP28.

The GST consists of three components, which build on one another. The first phase focused on gathering and synthesizing information on climate change and climate action from governments, international organizations, research institutions, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders.

Drawing on the material received in the first phase, the second phase took stock of progress made in implementing the Paris Agreement and identified opportunities for strengthening action, support and international cooperation on climate change.

On 8 September 2023, a synthesis report containing key messages and recommendations from the second phase was released. It shows that the Paris Agreement has galvanized climate action globally and that significant progress has been made since the UNFCCC entered into force three decades ago. However, it also makes clear that much more must be done and outlines how to bring implementation on track.

I urge the world to carefully study the global stocktake synthesis report. It is a report card of our collective climate action. And not a good one. COP28 is our chance to make a dramatic course correction. Let’s seize that chance.

Simon Steill, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary

The third component of the GST will conclude at COP28. During this ‘political’ phase, governments discuss and consider the findings of the GST’s technical phase and what these mean for strengthening climate action. To do this, a series of high-level events will be convened at COP28, which should generate key political messages. Governments will also negotiate a decision and/or declaration. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, it is important that the GST outcome includes commitments and recommendations to drive ambitious climate action.


Strong focus on climate change impacts

Adapting and building resilience to climate change impacts and addressing climate change-induced loss and damage will feature prominently in the Dubai negotiations.

First, governments need to agree on how to operationalize COP27’s main legacy: the loss and damage fund, set up as part of wider loss and damage funding arrangements. When the fund was agreed, critical questions were left unresolved: How narrow or broad should its focus be? Which countries should be eligible for support? And where should the money come from?

These issues are among those being considered by a transitional committee, consisting of representatives from developed and developing countries, that are tasked with producing recommendations for governments ahead of COP28.

Second, governments at COP28 are due to adopt a framework for achieving the Paris Agreement’s global goal on adaptation. The GGA is intended to focus countries’ efforts to enhance adaptive capacity, strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change, but no clear definition of the goal is given in the Paris Agreement and little progress has been made to define it since. It is hoped that the new framework will both define the goal and offer ways to measure progress towards its achievement. This clarity should enable governments and relevant organizations to pursue and measure adaptation progress with greater focus, comparability and precision, including as part of the second GST.

Third, the Standing Committee on Finance (SCF) is preparing a report on the pledge by developed countries to double adaptation finance from 2019 levels by 2025, as agreed at COP26. Finance for adaptation falls far short of what is needed and is dwarfed by the scale of future need. In 2022, the UN Environment Programme estimated developing countries’ annual adaptation needs to be $160-340 billion by 2030 and $315-565 billion by 2050. To give a sense of scale, the IMF estimates fossil fuel subsidies were $7 trillion globally in 2022.

Both delivery on existing promises and clear signals of intent on adaptation are important to ensure developing country trust and engagement in multilateral climate action, particularly as many vulnerable developing countries already face adaptation burdens which outstrip their means to respond.

High time for fossil fuel phase-out?

Given that emissions from the burning of coal, oil and gas constitute the main driver of climate change, it is striking that the COP26 cover decision was the first ever COP decision to include a reference to any type of fossil fuel, with parties agreeing to accelerate ‘efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’.

At COP27, a coalition of over 80 countries pushed for the COP26 language on coal to be expanded to include all fossil fuels. While such a reference did not make it into the formal decision text, it shows that pressure is rising for the UNFCCC to address the issue.

Fossil fuel phase-out is likely to receive much attention at the negotiations in Dubai. While it does not have a dedicated negotiation track, it could be incorporated into a range of work streams, like the GST, cover decision and ‘mitigation work programme’. The need to phase out unabated fossil fuels is highlighted in the GST synthesis report.

There is a concern that a focus on reducing unabated fossil fuels or emissions from fossil fuels may detract from the need to phase out the actual production and use of coal, oil and gas.

Diverging opinions on the role and potential of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies is likely to be a point of contention in the discussions. There is a concern that a focus on reducing unabated fossil fuels or emissions from fossil fuels may detract from the need to phase out the actual production and use of coal, oil and gas. The language used by the incoming COP president on this topic has shifted over the course of the year, with Dr Sultan al-Jaber now referring to the phasedown of fossil fuels as ‘inevitable’ and ‘essential’.

Phasing out fossil fuels is being discussed as part of a broader package on energy that also includes targets on scaling up renewable energy and improving energy efficiency. Reaching a COP agreement on a renewable energy target took an important step forward at the G20 Leaders’ Summit in September 2023, where G20 members agreed to ‘pursue and encourage efforts to triple renewable energy capacity globally’.   

Food systems in focus

In the run-up to COP28, food systems and agriculture are receiving increasing diplomatic attention. The COP28 Food Systems and Agriculture Agenda was launched by the COP28 presidency and the UN  Food Systems Coordination Hub in July. It calls on countries to align national food systems and agricultural policies with nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and national adaptation plans (NAPs), and to include targets for food system decarbonization into these and their national biodiversity strategies and action plans (NBSAPs).  

Although food systems were much in debate at COP27 – unlike in previous COPs – there was still a significant political resistance to fully adopting a systems approach.

Professor Tim Benton, Chatham House Environment and Society Centre

The COP28 presidency is calling on private and public sector stakeholders to commit funding and technology for food system and agricultural transformation, and has highlighted that food systems contribute one third of all human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. Technological solutions will also be in focus, with the UAE and US collaborating to promote their Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM4C).

The focus on food at COP28 has been welcomed by many, and the GST synthesis report highlights the need to tackle connected thorny issues such as demand-side measures, land use change and deforestation. Actions to change food systems must complement rather than compete with efforts to accelerate the energy transition, as transformations in both sectors are needed to meet climate goals. 

Money matters

Climate finance will – as is the case at all COPs – be a key issue. Developing countries need financial resources, as well as technology transfer and capacity-building, to help them reduce emissions, adapt to climate change and address loss and damage. As such, the provision and mobilization of climate finance is a key priority for many countries in the negotiations.

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In 2009, developed countries pledged to mobilize $100 billion annually from 2020 and onwards from a range of public and private sources. This target has never been shown to have been met, which is a source of frustration and outrage for many developing countries. Failure to meet the target in a timely way may also have had a negative impact on the negotiations at large, given that the process largely relies on governments’ ability to trust that others will deliver on their promises.

At COP28, governments will continue their negotiations on a new climate finance goal to replace the $100 billion commitment. The deadline for reaching an agreement is 2024, but significant progress in Dubai is critical to lay the groundwork for next year’s COP. As previously outlined, finance will also figure prominently in negotiations on the GST and on loss and damage.

Finally, discussions and commitments related to scaling up and delivering on climate finance may affect a range of other negotiating areas and have the potential to either unlock increased action and ambition or stall progress. This dynamic was evident at climate negotiations in Bonn in June 2023, where a group of developing countries objected to putting negotiations around increasing mitigation ambition on the formal meeting agenda unless an agenda item on scaling up finance from developed countries was also added.

Chatham House and COP28

Chatham House will provide a forum for debate and dialogue and will be present as an observer organization at COP28. Explore our work on climate policy.