Tens of thousands of negotiators, activists, and corporate execs have descended upon Dubai to wrangle over the future of fossil fuels. Namely, should they even have a future? Can governments broker a deal to phase out the oil, coal, and gas causing climate change? Countries have already suffered deep losses as a result of the fires, floods, and other disasters intensifying with climate change. They want the biggest, heaviest-polluting nations to do something about it. And they’ll be making their case at a conference presided over by an oil baron.
Those are some of the hot topics on the table at the United Nations climate conference that kicks off in Dubai on November 30th. It’s called COP28, because it’s the 28th annual “Conference of the Parties” — made up of 197 nations and territories that ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Not every climate conference gets as contentious as this year’s is shaping up to be
Not every climate conference gets as contentious as this year’s is shaping up to be. So The Verge has a quick guide to some of the biggest issues during the negotiations scheduled to run until December 12th.
The future of fossil fuels
Let’s start with some backstory on COP28. The biggest international deal yet to tackle climate change came out of COP21 in 2015, when countries brokered the landmark Paris Agreement. That set a goal of limiting global average temperatures to close to 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than they were before the industrial revolution. A major United Nations report from 2018 charted out what it would take to reach that goal: reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Greenhouse gas emissions come from extracting and burning fossil fuels, of course. And yet the Paris Agreement manages to omit the words coal, oil, natural gas, and fossil fuels. So while it commits countries to stopping climate change, it skirts around the root cause of the problem. Now, that 1.5-degree goal is close to slipping out of reach (some scientists even think it might already be too late). With around 1.2 degrees of warming today, 2023 marks the hottest year on the books and greenhouse gas emissions are still rising.
2023 marks the hottest year on the books and greenhouse gas emissions are still rising
The Paris Agreement, at least, had the foresight to require a “global stocktake” every five years to assess countries’ progress toward meeting the goals of the accord. The time has finally arrived for countries to face how much — or how little — headway they’ve made.
This’ll go down at COP28. It turns out global temperatures are still on track to reach between 2.5 and 2.9 degrees Celsius. That’s obviously way above the Paris goal, and temperatures are expected to trigger catastrophes like wiping out virtually all of the world’s coral reefs. To prevent that and hit the Paris target, countries need to cut emissions by more than 40 percent by the end of the decade compared to 2019 levels, according to the UN’s global stocktake. Now that governments are supposed to adjust their plans according to the stocktake, there’s a push for them to finally explicitly commit to ax fossil fuels.
A group of 10 nations led by Costa Rica and Denmark (plus Washington state, Quebec, and Wales) formed the Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance and led a charge to phase out fossil fuel production. Last month, a High Ambition Coalition of 117 countries put out a statement that called to “phase-out fossil fuel production and use.” The European Union is also expected to come to the table pushing for a deal to “phase out” fossil fuels. And more than 130 companies, including Volvo Cars, Ikea, Unilever, Nestlé, and AstraZeneca, signed a letter last month asking governments to adopt a global plan to do it.
While momentum is growing, there are some significant sticking points. Those 130 companies and the EU are using terms that could carve out a loophole for fossil fuels to linger. They say they only want to phase out fossil fuels that are “unabated,” a word that changes everything. Stipulating the phaseout of “unabated fossil fuels” in a deal means that polluters can continue using coal, oil, and gas as long as they install controversial new technologies for capturing CO2 emissions that have yet to prove effective at scale.
And what about that oil executive? A regional group within the UN chose the United Arab Emirates to host the conference and appointed Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, as president of COP28. He wrote a letter to governments in attendance that says, “phasing down demand for, and supply of, all fossil fuels is inevitable and essential” (emphasis mine). Phasing down rather than out is decidedly weaker language. And even that kind of watered down deal was struck down last year, when delegates at COP27 in Egypt nixed final agreement language calling for the “phase-down” of fossil fuels at the last minute.
Not to mention an investigation by the BBC and the Centre for Climate Reporting found that Sultan Al Jaber used his position as COP28 president to lobby for oil and gas deals with other governments. He has denied the allegations, of course.
At the end of the day — or more accurately, the end of the next thirteen days — what really matters is what actions countries actually take. That’s especially true for the world’s biggest polluters, which are the US and China by far. Those two are locked in a funny dance around climate action, which has historically been one of the areas the US and China are able to cooperate on even when tensions rise between the two powers. In a move that environmental advocates cautiously celebrated, the pair agreed earlier this month to work together to try to triple renewable energy capacity globally by 2030. And during COP28, they’ll host a meeting to address methane pollution, an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.
But (why is there always a but?!) neither presidents Joe Biden nor Xi Jinping are expected to attend the conference in Dubai — an absence seen as a big snub by other governments sending their heads of state. And back at home, the US is producing record amounts of oil and gas this year. In China, coal imports and output are also expected to reach record highs. Sigh.
It’s no wonder, then, that less-polluting, less-wealthy countries already hit hard by climate disasters are calling for reparations. In climate negotiations, it’s billed as a fund for “loss and damage.” After decades of stalled negotiations on this front, there was finally a breakthrough at last year’s COP. Delegates reached an agreement to create the fund but left it up to future negotiations to figure out how the fund would work. That’s what’s at stake now.
“We have the fund but we need money to make it worthwhile. What we have is an empty bucket,” Mohamed Adow, director of think tank Power Shift Africa, said in a statement last year.
On the first day of the conference this year, nations launched the loss and damage fund. That empty bucket now has at least $400 million in it. Germany and the United Arab Emirates each pledged $100 million. The US gave $24.5 million, Japan $10 million, and the UK around $75 million.
Anything is possible — but it takes time
While the money is sorely needed, there are still big questions around how the fund will operate. It’ll be hosted by the World Bank over the next four years, an institution over which critics say the US has too much influence. They’re concerned funding will come through loans rather than grants, which could trap countries suffering losses from worsening climate catastrophes in more and more debt. Advocates also wanted to see commitments to replenish the fund regularly, and so far that hasn’t happened.
“The absence of a defined replenishment cycle raises serious questions about the Fund’s long-term sustainability,” Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International, said in a statement. “The responsibility now lies with affluent nations to meet their financial obligations in a manner proportionate to their role in the climate crisis, which has been primarily driven by decades of unrestrained fossil fuel consumption and a lack of adequate climate finance delivered to the Global South.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last decade or so following these climate negotiations, it’s that anything is possible — but it takes time. Getting nearly every nation on Earth to agree to work together to stop global warming with the Paris Agreement took more than two decades. A pact to phase out fossil fuels just might be within reach — even if that doesn’t shake out this year. Then again, every time a monstrous storm or devastating drought takes its toll, people pay the price for their governments dragging their feet.