|COP28 President-Designate Sultan al-Jaber of the United Arab Emirates, at right, and UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell, at the signing of the host country agreement in August 2023. Photo: UAE Government, via UNFCCC website.|
Issue Backgrounder: COP28 Will Be Earth-Shaping News in 2024 and Beyond
Analysis by Joseph A. Davis
If the future of the world’s warming climate depends on the upcoming international meeting known as COP28, strap in for a bumpy ride.
The latest installment of negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, the 28th Conference of Parties, is set to happen in Expo City Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12.
COP28 is a do-or-die moment, a last call.
Global heating is happening now and
the effects are literally disastrous.
For most climate change watchers, COP28 is a do-or-die moment, a last call. Global heating is happening now and the effects are literally disastrous. Despite huge efforts by many countries, and expensive PR, greenhouse gases are rising and the global temperature is frying billions of people.
Even with that reality, the biggest issue before COP28 remains whether the world’s nations will make a firm commitment to end virtually all fossil fuel burning by a date certain.
Worldwide, the summer of 2023 was measured as the hottest ever. Phoenix, Arizona, for example, had a solid month of days where the temperature reached 110°F. Intense heat emergencies struck cities across the United States and the globe.
Wildfires have also devastated big chunks of Canada (from Alberta to Nova Scotia), Greece, southern Europe, Italy, Spain, Kazakhstan and the Canary Islands. Not only did many U.S. states have wildfires, but smoke from Canadian fires half a continent away threw an unhealthful pall over much of the eastern United States.
The emissions and energy situation
Carbon dioxide (mostly from the combustion of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas) constitutes the biggest share of global warming emissions. Yes, there are others, but this is the big one.
The bad news is that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are still going steadily, relentlessly upward. Overall, China is the biggest emitter (30%), with the United States next (15%), followed by Europe (9%), India (7%) and Russia (5%).
And as noted above, carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas. Methane (mostly from oil and gas production and agriculture) and nitrous oxide (mostly from agriculture) make up most of the rest.
The good news is that we have proven technologies for producing energy that do not produce greenhouse gases — wind and solar — and that are cheaper than fossil fuels. And getting cheaper.
But we are not making
enough progress, fast enough,
in transitioning to clean energy.
But we are not making enough progress, fast enough, in transitioning to clean energy. So despite all the lofty intentions expressed in the ballyhooed 2015 Paris Agreement, global greenhouse gas emissions are still going up and, with them, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.
By the way, if you haven’t got a degree in UNFCCC jargon, start with “stocktake.” The stocktake is supposed to happen every five years. It was set up under the original Paris Accord to check up on whether countries are meeting the voluntary goals (in its jargon: nationally determined contributions, or NDCs) nations set for themselves at Paris.
The news from the latest stocktake, just out on Sept. 8, was hardly encouraging. “The window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all is rapidly closing,” the report said.
We hate to say it, but the outlook for success in this international effort to address climate change is quite bleak.
COP28 will tell whether the international climate treaty process works, whether it still has some chance of succeeding — or whether it fails.
It will also decide whether the UNFCCC diplomatic process has been co-opted and diverted by special interests. Chief among them: fossil fuels. That’s because this year’s COP meeting is not only being hosted by Abu Dhabi, the 12th biggest oil producer in the world, but will be chaired by Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, who is also CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
One reason for pessimism over the
prospects for COP28 is that the
agenda is somewhat squishy.
One reason for pessimism over the prospects for COP28 is that the agenda is somewhat squishy.
To begin with, last year’s COP27 was disappointing. Host country Egypt and its allies won a Pyrrhic victory when they finally established a “loss and damage” fund. Loss and damage, in UNFCCC jargon, is like reparations, which many developing nations feel the developed nations owe them just for ruining the climate.
But it’s been a year, and while the UNFCCC established the fund, it has not really set up a mechanism for collecting the money. It has also not yet specified who will pay how much into the fund and who will receive how much out of it.
Pre-meetings yield uncertain results
Also, COP28 preliminary meetings to hammer out an agenda produced little of substance.
The last big one was in Berlin (the so-called Petersberg Climate Dialogue was actually held in Berlin May 2-3, 2023). It started without an agenda and ended with little more. One unsettled question was whether COP28 should try to explicitly and forcefully phase out fossil fuels.
Another opening act for COP28 was
the first-ever African Climate Summit
in Kenya, which ended Sept. 6, 2023.
Another opening act for COP28 was the first-ever African Climate Summit in Kenya, which ended Sept. 6, 2023. In effect, it was meant to work out a consistent African stance on climate so that the widely diverse nations on that continent could negotiate more coherently as a bloc.
But the issues were obvious — Africa produces a relatively small amount of greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, it has resources like rainforests that are important to the climate effort (if preserved). Not to mention poverty.
The outcome of the meeting was an emphasis on climate finance: With many African nations already struggling with a high debt load, polluting First World nations could pay or loan funds to African nations.
Also, the United Nations meets every September in order for heads of state to address the General Assembly. Simultaneously, there is an event called “Climate Week.” It gets a lot of attention because media are covering lots of leaders on lots of issues.
Heads of state often include climate in their talks. Climate Week itself takes advantage of this. Many groups with a stake in climate change hold events and invite media, and they will certainly have a lot to say about COP28.
Whether it is more than a pep rally is often unclear.
North vs. South
Nobody likes pollution — just as nobody likes wildfires, hurricanes, floods, heatwaves, etc. And certainly, the human misery that comes from these things affects local and international politics.
But since pollution started growing as a concern in the mid-1900s, much of the politics of environmental pollution has been dominated by competition and conflict between regional and national fuel and energy sources. So it is, often, with climate. Wildfires are getting worse quickly; climate politics are changing slowly, if at all.
Today, and for many decades, most of the global emissions of CO2 have been coming from industrialized and developed nations — often referred to as the global North. The nations feeling many of the worst effects of global heating tend to be less-developed nations near or below the equator — the global South.
It turns out that the emissions of the North over a long period have cumulatively accounted for most of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today. Many of the densest forests and peatlands (essential for absorbing and storing carbon) are in the global South — e.g., Brazil, Congo or Indonesia.
Many other southern nations say they are suffering most of the painful consequences of global heating. And politically, they have less power.
Fossil fuel industry vs. victims
Meanwhile, with fossil fuels the biggest driver of global heating, on a domestic U.S. level, we can see strong support for coal from states like West Virginia and Wyoming. And internationally, many nations (e.g., China and India) still burn lots of coal.
Oil-producing nations like Saudi Arabia
have for years resisted the most
ambitious climate measures.
Same with oil. Domestically, oil states like Texas and Louisiana resist efforts to cut back on the production and consumption of petroleum products. Oil-producing nations like Saudi Arabia have for years resisted the most ambitious climate measures. (In case you were wondering, oil lobbyists outnumber the many industry groups allowed to attend COP meetings.)
Yet states and nations that suffer the worst effects of climate change often feel injured by it. An example is the hefty number of island states and low-lying nations that scientists expect to be devastated by sea level rise.
But there are many more factions. Which creates many more issues. Low-lying island states are one interest group (they number quite a few, but have little negotiating power). Forested nations have their own set of issues — focused on whether they conserve forests and whether they get paid for it.
How to cover COP28 from afar
Perhaps the best way to cover COP28 is to go. You’ll need media credentials issued by the venue, specifically for this event. Applications are open, and the time to register is now or as soon as possible. More information about accreditation is here and the registration form is online here.
But not everyone can get there — or wants to.
COP meetings involve a lot of chaos. Many issues are discussed in obscure legal and bureaucratic jargon, which this backgrounder can not even try to help you translate (try starting here and here). And the haggling over any agreement will usually go past deadline.
Meanwhile, inside the building, there are also numerous “side events” held by all kinds of interest groups and delegations. And outside the building, there are usually a lot of passionate and creative demonstrations.
Let’s say your editor tells you there’s not enough money to send you to Abu Dhabi anyway. No worries. There are a lot of ways to keep up.
Here are some ideas to plug into the bountiful good journalism and information that will be coming from Abu Dhabi:
- UNFCCC (UN Climate): The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is the parent organization for climate treaty negotiations.
- COP28 host website: Published by the COP28 host nation and an outlet for all kinds of announcements.
- World Resources Institute: A U.S.-based nonprofit, nongovernmental organization for thoughtful study of resource issues.
- Earth Negotiations Bulletin: Published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, with funding from a range of governments. It doesn’t always translate the jargon, but it has the documents.
- Inside Climate News: A nonpartisan, Pulitzer-winning nonprofit daily devoted to climate.
- Reuters: Well-staffed and climate-focused with an international perspective. It has a climate vertical and may have a page devoted to the COP.
- New York Times: An all-star team of dedicated climate journalists.
- Climate Change Resource Guide: This useful asset from the Society of Environmental Journalists lists a wide range of other sources of background information on the topic.
[Editor’s Note: In addition to the SEJ’s Climate Change Resource Guide, you can also find numerous SEJournal stories on the subject on our Topic on the Beat: Climate Change page, which has links to three dozen stories and special reports, including our Covering Climate Solutions and to regional Covering Your Climate packages. Plus, get the latest climate change headlines from EJToday.]
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 33. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.