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This year’s Cop will be the most complex yet

The UAE’s Cop28 agenda will tackle thorny but imperative issues

Masdar has signed an agreement with Jordan to develop a 1GW wind project with a battery energy storage system Unsplash/Dan Meyers
Masdar has signed an agreement with Jordan to develop a 1GW wind project with a battery energy storage system

Tickets for the Cop28 climate conference are now available – the most tangible sign that a year of intense preparation, negotiation and deliberation is approaching its culmination.

The event has been billed as the most important since 2015’s Cop21 which birthed the Paris Agreement. The omens have improved – but the high-wire, late-night negotiations are never predictable.

The summit’s agenda is ambitious. Royal and religious help has been enlisted, with an opening speech by King Charles III and attendance from Pope Francis, the first pontiff to comment extensively on climate change.

Around 70,000 accredited attendees and 50,000 daily visitors are expected – compared to the previous records of around 30-40,000 in Paris, Glasgow and last year in Sharm El Sheikh.

The event is the first for some time where the energy industry – the origin of, and solution to, most of the problem – has had a prominent role. Dr Sultan Al Jaber, president of the event, is also the chief executive of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc).

This contrasts with Cop26 in Glasgow where the oil and gas business was excluded. Engagement with fossil fuel interests is controversial with many – mostly Western – politicians and activists, but also more constructive than another round of talks between environmentalists and green politicians.

The most important objective of all is to continue efforts to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Even though that looks increasingly out of reach, every tenth of a degree saved is precious.

This goal, in turn, requires radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – but that has been the aim of every gathering since 1995’s Cop1 in Berlin. The trajectory of emissions has been bent downwards, but they are still growing.

Cop28’s global stocktake will look at the aggregate effect of action so far, as input to updates of countries’ nationally-determined contributions – their climate plans, whose ambition is meant to be ratcheted up every five years.

More than just an accounting exercise, whose answer we already know, the stocktake should point to failings and possible solutions.

Phasing out or phasing down?

A major point of contention before the conference has been the distinction between “phasing out” and “phasing down”, and whether fossil fuels in toto are to be phased out or unabated fossil fuels – that is, those burnt without carbon capture and storage – which would prevent most emissions.

This is, however, a rather pointless argument. Major oil and gas producers and leading coal-dependent countries, such as China and India, are clearly not going to give up their major secure, cheap, domestic source of energy in the near term, whatever the communiqué says.

A commitment to eliminate the use of unabated fossil fuels would already be a big step forward.

Either China, the US or both have generally been the sticking point at failed Cops, as in 2009 in Copenhagen when each blamed the other.

This time, despite their economic and political tensions, they agreed on Tuesday to push for tripling renewable energy globally by 2030, and to host a summit on methane, trying to eliminate this short-lived but powerful warming gas. The EU is pushing India to make a similar commitment on renewables.

Methane and renewable energy are two of Cop28’s key targets, and the China-US progress suits the UAE: firstly, because the country itself is making progress on these goals, and secondly because it diminishes the chance of a diplomatic breakdown, which would reflect, however unfairly, on the host nation.

Loss and damage

A fourth key area is finance to developing countries: the loss and damage fund, to compensate them for current climate impacts, and the provision of Paris’s promised $100 billion financing.

At a meeting in Abu Dhabi in early November, a group of rich and lower-income countries drew up a plan for the fund. The World Bank will host the facility for the first four years, a contentious point as developing countries fear it will be dominated by the wealthier nations.

The focus here is crucial given how most private-sector climate spending today is directed to developed countries plus China and India, with sub-Saharan Africa in particular virtually ignored.

It is also a smart tactical move to put the onus back on the developed nations who have failed to live up to their commitments.

The EU’s counter has been to put pressure on the UAE to contribute to the fund, intended as a signal also to other high-emitters including Saudi Arabia and China.

Another issue rising in prominence relates to carbon finance. The EU is set to form an alliance with Canada for international carbon pricing covering 60 percent of global emissions by 2030, a pet project of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. 

Such a complex agenda would tax any international gathering.

Objectively, a few wins on the key items would be good progress. But a sceptical climate community expects a lot more, most of it not within the purview of the host nation nor even of the US, China or EU. 

Robin Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

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