COP28 redux: Where are we in the climate fight?

Tim Neff at COP28. Picture credit: IISD/ENB | Ángeles Estrada

Lecturer in Journalism, Timothy Neff, attended COP28 to cover the conference’s side events. Here, he blogs about what he discovered while out in Dubai…

Something about this year’s global mega-conference on climate change – COP28 – felt different. Certainly, it was bigger than ever, with tens of thousands of people gathering in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to negotiate and push for climate action. Perhaps more importantly, a sense of urgency boiled over this year, creating headlines around the world and insinuating COP28 into conversations that we might never have had five or 10 years ago.

A climate change COP (Conference of the Parties) is the annual gathering, under UN auspices, of key stakeholders: negotiators from countries, world leaders, NGOs, UN agencies, Indigenous Peoples, protesters, media, scientists, academics, and many more. “COP28” is shorthand for the event’s 28th edition, which was held 30 November to 13 December and presided over by the CEO of UAE’s state-owned oil company. More on that later.

I went to COP28 as part of a team of writers, editors, photographers, and videographers sent by the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB). My focus was on covering side events, where UN agencies and others host panel discussions, announce new initiatives, and provide updates on their work in the climate space. I covered events where former US vice president Al Gore gave an impassioned speech denouncing the efforts by fossil fuel interests to confound climate action, trade unions pushed for a just transition to clean energy, and COP leaders debated how artificial intelligence might help combat climate change.

The scene

For the uninitiated, COPs can seem opaque and overwhelming. I have been to four of these, and it took that many, plus attendance and participation at various other UN events, to get my bearings. While negotiators hash out the language of decision texts on dozens of climate issues, national and UN agency pavilions host side events, protesters urge action, and media from around the world scour the venue for interviews and images.

This COP was held at the sprawling Expo 2020 Center toward the edge of Dubai, where city starts to give way to desert. Across the venue’s “Blue Zone,” which can be accessed by credentialed delegates, more than 100 buildings housed negotiation meeting rooms, national delegation headquarters, side event pavilions, the media centre, restaurants, cafes, on and on. With nearly 100,000 people registered to attend, it was the largest COP in history.

COPs always spawn controversy, and this year’s siting of the event in Dubai under the presidency of a UAE oil company CEO spurred criticism leading up to the event and in the middle of it. COP28 President and ADNOC CEO Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber’s comments during a Zoom call two weeks prior to COP28, during which he pushed back on claims that solving the climate crisis requires phasing out fossil fuels, surfaced in a Guardian article published four days into COP28. Reactions were swift and strong (see, for example: this and this). COPs look to their presidencies to deliver successful outcomes, and this signal from the president added to doubts about what COP28 could achieve.

The outcome

At the same time, and because the topics on the table are so diverse and intertwined – read: complicated – it is challenging to gauge the extent to which any COP is a success. Certainly, there is more urgency now in these climate talks and an increasing sense that the time for talk has passed and now is the time for action. As many people will say in and around these annual mega-conferences, climate change won’t be solved at a COP; it needs to be solved on the ground, where people live and where climate change increasingly affects them on a daily basis.

However, those concrete actions can be bolstered by COP negotiations, which unlock and channel flows of money needed to address climate change, as well as by COP-facilitated exchanges of knowledge and ideas. So we must ask, what, if anything, did this COP accomplish?

Looking back on it (see ENB’s coverage here), the process operationalised a loss and damage fund to transfer financial support to countries experiencing increasingly intense floods, hurricanes, and droughts. COP28 also saw a wave of pledges and declarations from various actors, such as oil and gas companies, to address climate change, though assuring accountability on those pledges is an open question.

COP28 is likely to be remembered for its final decision that adopted the language of “transitioning away from” rather than phasing out fossil fuels. Yet in a broader sense it also should also be remembered as the moment that the world looked itself in the mirror and acknowledged it is falling far short of the goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C. The results of the first “global stocktake,” completed at COP28, showed that efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have been inadequate and that nations need to significantly increase their ambitions to cut these emissions and accelerate climate action.

At next year’s COP29 in Baku, Azerbaijan, all eyes will be focused on whether and how this moment of critical reflection translates into action.