COP28: Conquering Climate Change One Conference at a Time?

Grace Bolling, Apr 16, 2024

From November 20th to December 13th, the United Arab Emirates hosted the 28th UN Climate Change Conference. The irony was stark as 85,000 delegates gathered in Dubai to limit and fight the effects of climate change—the largest climate conference also had the largest carbon footprint. Last year, over 100 private aircraft flew to COP27, which had half as many delegates in attendance, producing 10 times more carbon pollution per passenger than commercial aircraft [1]. Delegates’ disregard for their carbon footprints casts doubt on their ability to effectively negotiate and implement COP28’s ambitious goals: namely, tripling global renewable energy capacity by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050 [2]. 


Despite the lofty goals articulated by global leaders, the results of COP28 echoed the sentiments of past climate conferences and the warnings headed by climate scientists for years. Failure to deliver meaningful progress stresses the urgent need for concrete policy reforms that patch the loopholes inhibiting an equitable clean-energy transition for high-polluting and developed nations alike. Without such reforms, the global community risks being unable to successfully mitigate and adapt to the escalating impacts of climate change. 


Before the conference began, skepticism spread regarding COP28’s potential to provide the policy frameworks and financial support needed to accelerate the transition to clean energy for developed and undeveloped nations. Tainted by controversies ranging from the chosen host nation to alleged backdoor fossil fuel deals, the landmark climate conference bordered more on infamous than historic. Although the UAE’s leadership role could indicate its willingness to divest from oil exports, the UAE failed to report methane emissions to the UN for nearly a decade and broke its regulations by regularly flaring methane gas [3]. Selecting a nation to lead a climate conference that actively circumvents climate policy sends the message that the top emitters control climate change policy.


 As a counterbalance against negative press coverage, representatives of the UAE hired First International Resources to garner support surrounding the strategic value of involving the UAE [4]. Despite Dubai’s defensive media strategy, the government was met with widespread criticism. For example, former US Vice President Al Gore argued that appointing the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company chief, one of the “largest and least responsible” companies, bolstered fossil fuel interests at COP28 [5]. Sentiments like Gore’s draw attention to Sultan Al Jaber’s ability, or lack thereof, to prioritize honest climate talks over his businesses’ profits. Documents leaked by Agence France-Presse exacerbated concerns about unbiased brokering, alleging that McKinsey was using its position as the host’s primary advisor to benefit their oil and gas clients. McKinsey’s position—recommending a mere 50% reduction in oil use—would allow for trillions of dollars to be invested in high-emission assets yearly, at least until 2050 [6]. Allegations of bias and conflicts of interest against McKinsey and Al Jaber further eroded trust in the impartiality of COP28’s proceedings. 


Moreover, the dominance of fossil fuel lobbyists underscores industry elites’ disproportionate resource advantages compared to developing nations and minority groups. Despite contributing minimally to global emissions, developing countries are not afforded the same representation as industry elites and wealthy nations in the decision-making process. Fossil fuel lobbyists outnumbered representatives of the 10 most climate-vulnerable nations and Indigenous representatives by a ratio of 7-to-1 [7]. Meanwhile, the nations with the highest track records of emitting show little sign of curbing fossil fuel usage. In 2023, US oil and gas production hit all-time highs in a year that saw record-breaking temperatures, Canada once again failed to meet its emission reduction goals, and the UK acquired new drilling licenses for the North Sea [8]. The Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter established at COP28 illustrates the reluctance of developed nations to adopt ambitious climate policies, opening the door to accountability gaps. Signees of the Charter prioritized profitability over reaching net zero by 2050. By committing solely to limiting operational emissions, signees ignored the significant role that fossil fuel sales play in driving 95% of the industry’s contribution to the climate crisis [9]. Catered to maintaining high-emitting countries and companies’ profits, the Charter facilitates a slow-burn transition away from fossil fuel emissions. Additionally, despite the benefit of Carbon Capture Technology (CCUS) in developing nations, the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report found zero scenarios wherein it could limit warming to 1.5 ℃. At maximum capacity, CCUS only captures 0.7% of all greenhouse gas emissions [10]. It is illogical to rest the future of the climate on the back of supplemental technology solutions proposed at COP28 that leave high emitters with loopholes in delaying the clean energy transition. 


Furthermore, developed countries’ failure to mobilize finance and enhance the capacity-building of developing nations exacerbates the disproportionate burden of climate change impacts felt by the latter. Specifically, net-zero empowerment and investment gaps hinder developing nations from mitigating and adapting to climate change. These gaps denote the additional spending required for low-emissions infrastructure to meet people’s essential needs. Developing countries require $5-11tn to implement their current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by 2030, yet the current funding gap only covers 30% of these costs [11]. Past climate conferences touted carbon credits as a crucial element in closing investment gaps caused by developed countries’ unmet pledges to regions, such as Africa, that emit the least. During COP28, proponents of carbon credits argued that their increased cost would eventually incentivize emitters to transition to renewable energy for cost savings. In actuality, wealthy nations readily offset increased costs, and the purported beneficiaries of carbon credits reap the least amount of benefits. In what was referred to as “colonialism repackaged”, the UAE-based company, Blue Carbon, secured a deal granting them 60 million acres of forest land in four African nations. Consequently, Blue Carbon pocketed 70% of the profits of their carbon credit sales, displacing millions of Liberians in the process [12]. This convenient paradox of responsibility puts developing nations at odds with an equitable transition from fossil fuels. 


Finally, fiscal initiatives agreed to at COP28 deviate from recommendations established in the Paris Climate Agreement, lacking funding and specificity. Funding shortfalls pose another clear roadblock to achieving COP28’s emission reduction targets. To reach the net-zero goal pledged at COP28, there needs to be a $412 trillion step-up in low-emissions spending over the next decade. Even with the clean energy pledges made at COP28, greenhouse gas emissions will only decrease by 4 Gt, far below the International Energy Agency’s estimated 22 Gt reduction needed to limit warming to 1.5 ℃ [13]. Negotiators at COP28 ignored scientific data, extending funding shortfalls to the Global Goal on Adaptation established under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. At COP28, negotiators agreed to global time-bound targets but excluded an addendum quantifying measurement targets or issuing financial support for developing nations [14]. Without quantified measurement targets and a framework for subsidy distribution, the adaptation finance gap widens. 


However, COP28 saw notable successes amidst its challenges. COP28 marked the first global acknowledgment of the necessity for an equitable shift away from fossil fuels and the detrimental impacts of climate change on public health. Principally, the World Health Organization took the initiative by bolstering its climate-friendly healthcare system and emphasizing the need for climate finance that protects human well-being. Additionally, 159 nations, representing 75% of the global population and 83% of the world’s agricultural GDP, signed the Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action [15]. Incorporating food systems into the Global Stocktake signals a positive shift toward prioritizing sustainable food and water security. These initiatives indicate the possibility for progress in the fight against climate change. Nations need to take concrete, collective action, as opposed to delaying framework and funding for next year’s negotiations to remedy unfulfilled clean energy goals. In the words of Pedro Luis Pedroso, the outgoing president of the G77 bloc of developing nations, “The challenge now is how we translate the deal into meaningful action for the people” [16]. 


[1] Gongloff, Mark. “COP28: Do 70,000 People Really Need to Be at a Climate Confab?” Bloomberg, November 30th, 2023.; Collins, Chuck, Omar Ocampo, and Kalena Thomhave. “Report: High Flyers 2023: How Ultra-Rich Private Jet Travel Costs the Rest of Us and Burns up the Planet.” Institute for Policy Studies, May 1st, 2023.

[2] Global Renewables and Energy Efficiency Pledge, December 2nd, 2023.

[3] Karrington, Damian. “UN Climate Summit Host UAE Failed to Report Methane Emissions to UN.” The Guardian, August 17th, 2023.

[4] Joselow, Maxine. “Host of U.N. Climate Summit Moves to ‘Counteract All Negative Press’.” The Climate 202, August 9th, 2023.

[5] Volcovici, Valerie. “Al Gore Slams Cop28 Climate Summit Host UAE, Says Its Emissions Soared.” Reuters, December 4th, 2023.

[6] “McKinsey & Company Pushes Fossil Fuel Interests as Advisor to UN Climate Talks, Whistleblowers Say.” News Wires, November 7th, 2023.

[7] Sevilla Nunez, Paul, Raquel Jesse, and Roshni Menon. “COP28, Extreme Inequality, and the Incomplete Fight Against Climate Colonialism.” Center on International Cooperation, January 30th, 2024.

[8] Lakhani, Nina. “COP28 Deal Will Fail Unless Rich Countries Quit Fossil Fuels, Says Climate Negotiator.” The Guardian, January 19th, 2024.

[9] “Statement: Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter Unveiled.” World Resources Institute, December 2nd, 2023.

[10] Lebling, Katie, Ankita Gangotra, Karl Hausker, and Zachary Byrum. “7 Things to Know About Carbon Capture, Utilization and Sequestration.” World Resources Institute, November 13th, 2023.

[11] Lakhani, Nina. “Why ‘Implementation’ Matters in the Global Fight Against the Climate Crisis.” The Guardian, December 12th, 2023.

[12] Ibeh, Zikora. “Carbon Markets Aren’t the Answer to Africa’s Climate Finance Problem.” World Politics Review, September 15th, 2023.

[13] Sayed, Tarek El, Cindy Levy, Peter Mannion, Daniel Pacthod, Joe Rahi, and Rory Sullivan. “Outcomes from COP28: What Next to Accelerate Climate Action?” McKinsey & Company, December 21st, 2023.

[14] Waskow, David, Jamal Srouji, Jennifer Layke, Nataniel Warszawski, Gabrielle Swaby, Preety Bhandari, Natalia Alayza, et al. “Unpacking COP28: Key Outcomes from the Dubai Climate Talks, and What Comes Next.” World Resources Institute, December 17th, 2023.

[15] Davey, Edward. “6 Major Food Breakthroughs at COP28 - and What Comes Next.” World Resources Institute, December 15th, 2023.

[16] Lakhani, Nina. “COP28 Deal Will Fail Unless Rich Countries Quit Fossil Fuels, Says Climate Negotiator.” The Guardian, January 19th, 2024.