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A Look at COP28 and the Legacy of the Paris Agreement: What Can We Expect?

From 30 November to 12 December, over 70,000 delegates will attend the 28th meeting of the Conference of Parties (commonly known as COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates to tackle climate change. It will be the biggest conference to date, with notable attendees including King Charles III along with hundreds of world leaders – though, not United States President Joe Biden or China’s Xi Jinping.

COP28 comes over three decades after the establishment of The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), signed in 1992, which laid the groundwork for international climate negotiations. Since its first meeting in Berlin in 1995, the Conference of the Parties (COP) – the decision-making body of the UNFCCC – has assembled world leaders, delegates, and activists every year to address the climate crisis. The first landmark agreement, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, only required industrialized countries (designated as Annex I) to reduce emissions, while allowing emerging economies in China and India to continue growing their fossil fuel economy. Successful climate negotiations stalled for the next two decades, while emissions continued to rise. The 2015 Paris Agreement (COP21), signed by over 190 countries, was a breakthrough in the pursuit to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius: building off the failures of Kyoto, which utilized mandatory emission reductions, the Paris Agreement instead created a framework of voluntary pledges that allows countries to establish their own emission reduction targets. A key component of this strategy rests on transparency through mandatory national reporting on emissions, a system of ‘naming and shaming’ which theoretically puts pressure on countries to comply with their targets. While the legal framework of the treaty – the only ‘hard obligation’ is to submit a mitigation plan (Nationally Determined Contribution, or NDC) every five years – made it a success in getting states to ratify it, it lacks mechanisms of enforcement, since states do not have an obligation to meet their determined goals. If the world’s second-largest emitter can withdraw at will, what does that say about the reliability of states’ efforts?

In March 2023, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its report on climate change, which will serve as the framework for climate negotiations at COP28. In their report, the IPCC warned that we are likely to exceed the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold within the next decade: “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all (very high confidence).” Thus, a key point of interest in COP28 will be the global stocktake, the first assessment of whether national emission targets (NDCs) are being met following the 2015 Paris Agreement. Negotiations based on these findings will determine how ambitious climate policies are going to be going forward. Melanie Robinson, the global climate program director for the World Resources Institute, emphasizes that the global stocktake “tells us clearly that the world is not on track to achieve our global climate goals […] But it also offers a really interesting concrete blueprint [and] mountain of evidence on how we can get the job done.”

However, critics of COP28 have pushed back against the choice of Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the UAE’s Special Envoy for Climate Change, to lead the conference. Al Jaber is chief executive at the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), which supplies roughly 3% of the world’s oil. He is also chairman of Masdar, a renewable energy firm that has invested in solar and wind power projects. On its official website for COP28, the UAE claims that “since its inception in 1971, the UAE has supported the global climate agenda.” While the UAE has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050, it remains one of the top 10 oil-producing countries. And while Al Jaber has publicly emphasized the need to cut emission drastically by 2030, ADNOC has simultaneously announced plans to increase capacity by 600,000 barrels a day by 2030 (Rowlatt 2023). Zeina Khalil Hajj, head of global campaigning at, compares his appointment to “the equivalent of appointing the CEO of a cigarette company to oversee a conference on cancer cures.” Tom Evans, a climate policy advisor for the environmental think tank E3G, has warned that the tension between an oil executive leading a climate change conference and climate activists threatens to undermine the efforts of the conference and distract from the failures of countries to meet their emission-reduction targets. COP27, like conferences before it, refused a proposal to completely phase out fossil fuels, which represents one of the major frustrations of climate activists. Following COP27, Laurence Tubiana of the European Climate Foundation decried the protection of fossil fuel industries in the final agreement: “This trend cannot continue in the United Arab Emirates next year.”

But not everyone agrees: Tosi Mpanu, lead climate negotiator for the Democratic Republic of Congo, has argued that "People should not see him just as an evil producer of greenhouse gasses […] They should also see what he has been doing in the world of renewables.” John Kerry, U.S. presidential envoy, has similarly supported Al Jaber’s experience in both sectors. Simon Stiell – who serves as the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC and will oversee COP28 – highlights that “every country, even those that are major oil producers, have their role to play.” Claiming that fossil fuel companies like ADNOC should be involved in the conversation, Stiell argues that we need to include them as part of the solution, especially as these companies have become increasingly involved in COP negotiations in past years. This shift comes as Dr. Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, emphasizes how COP28 will mark a “moment of truth” for the fossil fuel industry and whether it will invest in renewable energy.

It is abundantly clear that while the Paris Agreement succeeded in getting countries to come together to address climate change, subsequent negotiations have been largely inadequate in facilitating action. At COP27, it was announced that 2022 had achieved record levels of fossil fuel emissions; based on temperature reports from the months of January through October, the year 2023 is set to be the hottest on record. The door on climate action has not closed completely yet, but whether these coming negotiations will be any different remains questionable. Can the planet afford anymore delay?


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