December 8, 2023

IntelBrief: Politics, Potential, and False Promises at COP28

AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Growing tensions between business and climate interests have been displayed alongside international political divisions during this year’s annual global UN climate conference, known as the 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
  • As the host of this year’s conference, the United Arab Emirates has faced numerous controversies over contradictions between its national energy interests and international climate goals.
  • Global South leaders have challenged countries in the Global North over the seemingly insufficient investment in mitigating the harm of their outsized contributions to climate change, while some Middle Eastern heads of state used the forum to speak out against Israel and the ongoing war in Gaza.
  • The UN has found that the international community’s current national emissions reduction goals will be insufficient to prevent the Earth from warming by the critical 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold by 2030.

There has been significant media coverage in recent weeks regarding the contradiction between business and climate interests at the ongoing annual UN climate conference. Political leaders in attendance have also brought their perspectives on global security issues into the forum. Even before the 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) began in late November, environmentalists had expressed concern that this year’s host, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), would allow its business priorities as a major fossil fuel producer to undermine environmental policy negotiations. Skepticism over the commitment of the world’s seventh-largest national oil producer and fourth largest per-capita producer of CO2 emissions to significantly reduce global emissions was reinforced when the Gulf state selected the chief of its national oil company, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, to preside over the event. Investigative reporting by The Guardian revealed operational links between the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and the COP28 office. At the same time, documents leaked late last month alleged the UAE planned to use the conference to generate additional oil and gas sales with fifteen foreign governments in attendance, including China, Brazil, Germany, and Egypt.

Similar to previous conferences, COP28 aims to produce a substantial agreement among the 198 countries party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that will mitigate and/or prevent the harms of climate change. Past conferences have led to achievements like the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, which committed parties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the Paris Agreement of 2015, which established long-term global temperature objectives. This year, the most ambitious hope of negotiators was to come away with an agreement calling to phase out fossil fuels completely. Just over a week before the conference, UAE’s chosen COP28 president, Al Jaber, offered a highly controversial statement when he said during a live online event that there was “no science” pointing to the need to phase out fossil fuels to prevent the planet from heating more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial global temperatures.  The UN’s climate body considers this threshold the tipping point for global climate catastrophe. Earlier this week, however, in an apparent backtrack of his statement, Al Jaber called on attendee states to include language for a fossil fuel phaseout in the final COP28 agreement, saying that a “phase down and phase out … is inevitable.” While the United States, Canada, European Union, and several African and Latin American states, as well as climate-vulnerable small island nations, have pushed for a phaseout in some form, the world’s largest emitter – China – and oil powers like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the UAE oppose these efforts.

While sixty-nine oil-producing countries have stated aims to reduce their carbon footprint to achieve “net zero” emissions, only three have any plans to halt or limit production, according to the Net Zero Tracker data consortium, which tracks nations' and others’ progress toward achieving net zero emissions objectives. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the United States is not among them. A “net zero” emissions agreement, put forth by Al Jaber and Saudi Arabia during COP28 and agreed to by a group of fifty oil and gas companies accounting for forty percent of global oil production, earned sharp criticism from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for failing to include a pledge to cut production, which the International Energy Agency says will be non-negotiable to achieve net-zero by 2050. Under the leadership of Al Jaber – who previously served on former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon's Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change – ADNOC set out in 2016 to increase its oil output by two-thirds by 2030. Given that Al Jaber and other fossil fuel advocates have insisted a successful energy transition will require the participation of such companies, the disappointing outcome casts further doubt on their commitments to substantially altering existing business models.

UN Climate Change has found the international community’s current collective national reduction goals insufficient to prevent the Earth from warming by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030. During the conference, many Global South leaders challenged countries in the Global North over the latter’s outsized contributions to climate-changing emissions. These leaders reiterated historical arguments that the Global North, which has benefited economically from industrialization driven by the burning of fossil fuels, bears a particular responsibility to support countries whose environments, infrastructure, and economic potential are most vulnerable to climate change. Following the creation of a “Loss and Damage Fund” designed to help lower-income countries better respond to climate disasters, the prime minister of Barbados – who has become a leading voice for re-tooling the global financial system to support climate-vulnerable countries – said that "the progress” made thus far “does nothing but assuage consciences.” A recent report by the UN Environment Programme found that Global North countries had reduced the amount of climate aid allocated to developing countries between 2020 and 2021, though the report states that this does not necessarily reflect a trend but rather points to funding fluctuations driven by “non-climate-related events such as COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine.” Nonetheless, efforts by diplomats like U.S. climate envoy John Kerry to use private sector financing to support these efforts suggest a lack of confidence in national governments’ willingness and/or capability to rise to the challenge alone. In 2021, Kerry flatly stated that “no government is going to solve this problem.… [T]he solution is going to come from the private sector.” UAE President Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan used the conference to make a $30 billion Emirati contribution pledge to a new climate fund driven by private sector investment, which aims to attract $250 billion in additional investment by the end of the decade and will be chaired by Al Jaber. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom under the government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, have been recently seen shirking existing climate commitments.

Middle Eastern geopolitics played out at the conference, as well. In a sign of the Emiratis’ continued efforts to re-integrate him into global affairs, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was invited to participate in the conference, though he ultimately did not attend. Other Middle Eastern leaders used their platforms at COP28 to highlight the plight of Palestinians in Gaza. Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Iraq’s President Abdul Latif Rashid spoke in support of the Palestinian people, while Turkish President Recep Erdogan described Israeli operations underway as a “war crime.” The conference thus far has produced several announcements regarding climate financing, renewable energy initiatives, and food system-based emissions reductions. 118 countries pledged to triple global renewable energy capacity by the end of the decade, and over twenty countries said they would triple their nuclear energy capacity by 2050. However, climate-vulnerable countries have stated that such goals are insufficient if not accompanied by pledges to scale back emissions-heavy fossil fuel use. 2023 is expected to be the hottest year on record, a trend that impacts international security by fueling conflict and as a threat multiplier. Competition over depleting water resources has produced violent conflicts between farmers and herders in the Sahel as well as between Iran and the Taliban government of Afghanistan, and a simmering international dispute between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over the latter’s hydroelectric dam project.