We need decisive climate action, can COP28 deliver?

Karim Elgendy

On March 20, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its synthesis report, a summary of seven years of climate science, that once again emphasised the grave threat humanity faces from climate change. The report concludes that even with the most ambitious greenhouse gas emission reductions, global warming is expected to overshoot the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit set by the Paris Agreement as early as 2030. Temperature increases are expected to reach 1.6C, before falling back below the critical threshold. For this “best case” scenario to take place global emissions must peak by 2025, drop by at least 43 percent by 2030, and reach net zero carbon by the middle of the century.
Yet, we cannot achieve this goal with the current policies we have in place at the national and international levels. In fact, if we do not radically change our approach to the climate crisis, we are on track for a 2.8C increase by the end of the century. On this trajectory, we will not only see increased frequency and severity of heatwaves, droughts and other extreme weather events but will also risk dangerous runaway climate change. To avoid climate chaos, the world urgently needs to scale up climate action. The upcoming 28th United Nations Conference of Parties (COP28), which will take place in Dubai in December, offers perhaps one of the last opportunities to do that.
There are several issues on the agenda of the two-week summit, including a review of the Paris Agreement, an agreement on a global goal for climate adaptation, and the establishment of a finance facility for loss and damage due to climate change. But COP28 has the potential to achieve even more than that; it can become a watershed where COP meetings transition from multilateral negotiations to bold decision-making to advance climate action. This promise could only be fulfilled if COP28 avoids getting mired in a debate over the role of fossil fuels in the global energy transition that leads to another impasse over a phaseout.
As the COP28 host, the United Arab Emirates can play a major role in steering the outcome of the conference towards a breakthrough that charts a new way forward. Some have questioned whether a major oil exporter can lead the way in climate negotiations with the urgency they deserve. But a quick look at the Emirati climate policies can perhaps provide more context and clarity.
The UAE has pursued an unorthodox approach of fully decarbonising and diversifying its economy while exporting every drop of oil it can. It has also aimed to shift its domestic energy mix towards renewable and nuclear energy sources, which conveniently releases more oil for export. Export revenues, in turn, are to be channelled towards funding the economic transition, including investments in renewable energy projects around the world. The UAE is voluntarily targeting carbon neutrality by 2050 ? in addition to making a modest carbon reduction commitment under the Paris Agreement. Yet simultaneously, its Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) is working to increase its production capacity by another 19 percent by 2027. It argues that it should be one of the last-standing producers since its production has one of the lowest costs and carbon footprints. This paradox is best captured by the UAE’s choice of Sultan Al Jaber to preside over COP28. While being a bona fide climate pioneer and the chairman of the UAE’s renewable energy investment company, Masdar, Dr Al Jaber is also the current head of ADNOC.
Yet, there is nothing in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to suggest that such an unorthodox approach is in breach of the UAE’s responsibilities as a signatory. Despite their exceptionally high emissions per capita, the UAE and its regional neighbours are considered developing countries bearing little responsibility for historic emissions. The UNFCCC’s recognition of different national responsibilities for climate change and capacities for action allows developing countries to make modest emission reduction commitments in recognition of their need for economic development. The fact that the UAE is a major oil producer makes little difference, as fossil fuels are considered traded goods and their emissions are accounted for where they are burned. In approaching its COP presidency, however, the UAE can go beyond its responsibilities as a UNFCCC signatory and demonstrate that it is a climate pioneer. Implementing the goals of the Paris Agreement requires leadership that addresses challenges impartially and delivers breakthroughs to unlock climate action.
The UAE can and must use its growing diplomacy and financial firepower to drive decarbonisation and strengthen emissions reduction targets globally ahead of the summit. It can also leverage its influence in the Middle East not just to raise awareness of climate change impacts but also to catalyse regional climate collaboration. It should also not shy away from tackling the issue of fossil fuel phaseouts. The latest IPCC Assessment Report concludes that 47 percent of human-related CO2 emissions are caused by oil and gas. The Synthesis Report notes that future emissions from existing fossil fuel infrastructure already exceed the remaining carbon budget for limiting warming to 1.5C and casts doubt on emerging technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, being able to reduce CO2 levels. At COP27, 80 nations called for phasing out fossil fuels. If these demands are repeated in Dubai, they must be considered for the summit’s final decision. The COP hosts could use their convening power to lead a voluntary coalition on halting new oil and gas explorations in line with the IPCC’s and the International Energy Agency’s recommendations.
The UAE and COP28 participants must also avoid repeating the mistakes of previous COPs. The last thing the climate crisis needs is another round of negotiations where climate ambitions are dragged down by narrow national interests. The time left to halt dangerous climate change is rapidly running out. The decisions we make this decade will determine the future of humanity. Our response to this historic responsibility demands that we rise to the occasion with a bolder energy transition and redoubled efforts, not half measures and promises of future technologies. COP28 can be the venue where the world decides to follow the science and accelerate climate action.