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  • Writer's pictureGian Maria Bordin

Between Prosperity and Publicity - A Retrospective on COP28

A month ago, the 28th annual Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) wrapped up in the city of Dubai. 84’000 diplomats – including 154 heads of states and governments –, business representatives, environmental groups and media have returned home. The petromonarchy of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), whose presidency was subject to much criticism beforehand, had been under a lot of pressure to deliver on a memorable conference, breaking the spell of rather mediocre results achieved in past issues of COP. This article thus strives to offer an overview, a stocktake so to speak, on COP28, its achievements, and the stories surrounding it. It will also look forward, to the future and the COP29, which will take place in Baku, Azerbaijan, end of 2024.

As already mentioned, the host country of the United Arab Emirates was criticised rather harshly in the months before the official opening of the conference on November 30th, 2023. Media, climate experts and non-governmental organisations questioned the UAE’s commitment to phasing out fossil energy sources such as oil and gas, as oil still makes up for roughly 30% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. Would a country really risk its national prosperity and push for the fastest-possible phase-out, as humanity arguably needs it to reach the climate change goals set by the international community in previous years? Would it be committed enough to reach for standards such as the famous 1,5°C the planet is allowed to heat up before man-made climate change cannot be reversed anymore? One could argue the Emirates would have a strong incentive to slow down said phase-out to get as much monetary and political benefit out of the world’s dependence on their oil as possible before pushing for developing a more sustainable economy. Furthermore, the critics felt validated, when the UAE did not name Mariam Almheiri, Minister of Climate Change and the Environment, but Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber as President of the COP28 and the country’s Special Envoy for Climate Change. Next to his role as Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology, Dr. Al Jaber also holds pivotal jobs in the country’s energy sector – renewable and non-renewable: He is CEO of Abu Dhabi’s national oil company ADNOC as well as chairman of the state-owned renewable energy company Masdar.- His appointment as President of the COP 28 was a strong statement and symbolic for the Emirates’ approach to the topic of climate change: the energy transition is necessary but cannot happen without fossil fuels.

While the internal process leading to Al Jaber’s nomination as President of COP28 over Mariam Almheiri is difficult to retrace, the UAE very early on positioned the decision as a deliberate inclusion of the non-renewable energy sector, linking the sector’s commitment to the success of future efforts in combatting climate change, and its wealth to important processes such as the “Loss and Damages” Fund[1]. Precisely because the oil and gas industry is the biggest contributor to pollution, the UAE argued, it cannot be excluded from the process of mitigation. This narrative led to the appeasement of one group of critics, however, another very loud group was still on the fence, as could be seen by the backlash Al Jaber got by the European public and media when attending the Bonn Conference in June. For example, posters could be seen with Al Jaber standing in front of a burning landscape, with the COP-logo faint in the background.[2] So, did the UAE deliver on their promise on a positive integration of the industry, leading to the amplification of climate change combat in the sector?

Only days before the launch of the conference, news broke that a memo had gotten leaked, stating that the UAE planned to use its role as host-country to strike oil and gas deals. As the BBC reported, the COP28 team prepared speaking notes for bilateral meetings with countries such as China, Colombia, Germany, and Egypt, suggesting the UAE’s willingness to work with these respective countries to developing fossil fuel projects. Confronted with the documents, the team did not deny using COP28 meetings for business talks and stated that “private meetings are private”[3]. These reports further agitated critical voices questioning the ability of Al Jaber to separate his role as President of COP28 from his private sector roles, acting without bias and self-interest, as expected by the UN. Additionally, investigations by the “Kick Big Polluters Out coalition” revealed that at least 2’456 individuals associated with the oil and gas industry attended the conference.[4] Compared to the previous talks in Sharm al-Sheikh, this constitutes an increase of nearly 300%, while total attendance only grew by 150%. As a group, fossil fuel industry lobbyists even provided the third-biggest group of representatives, outnumbered only by 3081 people brought by Brazil and 4409 people brought by the host, the UAE. Seeing the UAE’s narrative to include the industry to the process, this steep increase might not necessarily come as a surprise, but COP28 certainly provided a framework for both bene- and maleficient inclusion of oil and gas.

In contrast to the long list of criticism, what are the actual outcomes of the conference? 2023 marked an important year for the UN process against climate change, as it was the fifth meeting after the conclusion of the Paris Agreement in 2015. A so-called Global Stocktake took place during COP28 – an assessment where the world stands on achieving the objectives of the agreement and how shortcomings might be rectified. Accordingly, high expectations were had of the declaration traditionally endorsed by all participating countries at the end of every COP. Critics voiced their caveats after a first draft by the presidency was rejected because it failed to mention fossil fuels. Finally, a conclusive document was agreed upon by all 198 signatory countries to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change on December 13th, 2023, at 196 paragraphs long. In what follows a list of some of the most important ones:

  • Paragraph 2 underlines, that the global community is “not yet collectively on track towards achieving the purpose of the Paris Agreement and its long-term goals”[5],

  • Paragraph 3 reaffirms the Paris Agreement’s temperature goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1,5°C above pre-industrial levels”,

  • Article 6 commits to accelerate action in this decade “on the basis of the best available science”,

  • Article 11 recognizes the “specific needs and special circumstances of developing country Parties”, especially those particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change,

  • Article 15 notes that human activities have unequivocally “caused global warming of about 1,1°C” and that “adaptation responses are fragmented, incremental, sector-specific and unequally distributed across regions”,

  • Article 18 acknowledges that progress has been made to reduce expected global warming from an initial 4°C to an increase in the range of 2,1-2,8°C (and thus still alarmingly high above 1,5°C),

  • And finally, Article 28 calls on Parties to:

UN climate chief Simon Stiell called the result achieved in Dubai “a lifeline, not a finish line”[6]. It is true that after an exhausting three decades, the roadmap for the first time mentions and thus highlights the world’s leading contributors to climate change – fossil fuels. Nevertheless, precise language is important in international relations, and it is thus crucial to note, that while we “phase out” coal power, we only “transition away in a just, orderly and equitable manner” from fossil fuels. The phrasing of Paragraph 28 d) leaves a lot of room for interpretation: How fast does such a transition have to be? Who must transition away faster to make it just: The ones who need the most fuel or the ones who didn’t get to use as much as others did? Is it the producers or the consumers who must initiate the transition? And does orderly mean that countries should let the fossil fuel markets regulate themselves instead of intervening? So, while without a doubt constituting a first in the history of COP and a pivotal step in the right direction, Paragraph 28 d) also offers room for the fossil fuel industry and countries exporting fossil fuels to reap as many benefits as possible for as long as possible if need be.

Additional questions arise when we think about the transition away from fossil fuels and phase out coal. An overwhelming consensus exists that global energy consumption is going to rise at least for the next century. For example, experts estimate that until 2030, ten times as many electric cars will hit the roads compared to today. These cars usually run on huge, high-technological batteries, which have several rare-earth elements as components. So called lanthanides, but also other ores such as lithium and coltan are set to see steep increases in demand, while their mining environments are often more than problematic.

Generally speaking, an overwhelming need for alternative sources of energy arises, once the percentages of fossil fuels and coal to our energy mix diminish. As a reaction, global trends show a revalorisation of nuclear policies – with nuclear energy being seen as safe, green, and reliable.[7] Only last year, the UAE completed the final of four units of their Barakah Nuclear Power Plant, and Saudi Arabia recently announced a target of 17 GWe of nuclear capacity by 2040. Jordan also announced similar ambitions, and construction on Egypt’s El Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant are set to be terminated in 2026. Others such as Kuwait, Qatar, Tunisia, Morocco and even Yemen are currently considering the launch of respective projects. Countries are readying themselves to face the upcoming energy transition, while past doubts triggered by tragedies such as Chernobyl and Fukushima get pushed to the back. Time will tell where policy makers will set the needle for a balance of environmental, energy, and human security.

But for now, the Emirates are freed from the international spotlight. COP enabled the UAE to gain credibility on the stage of international politics, as they have proven capable to mount an outstanding event of gigantic size. The UAE was also able to position itself as an international spokesperson for a “Global South” and especially African countries, which they are tied to through countless economic, trade and environmental projects and interests. COP also forced the UAE to take positions on subjects it did not tend to express itself on. Especially during the UAE’s tenure as non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council 2022/2023, the Emirates positions were heard worldwide, if they wanted to or not. With the beginning of the new year, we can expect the UAE to take a step back from proactive communication as it was seen last year. And while the UAE steps out of the spotlight, Azerbaijan moves into it. For the third year in a row, COP will take place in one of the global Top-30 oil producing countries (Egypt 27th, UAE 7th, Azerbaijan 23rd – Brazil, host of COP30, is 9th). And on Friday, January 5th, 2024, Azerbaijan appointed Mukhtar Babayev its President-designate for COP29. Babayev is Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources – as well as a former executive of SOCAR, the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic.

Gian Maria Bordin studied History and Middle Eastern Studies in Zurich, Strasbourg, Geneva and Tel Aviv. His current research focuses on space, democracy and authoritarian resilience. Gian attended the COP28. He is living and working in Abu Dhabi.

[1] The «Loss and Damages” Fund is a dedicated fund set up by the signatories of the UNFCCC to assist countries particularly vulnerable to or affected by climate change.

[5] Outcome of the first global stocktake. Draft decision - / CMA.5. Proposal by the president, in:

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