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The Dubai Paradox: COP28 at a Climate Crossroads

Disclaimer: This article was written on 06/12/2023 and does not consider any later events.


This year’s Conference of the Parties, COP28, is special in many ways. Expected to conclude the first-ever Global Stocktake, a reality check on the chances of reaching the 2°C goal, for many, it promises to be the most influential COP since Paris 2015. But set in Dubai, the paradise of fossil fuels, and led by none other than the CEO of Adnoc, one of the world’s biggest oil producers, COP28 has attracted a lot of controversy and finds itself on the brink of becoming just another COP that disappoints the hopes that people put in it. Inaugurated on the 30th of November, there are quite a few missed opportunities, but even more so - surprisingly significant successes. So what is happening in Dubai, and might the oil hub become the scene of a new hope for climate action?


COP28 - Great Potential for Climate Action?

The annual Conferences of the Parties (COPs) represent the largest international effort in the goal of preventing life-threatening climate change, defined as global warming beyond 2°C. Every year, the COP stages a big spectacle, with hundreds of thousands of climate activists, corporate executives, and heads of government attending from all over the world. However, COPs often don’t manage to live up to the expectations and hopes they carry. Two weeks of negotiation, protest, and press conferences usually lead to very little results. It seems like the collective vision of a sustainable and just future gradually turns into a platform for self-portrayal, marketing, and political and economic benefits. And the annual COPs turn more and more into a symbol of failed climate action and missed opportunities for a sustainable future. 

Even though recent COPs have a rather disappointing record, past climate summits represented the silver lining in the fight against climate change. COP21, set in Paris in 2015, undeniably records the biggest success up-to-date, finalising the Paris Agreement that documents an international effort to stay below 2°C of global warming. But since then, not a lot has happened to actually reach that goal - the latest Emission Gap Report instead presents an estimate of about 3°C warming based on current climate policies. The world very much deviated from the way to Paris, and a radical and abrupt change of direction is necessary to get back on track. But on the bright side: The odds are that the world’s leaders will realise in the coming days. This is because COP28, taking place from the 30th of November until the 12th of December 2023, will host the first-ever Global Stocktake: teh climate policies since Paris 2015 will be scrutinised, and their chances of reaching the 2°C goal will be evaluated.

There is one obvious conclusion to be drawn here, and if it is, COP28 could become an important milestone in the fight against climate change. We are talking about something that climate science has been demanding for a long time, but that remains controversial in the political sphere - the decision to phase out fossil fuels, immediately and rapidly. If, in the wake of a year full of natural disasters and record temperatures, the Global Stocktake leads to significant climate action, this could restore faith in the Paris Agreement and restore the credibility of the annual climate summits. COP28’s success will be largely determined by whether or not, and in which context the words phase out will be pronounced - whether the Global Stocktake will lead countries to course-correct their climate policies on the way to the Paris Agreement.

COP28 and its Inherent Irony

In the run-up to the climate summit, however, doubt about the success of COP28 arose. Being set in Dubai, the biggest city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the world’s fossil fuel stronghold, the climate summit is burdened with an inherent irony. As the cherry on top, the presidency belongs to none other than Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (short Adnoc), the UAE’s biggest energy group and one of the world’s biggest producers of fossil fuels. Talk about getting right to the root of the problem. Al Jaber, however, has his own interpretations of phasing out fossil fuels. In an interview with the Guardian leading up to the summit, the president preferred to use the words phasing down - only a small difference linguistically, but a big drawback in terms of climate action. And then, not long after, during a live event, Al Jaber drew media attention once more, stating that there is no science supporting the claim that a phase-out of fossil fuel will reach the goals set in the Paris Agreement. 

Since of course, climate science has said exactly that for the last 20 years, this begs the question whether Al Jaber’s position in the oil business might stand in conflict with the goals of a climate summit. And even though Al Jaber later pledged his trust in science and ensured that his statements were misinterpreted, right before the opening of COP28 it turned out that there exists, in fact, a conflict of interest. Leaked documents by the BBC show how the UAE planned to turn the climate talks into oil talks. The documents were briefing Al Jaber on meetings with different heads of state, and one or another Adnoc section sneaked into the different talking points one would suspect to find at an international climate summit. According to the documents, Al Jaber was going to seize the opportunity of having all those international trade partners present at once and try to close oil deals with countries such as China, Brazil, and Germany. The UAE publicly denied the allegations, but the accumulation of controversy around Al Jaber’s persona leaves a bitter aftertaste. 

COP28 - Halftime Analysis

COP28 is now at halftime. And despite the growing voices of doubt, the first week records quite a lot of success. Starting off strong, decision-makers reached a breakthrough on the Loss and Damage Fund on the first day. The idea of a fund for countries that are experiencing losses as a result of changes in the climate has been discussed for a while already, but the decision was stalled throughout the last climate summits. Being adopted on day one of COP28 is not only a significant step towards climate justice and improved climate adaptation, but it also proves a certain determination and focus. Likewise, the participating parties adopted the agenda within the first hour after the climate summit’s kick-off. This is quite unusual as COPs are generally criticised for their inefficiency - too many different parties with too many different interests lead to too much negotiation and too few results. This unity and determination might be the most unexpected twist in the course of a COP that has been coined by controversy and divides long before its commencement, and it provides a much-needed ray of hope that COP28 will live up to its potential and entail an international effort for significant climate action. 

And finally, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was the first to pledge the notorious words climate activists had been waiting for. "We must now all show a firm determination to phase out fossil fuels - first and foremost coal. We can set sail for this at this climate conference" said Scholz in a speech on Saturday.  What sounds banal (haven’t we been talking about this forever?) is very strong rhetoric for COP-standards, and determinedly contributes to what hopefully will be COP28’s end product, an agreement on a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels. It is a veritable Dubai-Paradox: COP28 set in an international oil hub is approaching a crossroads to new and increased climate action. It is now up to the second half to put rhetoric into action and show whether or not COP28 can achieve a win in the fight against climate change. 

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