After a year of anticipation and planning, following the conclusion of the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (27th Conference of the Parties, COP27) in Egypt, COP28 finally commenced in Dubai at the end of November 2023 and continued through the first half of December. This was a critical COP for a number of reasons: It was the culmination of a two-year process to complete the current global stocktake that began at COP26 in Glasgow, and comes on the heels of pledges and commitments to enhance climate financing, most prominently as part of the agreement for a loss and damage fund at COP27. Additionally, COP28 took place at the end of an unprecedently warm year, now officially the warmest on record. This further underscored the urgency of making substantial strides at COP28 towards bending the curve for future global warming increases through meaningful climate mitigation action, as the rate and magnitude of climate change shifts to an alarming and accelerated trajectory. The following are my observations and thoughts on COP28, as an attendee of the conference.
Largest COP to date
Logistically, COP28 was a massive undertaking, in all respects. Shifting the venue from Abu Dhabi to Dubai allowed the United Arab Emirates to host the conference at Expo City Dubai, taking advantage of the existing and expansive facilities covering over 1,000 acres and avoiding the cost of new construction and infrastructure to accommodate the large number of participants. This was an excellent decision in hindsight considering there were nearly 84,000 registered attendees, making COP28 the biggest COP to date in terms of attendance.
However, this expanded scale was not without its drawbacks. The sheer number of official events, meetings, side events, activities, and workshops was overwhelming, making it nearly impossible to fully engage and attend most events of a particular thematic track. The size of the venue also influenced decisions about which events to attend or participate in, especially if the travel distance was great, even within a single zone (Blue or Green, segregated based on accreditation). Factoring in an unusually hot November/December in Dubai (due to the exceptional global warming of 2023) also meant that many attendees, myself included, opted to judiciously determine how they moved around COP28, in an effort to avoid heat exhaustion.
UAE delivers on climate funding
As host of COP28, the UAE wasted no time on delivering big news on day one: The loss and damage fund, which was agreed upon at the conclusion of COP27, was now formally adopted. This announcement was not a complete surprise, considering that the transitional committee tasked with developing the fund had reached a consensus prior to COP28 on having it managed by the World Bank, on an interim basis. However, it is rare for COP announcements of this scale to occur right at the beginning of the conference. But the UAE did not stop there, as it immediately followed this declaration by pledging $100 million to the fund, which prompted other delegate nations to also commit corresponding contributions (including $100 million from Germany and an underwhelming $17.5 million from the US, pending congressional approval).
Throughout the remainder of the conference, the UAE continued to commit financial pledges for various climate financing efforts, such as its $200 million pledge to the International Monetary Fund’s Resilience and Sustainability Trust to fund climate resilience in developing countries. But the most significant contribution, following the loss and damage fund commitment, was the UAE’s $30 billion investment towards a climate fund intended to mobilize $250 billion by 2030 to help finance climate initiatives. This new private climate investment fund, dubbed ALTÉRRA, will be managed by Lunate, an Abu Dhabi-based asset manager, with at least $5 billion of the fund dedicated to investments in climate projects in the Global South. Overall, it was clear that the UAE fully leveraged its significant financial resources to provide the climate funding and financing needed for future climate mitigation and adaptation.
Climate and peace activism
Though certain restrictions were placed on where, how, and what activists could protest at COP28, it did not curb the presence of demonstrations by activists around the conference venue and throughout the duration of the event. The largest protest took place during the latter part of COP28, bringing together activists rallying behind different causes to unite and march across the Blue Zone to voice their demands. Through their signs and chants the activists clearly and loudly elevated two primary issues, calling for a ceasefire in the war on Gaza and an end to the production of fossil fuels. It was quite an impressive spectacle to behold, only potentially matched by the momentary disruption of the high-level United Nations plenary session during the final negotiations phase of COP28 by a young activist from India, desperately imploring negotiators and delegates to put an end to fossil fuels.
The debate on fossil fuels
Similar to the two previous COPs, much of the scrutiny was placed on the final agreement coming out of the conference. With the last two days of COP28 officially dedicated to the final negotiations, discussions on the lead up to the final agreement had a huge emphasis on the language used pertaining to the future of fossil fuels. After considerable negotiation between delegates, the final text of the agreement called for a transition away from fossil fuels. This outcome was met with mixed reactions, as many (including delegates from small island nations that are highly vulnerable to sea-level rise effects of climate change) had hoped for more aggressive language on the complete phase out of fossil fuels. On the other hand, it is important to note that this was the first time that a commitment to reducing fossil fuels was captured within the text of a COP agreement. And while this compromise will not prove satisfying to most, it is ultimately language meant to signal intention, which will mean nothing if that intention is not translated into action and results.
Looking towards COP29
Uncertainty over COP29 was finally resolved when it was announced that Azerbaijan would host the conference in Baku. This followed a long stalemate over where the conference would be held in Eastern Europe, the region set to play host following the UN’s standard rotation, after Russia blocked any European Union country from doing so, while Azerbaijan and Armenia blocked each other’s bids (Armenia later retracted its bid). While this spells relief from a logistical planning perspective for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Azerbaijan is already facing criticisms regarding its economic reliance on fossil fuels (with intentions to ramp up fossil fuel production) and the selection of an all-male COP29 organizing committee that includes fossil fuel executives. This is notwithstanding the shortened planning window Azerbaijan now has to prepare for COP29 due to the delay in securing hosting status. Until COP29 kicks off in Baku, the COP presidency remains in the hands of the UAE, thus giving Abu Dhabi an opportunity to help push the progress achieved under its purview as host nation of COP28 a little bit closer to implementation.
Mohammed Mahmoud is the Director of the Climate and Water Program and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
Photo by KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images
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