More than 70,000 politicians, diplomats, campaigners, financiers and business leaders will fly to Dubai to talk about arresting the world’s slide toward environmental catastrophe.

The need for progress has never been more urgent: 2023 will almost certainly be the hottest year on record, greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, and promises to cut pollution remain insufficient to take the risk of unmanageable warming off the table. At the same time, rapid inflation and global instability — including wars in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip — have scrambled the politics and economics of the energy transition.

"This is a very sobering, even somber moment as world leaders gather," said Rachel Cleetus, policy director with the climate program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Massachusetts. "That said, there's a real opportunity in the climate space to secure some wins."

The responsibility for making a breakthrough lies with COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber. To many in the climate community his leadership of the talks is tarnished by his role as chief executive officer of Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., one of the world’s largest oil producers. A report this week alleged he was prepared to use his COP role to promote Adnoc’s interests.

For his part, Al Jaber has publicly said he saw this COP as an opportunity to co-opt the fossil fuel industry into tackling emissions. One of the star announcements is expected to be a pledge by the global oil and gas sector to eliminate emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, by 2030. While the deal won’t have legal force, it’s one of several signs that progress can be made in the United Arab Emirates this December.

At least 150 countries and 25 national and international oil companies have signed the pledge, Adnan Amin, chief executive of COP28, said in an interview. His aim is to get 50% of methane emissions covered by the commitment.

"These are very, very significant companies and countries and if we are able to really attack the methane issue here, that gives us substantial emission reductions of probably the most dangerous greenhouse gas,” Amin said, talking up prospects for this year’s summit.

Perhaps the most positive development so far has been the improved diplomatic mood between the U.S. and China. The world's top two polluters agreed earlier this month to publish more expansive emissions-cutting pledges and back a target to triple renewable energy. That goal now appears likely to make it into the final COP document.

Sultan Al Jaber, the COP28 president and CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., at the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference in October
Sultan Al Jaber, the COP28 president and CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., at the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference in October | Bloomberg

It's a renewal of climate collaboration between the geopolitical rivals that bodes well for the summit. Past agreements between Washington and Beijing in 2014 and 2021 helped pave the way for landmark texts at earlier COPs.

Beyond a deal on methane and expanding renewables, other key areas for the talks are a potential commitment to phase out fossil fuels, progress on securing more climate cash for the developing world and the first formal stocktake of the world’s progress fighting climate change since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015.

Fossil fuels

The China-U.S. statement does not explicitly call for the phase-out of all fossil fuels, a key demand of a group of European nations and Pacific island states known as the High Ambition Coalition. A similar push to embed that language in the agreement at COP27 in Egypt's Sharm El-Sheikh failed last year. It's likely to become a battleground in Dubai.

China's climate envoy Xie Zhenhua said in September that targeting the phase-out of all fossil fuels is "unrealistic." Meanwhile, a growing chorus of voices led by developing nations are calling for a broader energy package that ties the goal to funding.

Diplomats are trying to find wording that's less polarizing, and that sends the right signal, according to a senior official at the U.S. State Department.

A final deal on fossil fuels could ultimately be caveated by words calling for an "orderly,” "just” or "responsible” transition and the use of carbon capture and storage technologies.

"Over the last two COPs it's been hard to move the needle on the consensus,” said Amin. ”We are very open and very supportive to finding new solutions on the language that advance the cause, that advance the ambition on fossil fuels and the responsible phase down on fossil fuels.”

Climate finance

Money will be central to the debate in Dubai. Wealthy nations likely met their long-overdue goal of mobilizing $100 billion annually to help poor countries tackle the worst impacts of climate change and pay for clean energy. But that figure is just a drop in the ocean. Developing countries will need $2.4 trillion per year by 2030 from a combination of governments and the private sector, according to the latest estimates.

Climate activists dressed as CEOs of major oil companies take part in a fake banquet celebrating profits — part of a call on states taking part in COP28 to finance a
Climate activists dressed as CEOs of major oil companies take part in a fake banquet celebrating profits — part of a call on states taking part in COP28 to finance a "loss and damage" fund by taxing fossil fuel profits — near the Eiffel Tower in Paris on Monday. | REUTERS

"The failure of developed countries to deliver the promised $100 billion has been a point of tension for a long time," said Mohammed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa. "To rebuild trust, it will be important for us to actually see developed countries participate in that process and transparently report on the delivery of that promise."

In the first days of the summit, the UAE government is expected to announce a $25 billion fund to spur clean energy investments. In addition, there will be a portion of below market rate concessional finance to help developing countries boost investments in climate action. However, the details are yet to be agreed, according to people familiar with the matter.

Just weeks before the summit, climate negotiators agreed on a framework for the operation of a fund meant to help vulnerable nations deal with the loss and damage they are experiencing as a result of increasingly turbulent weather. The fund is on track to start disbursing money at the start of next year, said Steven Guilbeault, Canada's minister of environment and climate change.

Progress in setting up that fund "goes a long way in helping build the necessary momentum we will need to deliver a successful outcome in Dubai," he told reporters in a Nov. 16 briefing.

The stocktake

Under the Paris Agreement signed in 2015, countries need to hold an official stocktake this year to evaluate the progress in meeting their target to hold warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. They also need to set rules for the next round of emissions pledges they have to submit in 2025.

Scientific consensus states that global greenhouse gas emissions should halve by 2030 and reach net zero by midcentury. Coal, oil and gas production should be cut from 80% of the global energy supply today to just 20% by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency's net zero roadmap.

"If we don’t halve global emissions in these six years, the 1.5 C goal will be incredibly difficult to achieve — and the requirements on the loss and damage fund will be extraordinary," said Jennifer Morgan, Germany's climate envoy. "There's so much at stake."

The U.N. estimates global temperatures will rise as much as 2.8 C by the end of this century, meaning that overshoot of the 1.5 C goal is inevitable under current commitments to cut emissions. While the stocktake is an incredibly technical exercise, what comes out of it will determine the course of global climate policy for the rest of the decade.

China's climate envoy Xie Zhenhua at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt
China's climate envoy Xie Zhenhua at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt | Bloomberg

"The stocktake of what's happened since Paris has to be clear and blunt regarding how we need to update our national commitments," Spain's Environmental Transition Minister Teresa Ribera said. COP28 will fail if countries don't send a strong signal to the public and to investors that they are aligned and committed to cutting emissions, she said.

Amin, the COP CEO, agreed that the fact this year’s COP will include the biggest ever stocktake process lent the summit added weight.

"There's a potentially historic character to this COP because it's the first ever global stocktake on the progress of the Paris Agreement,” he said. "We are hoping for an ambitious forward-looking part to the agreement."

The outcome

If Al Jaber secures deals on methane, renewables and language on fossil fuels, Dubai will likely be considered a successful COP and validate his view that the coalition fighting climate change should be as broad as possible.

But as COPs grow and grow, attracting thousands of people with little or no involvement in the diplomatic process, others argue they risk becoming a bloated embarrassment.

The intermingling of COP and business was given prominence just days before it started. The BBC reported Al Jaber’s team planned to lobby on oil and gas matters during climate meetings with foreign governments this year, citing leaked internal records. (The presidency says the documents are inaccurate and weren’t used in meetings.)

"What's going to take place in Dubai is essentially ‘Climate Expo 2023,'” said Robert Stavins, a professor of energy and economic development at Harvard University who has been following the U.N.-sponsored process since its inception three decades ago. "It's like Davos.”

And while previous COPs, especially Paris, have had real-world impacts, the diplomatic process itself can be divorced from the real word.

COP meetings are known for all-night quarrels between diplomats and climate bureaucrats over commas and prepositions. Negotiators risk losing focus of the real issues at stake when they spend so much time and effort debating over, for example, the subtle differences between phasing out or down fossil fuels, said David Victor, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"They are shiny objects that people in the diplomatic world get excited about," Victor said. "They're largely irrelevant to the real world."

The deadweight of COP diplomacy, which relies on unanimity for agreement, is made all too clear by the fight over where next year’s summit will be held. Traditionally, the presidency rotates between the world's regions and it would be Eastern Europe's turn to hold COP29.

But reaching a unanimous decision between all of the region's members — which include Russia and Ukraine — is proving impossible. Russia has vowed to veto any EU members, leaving Azerbaijan as a potential candidate — but that's likely to be rejected by Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The UAE and Al Jaber are very reluctant to host and preside for a second year in a row, according to people familiar with the matter.

On similar occasions in the past, COPs have been held in Bonn, Germany, home to the headquarters of the U.N.'s Framework Convention on Climate Change. But the growing size of climate meetings have led the Germans to politely decline to host a full COP, the people say.

"This should be a straightforward thing," Cleetus said. "Disagreements about simple things like this are a sign of how sharp the geopolitics are now, when even straightforward things like hosting a COP end up being political football."