As leaders from nearly every nation on the planet gather on Thursday in the United Arab Emirates to confront global warming, many are carrying a sense of disillusionment into the annual climate summit convened by the United Nations.
Countries talk about the need to cut the pollution that is dangerously heating the planet, but emissions are reaching record highs this year. Rich countries have pledged to help poor countries transition away from coal, oil and gas, but have largely failed to fulfill their promises for financial aid. After 27 years of meetings, countries still can’t agree to stop burning fossil fuels, which scientists say is the main driver of climate change.
And this year, the hottest year in recorded history, the talks known as COP28 are being hosted by a country that is ramping up its production of oil and has been accused of using its position as facilitator of the summit to strike oil and gas deals on the sidelines.
“There is skepticism of this COP — where it is and who is running it,” said Ani Dasgupta, president of the World Resources Institute, a research organization.
Certainly, progress has been made since 2015, when nations signed a watershed agreement in Paris to work to limit global warming to relatively safe levels. The United States, the countries of the European Union and other nations have reduced their emissions while increasing renewable energy, particularly when it comes to transportation and electricity. Global investment in new solar and wind energy projects soared to record levels in 2023.
But the United States is also producing a record amount of crude oil and was the world’s leading exporter of natural gas in the first six months of 2023. And while China has led the world in electric vehicle adoption and is investing heavily in renewable electricity, it is also building new coal-fired power plants as its emissions continue to rise.
The science is clear, researchers say: nations must sharply cut greenhouse gases this decade to avoid the most catastrophic impacts from climate change. The warning signs are all around. Extreme weather is ravaging every continent. Biodiversity is collapsing and glaciers are melting. Billion dollar disasters are occurring regularly.
“The world is watching,” a group of more than 650 scientists wrote in a Nov. 14 letter sent to President Biden by the Union of Concerned Scientists. “This is a crucial moment for the United States to join with other world leaders and demonstrate genuine progress toward solving a crisis that is rapidly spiraling out of control.”
Part of the challenge is the design of the U.N. climate summits, where every country must sign off on an agreement, just one nation can sink a deal, and none of it is legally binding.
“We’ve had COPs for how many years now?” said Avinash Persaud, a climate adviser for Barbados. “If people had been compelled to act at COP1 or COP2 or COP15, we would have had a different world.”
Much of the progress in the fight against climate change has occurred outside the United Nations summits. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, the largest climate law ever enacted in the United States, was the product of domestic politics, not a U.N. agreement. Europe’s rapid build-out of wind and solar power is being driven by the war in Ukraine and efforts to abandon Russian oil and gas.
Still, the COP process is the only vehicle where diplomats, corporate chiefs, princes and presidents come together to focus on a planetary crisis.
“This is probably the best format to discuss these types of global issues,” said John Miller, an analyst who covers environmental policy for TD Cowen, the investment bank. “There is progress at these events, but it’s at a pace that’s likely to disappoint. That’s not to say that the whole thing is a farce.”
This year, tensions are especially acute between the plodding pace of forward motion and the need to pivot more quickly away from fossil fuels.
The United Arab Emirates, the host country, is one of the world’s largest oil producers. And the man presiding over the event, Sultan Al Jaber, happens to be the head of Adnoc, the state-owned company that supplies 3 percent of the world’s oil. He also runs the much smaller state-owned renewables company, Masdar.
Some activists contend that the U.A.E.’s role as host, and Mr. Al Jaber’s twin roles as oil executive and COP28 president, compromise the credibility of the conference. In the spring, more than 100 members of the U.S. Congress and European Parliament called for Mr. Al Jaber to be removed from the COP presidency, a position that rotates among countries each year.
“They went too far in naming the C.E.O. of one of the largest — and by many measures one of the dirtiest — oil companies on the planet as the president of the U.N. Conference on Climate this year,” former vice president Al Gore said in an interview.
An internal document obtained by the Centre for Climate Reporting and the BBC and made public this week showed that U.A.E.’s climate negotiators were given guidance to discuss the country’s oil projects with representatives from other nations during COP28 meetings.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Al Jaber dismissed the allegations as “false, not true, incorrect and not accurate. I promise you never ever did I see these talking points that they refer to or that I ever even used such talking points in my discussions.”
Adding to the grievances are the unmet promises made last year at COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Wealthy countries agreed to create a fund to compensate poor countries for destruction from climate disasters. But progress has been painstakingly slow. There has also been scant progress on efforts to overhaul the lending practices of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — which critics say can trap poor countries in a cycle of debt and disaster.
This has left many developing countries mistrustful of the COP talks.
“They’re bearing the consequences of climate change, which they did not create,” said Mariana Mazzucato, an economist at University College London who is working to reform climate finance.
In Dubai, leaders are expected to discuss their progress, or lack thereof, in limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold beyond which scientists say that humans will have trouble adapting to intensifying wildfires, heat waves, drought and storms. In 2015 at the summit in Paris, countries agreed to cut emissions from burning coal, oil and gas to keep global warming “well below 2 degrees Celsius” and ideally no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The planet has already warmed an average of 1.2 degrees Celsius.
Negotiators are hoping to ratify the details of the loss and damage fund for poor countries, set new goals for reducing emissions and agree to better limit methane, a greenhouse gas that is 80 times as potent in the short term than carbon dioxide.
Recent developments offer a flicker of hope. Two weeks ago, the U.S. and China, the world’s two biggest polluters, agreed to accelerate efforts to ramp up renewables to displace fossil fuels, although they didn’t provide a timeline or other details. And rich countries may have finally met a pledge to provide $100 billion per year to help developing countries adapt to climate change, albeit four years late, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said this month.
Saleemul Huq was a Bangladeshi scientist who had attended every COP since the inaugural event in Berlin in 1995. Mr. Huq had helped propel the idea that wealthy countries should help poor countries recover from climate disasters from a moral concept to a political reality.
But Mr. Huq was still waiting for progress on that front when he died in October at age 71.
In an editorial published posthumously, Mr. Huq called on global leaders to redouble their efforts in Dubai.
“As the world prepares for COP28, the onus is on global leaders, corporations and individuals to rise to the occasion and champion the cause of climate justice,” he wrote, along with co-author Farhana Sultana. “Wealthy nations must start putting real funding towards loss and damage, while ramping up their mitigation and adaptation efforts, and reining in the influence of the fossil fuel industry in climate policies. The future of our planet depends on it.”