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COP28: What is it, who's going and what are the key sticking points?

World leaders are set to meet at the UN climate summit in Dubai for the next two weeks to discuss tackling climate change

Cars pass by a billboard advertising COP28 at Sheikh Zayed highway in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. Representatives will gather at Expo City in Dubai, UAE, Nov. 30 to Dec. 12 for the 28th U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP28. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
Representatives from around the world will gather at Expo City in Dubai, UAE, for COP28. (AP)

Thousands of politicians, economists, faith leaders, activists and many others are convening in Dubai for the latest UN climate conference, COP28.

This year's event, which kicks off today, will focus on ramping up the shift to clean energy by cutting greenhouse gas emissions before 2030 in a bid to limit the impact of climate change.

But with competing priorities at play, the likelihood of consensus among the key players around the major sticking points remains in the balance.

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This year, even the location of the conference has sparked some controversy.

The UAE has invested heavily in solar and wind energies, but it also remains one of the world’s top oil-producing nations.

"It is the equivalent of appointing the CEO of a cigarette company to oversee a conference on cancer cures," said campaign group 350.org.

Sultan Al Jaber, COP28 President-Designate and UAE's Special Envoy for Climate Change, talks during the Climate Future Week at Museum of the Future in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. Climate Future Week at Museum of the Future offered a full-throated defense of his nation hosting the talks, dismissing those
COP28 president-designate and the UAE's special envoy for climate change Sultan Al Jaber has defended his country hosting the latest round of climate talks. (AP)

COP28 agenda

As in previous years, the central issues are cutting fossil fuels and the greenhouse gases driving climate change by ramping up the shift to clean energy.

COP28 aims to prioritise securing funding for climate action in less affluent countries, fostering inclusivity, and addressing diverse issues like nature, people, health, finance and food and work towards a new agreement benefiting developing nations.

Although the hope is to continue to limit global temperature rises to 1.5֯C – the world is currently on track for 2.4-2.6C of warming – and the efforts being pursued to tackle this have been described by the UN as “nowhere near ambitious enough”.

The focus will also be on how people can best use nature and land use, moving to clean energy sources and making COP28 the “most inclusive” ever.

Read more: What was Greta Thunberg charged with in the UK?

COP28 will focus on clean energy, aiming to cut greenhouse gas emissions before 2030, fostering inclusivity, and addressing issues like nature, people, health, finance, and food.
COP28 will focus on clean energy, aiming to cut greenhouse gas emissions before 2030, fostering inclusivity, and addressing issues like nature, people, health, finance, and food. (Source: COP28)

Who are the key players?

King Charles III, prime minister Rishi Sunak, and foreign secretary David Cameron will be the most high-profile UK representatives.

However, their popularity among some allies remains uncertain due to Sunak's support for North Sea oil and recent retreat on domestic net zero targets. His decision to advise against Charles attending COP27 also raised eyebrows.

The conference itself is being hosted by Sultan al Jaber – the boss of one of the world's largest oil companies, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) – and whose appointment was greeted with scepticism. He insists he wants to guide major oil and gas producers toward emission reduction goals, focusing on eliminating methane emissions by 2030.

However, the UAE this week had to fend off uncomfortable allegations from leaked documents that it planned to use meetings to promote deals for its national oil and gas companies to other countries. A COP28 spokesperson described the documents as “inaccurate”.

The absence of US president Joe Biden means climate envoy John Kerry will attempt to navigate disagreements on climate finance and broader US-China tensions.

His relationships with Al Jaber and Beijing’s Xie Zhenhua, the vice-chairman of China’s top economic development body, could shape the summit's outcomes. While viewed positively, Xie’s stance on a fossil fuel "phase-out" remains a point of contention.

Pope Francis meets Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber at the Vatican on October 11, 2023. Sultan Al Jaber is the United Arab Emirates' special envoy for climate change and the President-Designate of the COP28 climate talks. Photo by (EV) Vatican Media /ABACAPRESS.COM Credit: Abaca Press/Alamy Live News
Pope Francis, pictured here meeting Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber at the Vatican in October, will make history as the first pope to attend the global climate summit at this year's COP28. (Abaca Press/Alamy Live News)

Russia, a major carbon polluter with a recent climate pledge aiming for net zero by 2060, will be represented by Vladimir Putin’s climate adviser, Ruslan Edelgeriyev.

Saudi Arabia’s stance on oil, gas, and coal will also likely pose challenges. Chief negotiator Khalid al-Mehaid will defend fossil fuels with a focus on reducing pollution, transitioning to renewables.

At the other end of the spectrum, the UN climate chief Simon Stiell, from Grenada, balances the interests of nearly 200 nations, seeking difficult answers and clear targets for climate action.

Representing the least-developed countries, Madeleine Diouf Sarr, head of the climate change division in Senegal’s Ministry of Environment will prioritise clear targets for adaptation and financial support amid growing concerns of the disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable nations.

Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates arrives for a bipartisan Artificial Intelligence (AI) Insight Forum for all U.S. senators hosted by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., September 13, 2023. REUTERS/Leah Millis
The presence of philanthropist and former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates at COP28 underscores the intersection of environmental responsibility and business. (Reuters)

And Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley, will champion climate equity, pushing for financial mechanisms benefiting vulnerable nations. Her outspoken calls for a just global financial system and debt-pause clauses have often resonated on the international stage.

Two other familiar faces include Pope Francis, who will make history as the first pope to attend the climate summit, and Bill Gates.

Gates will wear two hats at COP28: advocating for climate action through philanthropy and investing in green technologies. His presence underscores the intersection of environmental responsibility and business.

Watch: Barbados - Prime Minister Addresses United Nations General Debate, 78th Session

COP28: The sticky points

Differing views on the future of "unabated" fossil fuels, like coal, oil, and gas without emissions capture, are anticipated at COP28. While the UAE's Al Jaber calls for a gradual "phase down", the European Union is likely to advocate for a complete "phase out".

Financial issues loom, with the unclear implementation of a "loss and damage" fund from richer to poorer countries, and the US rejecting climate reparations for historical emissions.

The EU aims to lead with a groundbreaking deal to phase out "unabated" coal, oil, and gas globally, but resistance is expected from major fossil fuel producers like Saudi Arabia and developing nations reliant on fossil fuels for economic growth.

China, the US, India and Russia are the top four polluters, according to data from Statista, China was the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2021, accounting for nearly 31% of the global emissions. The world's top five largest polluters were responsible for roughly 60% of global CO2 emissions in 2021.

COP28's key challenge is staying below a 1.5C temperature rise. To achieve this, there's a push for a binding energy package—tripling renewable energy by 2030 and deploying 1.5 terawatts yearly.

Financial clarity is crucial, demanding a $200bn annual increase for the Global South, according to 350.org, an international movement of ordinary people working to end the age of fossil fuels.

"As civil society campaigners, demonstrations and protests are expected to be limited to the UN-designated zones only but we are determined to make our voices heard and that this COP28 should be one that leads to decisive action to tackle the climate crisis," Kim Bryan, 350's associate director told Yahoo!.

Watch COP28 climate change summit begins: Here’s what you need to know