COP28: What do these climate conferences achieve?

The COP28 climate summit begins in Dubai and will attempt to forge a global response to the climate emergency. Credit: AP

By Elisa Menendez, Content Producer and Daniel Boal, Multimedia Producer

As the United Nations (UN) declares 2023 the hottest year on record, all eyes are fixed on world leaders at COP28 to agree on ways to tackle the devastating impacts of global warming.

Dubai is welcoming thousands of attendees to the 28th "Conference of the Parties", running until December 12, amid lingering concerns over how the oil-rich United Arab Emirates (UAE) will help end fossil fuel-driven climate change.

After almost three decades of COP meetings, much has changed for the planet - but what can we expect from the latest round of talks?

Everything you need to know about COP28

What is COP? When and where will it take place?

Each year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meets at what is called the Conference of the Parties - abbreviated as COP - to discuss the world's progress on climate change and how to tackle it.

The conference sees representatives from almost 200 countries come together to commit to reducing emissions and stopping dangerous levels of global warming.

The first meeting was held in Berlin in 1995. It came after a mass United Nations treaty aiming to reduce greenhouse gases came into force in 1992. The treaty was signed by 196 "parties" or countries - a near-universal membership.

Since then, a COP meeting has taken place annually, apart from in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

COP28 is the 28th summit of its kind which will be held in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from November 30 to December 12.

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Who is going?

Leaders of the 198 countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) - a treaty that came into force in 1994 - are invited to the summit.

These are some of the world leaders that will be attending COP27:

  • UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is going to the conference. His attendance will likely be scrutinised after he recently announced measures that delay and water down the government's plans to achieve Net Zero.

  • The leaders of three of the world's biggest carbon emitters, the US, China and Russia, will not be attending.

  • US President Joe Biden is instead sending John Kerry, the special envoy for climate change, with his team. Mr Kerry suggested negotiations around the conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine were taking up much of the president's time. The Chinese envoy for climate change, Xie Zhenhua, is also expected to attend.

  • After missing last year's summit, King Charles III, a staunch advocate for the environment, will be attending, as well as Pope Francis.

  • The UAE sparked outrage when it invites Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the event, amid concerns over human rights and environmental abuses. But it has not yet been confirmed if he will attend.

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Do COP meetings achieve much?

Each meeting is an opportunity for world leaders to take stock of progress and increase their ambitions in tackling climate change with the backdrop of scientists' latest findings.

An agreement or declaration on how countries should unanimously reduce greenhouse gas emissions comes out of every meeting, with the Paris Agreement hailed as the greatest advancement in COP history.

While experts widely agree the meetings achieve a lot, there is often a lot of bureaucracy which delays action.

"COP meetings are frustrating because they are so procedural and slow, with many veto players," Professor Sam Fankhauser, a professor of climate economics and policy at the University of Oxford, previously told ITV News.

"At the same time, it is essential to have this global framework and an agreed platform to negotiate. 

"The difficulty, as with all international agreements, is the lack of enforcement power. If countries don’t like it they don’t sign up - viz the US under Trump".

Executive Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Asher Minns, echoed his comments: "The meetings absolutely do deliver, but probably at a slower pace than anybody would really like, including the negotiators as well I think - and certainly environmental groups, scientists and the general public now they're more conscious."

What have past COPs achieved and have promises been followed through?

In 1992, a mass United Nations treaty aiming to reduce greenhouse gases came into force, after it was signed by 196 "parties" or countries - a near-universal membership.

The first COP was hosted by Berlin in 1995 and was presided over by then-environment minister Angela Merkel. The Berlin Mandate was a milestone first agreement, which established a process to strengthen the climate commitments of developed countries.

Since then, a COP meeting has taken place annually, apart from in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It wasn't until the third meeting in Japan in 1997, that the world's first agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was adopted - known as the Kyoto Protocol. But it would take another eight years before it would come into force.

Then environment minister John Prescott watches as Ritt Bjerregaard, of the European Commission, signs the Kyoto Protocol in 1998. Credit: AP

The next biggest achievement to emerge from the meetings came almost two decades later - the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Other declarations, agreements and plans emerged from the COPs in between, such as the 2009 Copenhagen Accord which made high-income countries pledge $30 billion towards efforts, and the 2010 Cancun Agreement to help developing nations in tackling climate change.

But Kyoto and Paris are considered the biggest agreements to ever emerge.

What about the last two COPs?

COP26 and COP27 were hosted in Glasgow and Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, respectively, and laid the foundations for a number of global frameworks to try and tackle climate change.

More than 30 countries and institutions signed The Glasgow Statement, which agreed to end financing of fossil fuel projects overseas by the end of 2022 - a policy which the UK led.

Meanwhile, COP27 made way for the Loss and Damage fund - an agreement which was reached by delegates on the first day of COP28.

The fund provides crucial financial support to developing countries to help them deal with the climate chaos they are already experiencing due to the carbon consumption of the developed world.

Head of climate at Friends of Earth, Jamie Peters, said: "COP26 and 27 saw many of the usual dynamics of climate talks, with countries who've contributed most to the climate crisis trying to shift the burden of emissions cuts to those that have contributed the least, as well as dragging their heels on providing the finance they've promised to help them do it.

"As a result, the outcomes from the talks often don't go as far as those that are needed."

"But that's not to say there weren't important achievements at COP26 and COP27," he added pointing to the Glasgow Statement and the Loss and Damage fund.

What was the Kyoto Protocol?

It was adopted in December 1997, but due to a complex ratification system it didn't come into effect until years later, in February 2005.

The Protocol required wealthy, industrialised countries - which are largely responsible for high levels of emissions - to limit and reduce greenhouse gases. The targets varied per country, but the average was a cut of 5% relative to 1990 levels by 2012.

The Kyoto Protocol is a binding agreement to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions. Credit: PA

Though it was hailed as a great advancement, the Protocol had a number of issues. The biggest being that the US would not take part under President George W. Bush's administration because major emerging economies like China and India were not required to be part of it.

The Kyoto Protocol ended last year and it produced mixed results as many countries did reduce emissions, but others didn't. However, there are considered to be a greater number of successes than failures.

What was the Paris Agreement?

18 years after the Kyoto Protocol, 196 countries signed up to the 2015 Paris Agreement pledging to limit global warming to well below 2C, but preferably 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

Almost every country was involved, including China, India, and initially the US, and was welcomed with great optimism from world leaders and scientists.

But four years after president Barack Obama signed up, his successor Donald Trump made the US the first nation in the world to withdraw - a move that was seen as a big blow to the agreement as a whole.

The US pulled out of the Paris Agreement after Donald Trump took office. Credit: AP

The former president said the agreement was unfair to the US and had made leaving Paris a key part of his election pledges, in line with his plans to revitalise the energy sector by ramping up coal and oil productions.

In February 2021, the US officially re-joined Paris just hours after President Joe Biden took the oath of office.

Professor Fankhauser said what is different about the Paris Agreement is that it is about each country deciding "what they want to do" and "not binding commitments as Kyoto tried" to enforce.

"Paris has changed the narrative and the way countries go about climate change," he added. 

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