COP28 Dubai: The controversies and aims around this year's climate summit

Sultan Al Jaber speaks on the opening day of COP28 in Dubai. Credit: AP

By Elisa Menendez, ITV News Content Producer

Thousands of world leaders, climate experts and dignitaries have flown from across the globe to attend the United Nation's 28th annual climate talks - COP - in the major oil-producing United Arab Emirates.

The decision to host the world's most important climate event in the UAE - one of the globe's chief oil exporters - was met with raised eyebrows from some.

Before the summit even begun, reports suggested the UAE planned to use the two-week-long talks as a business opportunity to make oil and gas deals with other countries - something it has vehemently denied.

And with the first ever oil business executive to serve as COP President, rather than a nation's premier, questions have swirled around the UAE's commitment to genuinely tackling climate change.

But there is hope among some experts that the extra scrutiny on the UAE will advance negotiations, and just hours into the summit on Thursday, a breakthrough was made on pledges to fund developing countries already suffering the catastrophic effects of climate change.

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.

Back to top

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.

Back to top

How is the COP host country chosen?

The host country of COP rotates among the five recognised UN regions: Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Central and Eastern Europe and Western Europe and "Others".

Regional group members hold consultations to determine which country from their region will make an offer to host a conference. Once agreed, the selected country sends a formal offer to the UNFCCC secretariat.

The secretariat then undertakes a fact-finding mission to the prospective host country to determine that all “logistical, technical and financial elements for hosting the sessions are available”. It reports back to the Bureau of the COP, which is made up of elected representatives who sign off on plans.

Dubai's presidency marks the third time the talks have been hosted by a member of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Qatar, a former OPEC member, hosted in 2012 and Indonesia did in 2007.

Concerns around COP28's location and president

CEO of the UAE's Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc), Dr Sultan Al Jaber, is the first chief executive to serve as COP President. Some say he is holding contradictory dual roles.

Al Jaber, who is also the UAE's special envoy for climate change and chairman and co-founder of Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy firm Masdar, has resisted pressure from global lawmakers to stand aside.

People walk through the venue at the COP28 near the Al Wasl Dome at Expo City, Dubai. Credit: AP

After his appointment as COP president was announced earlier this year, more than 130 lawmakers from the European Union and the United States wrote to the UN in a joint letter demanding his withdrawal. They warned of fossil fuel companies exerting "undue influence" over the negotiations.

They cited that his company had recently "announced plans to add 7.6 billion barrels of oil to its production in the coming years, representing the fifth largest increase in the world". They warned negotiations would be “severely jeopardised by having an oil company executive at the helm".

A COP28 spokesperson defended Al Jaber in response, pointing to his “20-year career in the renewable energy space” and previous involvement in large-scale climate talks.

And while climate activists like likened Al Jaber's presidency to "appointing the CEO of a cigarette company to oversee a conference on cancer cures", prominent figures such as John Kerry - the US' special envoy for climate change - called it a "terrific choice".

As the UN marks 2023 as the hottest year on record, the pressure is on for countries to ramp up efforts to phase out the extraction of fossil fuels, such as oil, coal and natural gas - something critics say could be a conflict of interest for the oil-rich UAE.

In response to sceptics, Al Jaber insisted that "everyone needs to be held accountable".

But a day before the summit was due to begin, he forcefully denied reports alleging his nation planned to use the summit to strike oil and gas deals.

The BBC reported that it had seen “leaked briefing documents” showing the Emirates planned to discuss fossil fuel deals with 15 nations.

Al Jaber called the reports “an attempt to undermine the work of the COP28 presidency”, adding: “These allegations are 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.”

Jamie Peters, head of climate at Friends of the Earth, criticised the fossil fuel industries for delaying climate progress "for decades", saying "we urgently need to end our reliance on fossil fuels – not develop more of them".

But, he added to ITV News that the controversies surrounding Dubai hosting this year's COP must not distract from the bigger picture.

"Many wealthy countries - including the UK, who hosted the talks just two years ago - are also expanding fossil fuel extraction," he added. "These countries need to step up and do their fair share of climate action, including addressing their massive historical emissions." 

Record carbon footprint expected

Every year, the carbon footprint of COP comes under scrutiny with up to hundreds of thousands of people travelling from across the world to attend, with many choosing air travel - one of the most polluting forms of transport.

COP26 in Glasgow saw a record carbon footprint but this year's is reportedly expected to exceed it with around 400,000 people scheduled to attend - the most-attended COP yet.

King Charles III is greeted by Foreign Secretary Lord David Cameron as he arrives to meet students in Dubai ahead of COP28. Credit: PA

The UK Government has received criticism for the decision to fly out the King, Lord Cameron and Rishi Sunak on separate private planes. The US' John Kerry was also expected to travel on a private jet.

The UN itself acknowledged the sensitive optics of travel to the event and in a guide for host countries, it says scrutiny has been focused on “the apparent irony of the GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions generated by thousands of participants flying in from all around the globe to discuss how to reduce GHG emissions.”

“The conferences generate considerable GHG emissions. Host countries will need to take proactive steps to achieve carbon neutrality," it added.

The main aims COP28 hopes to achieve

  • Global stocktake

The main event of this COP will be the first "global stocktake".

This will asses all nations' progress towards the goal of limiting global warming to well below 2C and make every effort to stop it rising above 1.5C, as per the 2015 Paris Agreement. The UN and the UAE say this year's talks are the most important since the Paris Agreement.

According to climate experts and organisations, the stocktake is expected to show the world is not on track to meet this goal.

In fact, the UN has the Earth on track for a catastrophic 3C increase by the end of the century under the emissions reduction policies currently in place.

Despite this, Friends of the Earth's Mr Peters said the stocktake could play an important role in ratcheting up action in the next five years.

"The big fight will be over what countries should do next," he added.

  • Funding for developing countries impacted by climate change

An agreement on what is known as the Loss and Damage fund for the poorest and most vulnerable countries to climate change was already reached within hours of the summit.

It cements rich countries’ obligation to provide billions of dollars in funding to developing countries to help them deal with the climate chaos they are already experiencing due to the carbon consumption of the developed world.

  • Increasing renewable energy targets

According to Friends of the Earth, an announcement is also expected on efforts to increase renewable energy targets by 300%.

"While this is a good headline, without the finance to help the roll out of renewables globally it is a hollow one," warned Mr Peters.

  • Food systems

Also on the table at the talks will be efforts to lower emissions from global food systems, such as factory farming.

The UAE is urging countries to sign a "leaders' declaration" which would commit them to aligning their food production systems with global emissions goals.

According to a fresh report by charity Word Animal Protection, factory farming alone is responsible for at least 11% of global emissions. It found that 70% of the 80 billion animals reared every year for food were held in factory farm systems, contributing 6.2 billion metric tonnes of CO2 emissions every year.

Meanwhile, WH Smith, DHL, Coca-Cola Europacific Partners and Virgin Media O2 have joined more than 200 businesses to call for an international agreement to phase out all fossil fuels at COP28.

It is thought to be the first time such a large group of companies have come together to urge governments to move away from fossil fuels.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...