100 days to COP28: Can it deliver climate action?

The 'Cop28 UAE' logo is displayed on the screen during the opening ceremony of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW) under the theme of 'United on Climate Action Toward COP28', in Abu Dhabi, UAE, January 16, 2023. REUTERS/Rula Rouhana

The 'Cop28 UAE' logo is displayed on the screen during the opening ceremony of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW) under the theme of 'United on Climate Action Toward COP28', in Abu Dhabi, UAE, January 16, 2023. REUTERS/Rula Rouhana

Concerns grow that the summit, hosted by a fossil fuel nation, may fall short for the communities worst-hit by climate devastation

Debbie Hillier is the head of the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance for Mercy Corps. Barbara Rosen Jacobson is an advocacy advisor for Mercy Corps.

As we mark 100 days until the COP28 U.N. climate summit, the urgency of addressing the climate crisis has never been more palpable. Global failures to mitigate emissions and adapt to the impacts continue to wreak havoc on the planet, and we’re seeing this in a range of ways.

Unprecedented extreme weather events have occurred with frightening regularity in 2023. In March, over 500 people lost their lives when Cyclone Freddy struck Malawi. Last month, flooding in the Philippines caused by Typhoons Doksuri and Khanun displaced more than 300,000 people, and the recent wildfires that ravaged Hawaii – in part exacerbated by climate change – continue to make for distressing headlines. This list is likely to become even longer by the end of the year, when COP28 gets underway in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Then there’s the long-term future to consider - with the world predicted to warm by 2.8 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, a massive course correct is required. This COP must not just take baby steps in the right direction; it must instead deliver bold, truly transformative action.

United Arab Emirates' Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology, and CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber speaks during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 10, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Go DeeperBacklash as UAE oil boss picked to lead COP28 climate summit
A banner reads 'End Fossil Fuels' at the Bonn Climate Change Conference in Germany, June 8, 2023. REUTERS/Jana Rodenbusch
Go DeeperCOP28 outlook soured by climate finance blame game at UN talks
People try to salvage things after their homes and neighbourhood were flooded due to heavy rains, in Esmeraldas, Ecuador June 5, 2023
Go DeeperWhat next for the new UN climate loss and damage fund?

Conflicts of interest risk derailing progress

The COP Presidency has a key role in guiding the summit, setting expectations and driving progress. As such, the appointment of Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the Managing Director of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), as President of COP28 has been highly controversial. Many states have officially offered their support (highlighting his other role as chair of Masdar, a major renewable energy company), but there are obvious concerns about potential conflicts of interest.

Critics point to ADNOC’s $150bn investment over five years in an “accelerated growth strategy” for oil and gas production, the UAE not declaring its methane emissions, and the revelation by the Guardian newspaper that ADNOC had access to confidential COP28 emails.

The geopolitical context is undeniably difficult at the moment, and we saw useful technical discussions at Bonn falter when political decisions came into play. This is yet another reason why a strong Presidency, one which can bring all governments together, is required.

Will we get an ambitious COP?

In July, the Presidency sent a letter to U.N. member states outlining his vision. While it was stronger than many analysts had expected, it still left many questions unanswered – including, 'is this enough?'. For example, in contrast to European countries' COP28 vision to promote a global phase-out of fossil fuels, the Presidency's letter referred to a focus on unabated fossil fuels, and a previous speech mentioned the need for fossil fuels ‘for the foreseeable future’.

It is imperative that the COP28 Presidency fully embraces its role and responsibility to drive the required efforts to reduce planet-heating emissions. For COP28 to be a success, the Presidency needs to actively champion the phase-out of fossil fuels and facilitate the transition to renewable energy sources, in addition to making progress on climate finance, adaptation, and loss and damage.

The right voices in the room

If real progress is to be made, COP28 needs to hear from those on the frontlines of climate change, not those who profit from it. Lobbying by oil and gas companies reached alarming levels at COP27, with over 600 lobbyists attending the conference – an increase of more than 25% from COP26, prompting questions about the impartiality of climate negotiations.

Some argue that oil and gas companies need to be at the negotiating table because the world will continue to need energy providers. While this could be productive in theory, it assumes that they are interested in seeking change and being part of the solution. Yet, oil companies achieved huge profits this year due to higher prices, and instead of seeing this unearned windfall as an opportunity to invest in a transition to green energy, the largest producers have prioritized shareholder remuneration.

Indeed, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said oil majors must “cease and desist influence peddling and legal threats designed to knee-cap progress.” In June, the UN announced it will require fossil fuel lobbyists to identify themselves as such when registering for COP28. While a useful first step, it is undeniably small progress; much more is needed to ensure that the negotiating process is focused on solutions, and that the money and influence of oil companies is not allowed to drown out the voices of affected countries, communities and groups.

Action needed now more than ever

We have always needed COP to deliver strong outcomes - but the gulf between where we are and where we need to be is widening. And this year, the increasing conflicts of interest are further undermining trust in the process.

The Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance recognises the challenges in achieving success at COP28, and the need to take steps to enhance transparency and accountability. Yet, given the severity of the climate crisis, we call on all governments and other organisations present to use the opportunity to deliver the lasting change that climate-vulnerable communities desperately and urgently need.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


  • Adaptation
  • Net-zero
  • Climate policy
  • Climate inequality

Get our climate newsletter. Free. Every week.

By providing your email, you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Latest on Context