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COP28: Good COP, Bad COP?

Updated: Dec 27, 2023

In this article, Matthew Darby discusses the recent COP28, considering its successes, weaknesses, and lessons learned for future meetings.

On December 13th, 2023, the 28th annual Conference of the Parties, or COP28, concluded in Dubai, hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). For almost thirty years, world leaders and their delegations have met annually in an attempt to “avoid dangerous climate change” as treaty-bound by the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The scale of the challenge the COP sought to address is not to be dismissed: to phase out fossil fuels — upon which the global and host nation's economy hinge — before reaching a critical planetary tipping point. Now, as the event has come to a close, we ask whether this critical meeting can be considered a good COP, bad COP, and what have we learnt for future iterations of the event?

His Excellence Dr. Sultan Al Jaber and participants applauding the opening of COP28. Image Credit: UNclimatechange on Flickr. 

A significant achievement of the COP was achieved on day 1: the operationalisation of the Loss and Damage fund, a reparative mechanism to transfer disaster recovery aid to developing nations. COP27, held last year in Egypt, closed with a historic agreement to provide ‘loss and damage’ funding for countries most vulnerable to, and least responsible for the climate crisis, providing a starting point for this year's meeting. Critically, COP is ​​one of the few opportunities for indigenous populations and under-resourced nations to speak across the table with leaders from global superpowers, and hence hearing their voices to support operations such as the loss and damage fund is key. However, COP28 attracted 2,456 fossil-fuel lobbyists who out-numbered nearly all individual country delegations, diminishing the voice of these at-risk nations. 

Several countries pledged a total of $700m to the fund, with $100m from the UAE and Germany respectively, $108m each from France and Italy, and $50.8m offered from the United Kingdom. Although not insignificant funds, the total falls far short of the estimated $400bn damage caused by climate change annually, bringing into doubt the effectiveness of this fund and hampering the extent of its success. The United States and China, despite being the world’s largest emitters, pledged just $17.5m and $10m respectively.

Paying for the loss and damage fund is not the only financial concern coming from the COP. Calls for the global financial system to restructure debt for developing nations to enable them to sufficiently invest in climate change measures were also discussed. What this restructuring looks like is unclear, and how it materialises is even more ambiguous. Hence, at COP29, recently announced to be in Azerbaijan, governments must establish new climate finance goals, reflecting the scale and urgency of the climate challenge and global support needed enabled through these formal mechanisms.

Protestors calling for the financing of the Loss and Damage fund outside COP28. Image Credit: Mídia Ninja on Flickr. 

A further key achievement of COP28 was the ‘global stocktake’, the main negotiated output from the conference and assessment of progress made toward mitigating global warming since the Paris Agreement in 2015. This not only included the historic agreement by all nations to “transition away from fossil fuels” but also acts as a reminder of the “urgent need to address… the interlinked global crises of climate change and biodiversity loss”. However, concerns were raised about the language used in the commitment to 'transition away from fossil fuels’. While over 100 countries initially supported language for ‘fossil fuel phase out’, deemed stronger on the international stage, its exclusion in the final text raises doubts about whether the phrase 'transitioning away' carries the necessary strength to deter investments in new fossil fuels. Nevertheless, the direction of movement and the moment of global consensus on the need to transition away from fossil fuels are acknowledged as positive steps, contributing to the potential classification of COP28 as a 'good COP.'

Underlying the entirety of COP28 is the pervasive influence of the fossil fuel industry on negotiations. Notably, fossil fuel states such as Saudi Arabia pushed to include carbon capture and utilisation and storage (CCUS) in the meetings agreement. While some consider CCUS a viable solution to the climate crisis, many scientists view it as a potentially costly and insufficient measure, revealing the delicate dance between climate goals and economic interests when negotiating at these events. Prior to the COP, The Guardian reported that Saudi Arabia was driving a huge global investment plan to create demand for its oil and gas in developing countries to get countries “hooked on its harmful products”, aptly named the ‘Oil Demand Sustainability Program’. Meanwhile, it also emerged that, according to leaked documents, the hosts of the COP28 summit planned to use climate meetings with other countries to promote deals for UAE oil and gas companies. 

Fossil Fuel Phase Out action outside COP28. Image Credit: UNclimatechange on Flickr.

Such controversy was compounded by COP President Sultan Al Jaber, who controversially claimed that there is "no science" supporting the phase-out of fossil fuels despite acknowledging that "science tells us that emissions must be halved by 2030". Given such workings behind the scenes and in negotiations, it is imperative to consider who is in the room at future meetings. Should we welcome the voice of the fossil fuel industry, or amplify the voice of the indigenous, the climate-vulnerable, or the active youth more concerned about the climate crisis than any other generation

COP28, like its predecessors, presented a complex landscape of achievements and challenges. The establishment of the loss and damage fund signals progress in addressing the impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities. However, the ambiguity in transition wording, coupled with the contradictions within COP President Al Jaber's statements and the influence of the fossil fuel industry throughout the meeting highlight the persistent tensions between economic interests and the imperative for rapid and meaningful climate action. Mitigating such influence is critical going forward, especially moving towards COP29 in Azerbaijan, another major oil and gas-producing nation. Whether COP28 will be remembered as a ‘good COP’ or a ‘bad COP’ may hinge on the collective efforts to bridge the gap between rhetoric and actionable measures in the form of policy and finance, but for now, progress has been made on taking action to the climate crisis. Critiquing where this could, and should, be stronger is key to holding leaders to account, but we must still celebrate progress that carries us closer towards a more sustainable, just, and equitable future.

About the Author: Matthew Darby is an MSc Corporate Sustainability and Environmental Management Student at the University of York, with significant interest in the role of the private sector in providing a sustainable and just future. 

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