What is COP28 (and why is it so controversial)?

Posted on: 22 November, 2023

This year’s global climate conference has been shrouded in controversy and debate from the outset. Here’s everything you need to know.

On 30 November, the United Nations will kick off its 28th COP conference – a crucial and controversial event in the sustainability calendar with implications for the climate crisis and the future of our planet.

However, this year’s COP has stoked more debate than any event before. From accusations of greenwashing and hypocrisy to scandals surrounding the choice of host and president, COP28 was set to be a controversial event before it had even begun.

Here’s everything you need to know about this year’s COP conference.

What is COP?

The Conference of the Parties (COP), or the United Nations Climate Change Conference, is a series of annual conferences run by the United Nations (UN) since 1995. These events form part of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and are a chance for attendees and representatives of world nations to discuss and address the impacts of climate change.

COP is attended by major leaders from around the world (such as Rishi Sunak, King Charles III, Joe Biden and Ursula von der Leyen), as well as climate scientists, politicians, celebrity activists, stakeholders and members of the public.

This year’s conference will be hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at Expo City Dubai and is scheduled to run from 30 November to 12 December.

What happened at COP27?

Last year’s COP was held in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, and hosted around 35,000 representatives and delegates of 190 countries. Amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier in 2022, tensions were high, and the event wasn’t without controversy after Coca-Cola were named as sponsor – an act of greenwashing, according to environmental campaigners.

The choice of Egypt as hosts was also called into question, given their human rights record, fossil fuel use and current political system. As with many previous conferences, COP27 was met with protests from environmental groups and human rights campaigners from the outset.

The outcome of the conference was mixed – on the UN’s own website, a statement read that the conference ‘did not achieve much success around mitigation’. World leaders and participants ‘were unable to reach an agreement’ on things like coal consumption and the phasing out fossil fuels.

On the positive side, the Loss and Damage Fund – a commitment to support developing countries that are most vulnerable to the impacts of extreme weather – was established. However, with the 1.5C limit set out in the Paris Agreement of 2015 looming, the overall mood following the event was not a positive or optimistic one.

Learn more: The issue of coal consumption

The background of COP28: Why is it so controversial?

COP28 isn’t the first event to attract controversy, but this year’s conference has created more headlines than any before.

Once again, the decision to allow the UAE to host the event has attracted criticism. The country is one of the world’s biggest producers of fossil fuels, which has raised concerns about how impartial the conference will be – especially as the country have the third biggest oil and gas expansion plans in the world, according to The Guardian.

On top of this, the decision for Sultan Al Jaber – managing director of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), the 12th largest oil company by production in the world – to be named president has attracted strong criticism. The firm is the nation’s state oil company, and in Sultan Al Jaber’s time as president, ADNOC has substantially expanded its gas and oil production.

As the environmental campaign organisation Greenpeace stated in their response to the announcement:

“Greenpeace is deeply alarmed at the appointment of an oil company CEO to lead the negotiations… There is no place for the fossil fuel industry in the global climate negotiations.”

The controversy was compounded by two reports from The Guardian. The first disclosed that members of Sultan Al Jaber’s teams had been editing Wikipedia pages to ‘greenwash his image’, while the second revealed ADNOC have been able to read emails from the COP28 climate summit office. There have also been reports of users being paid to ‘control narratives’ surrounding COP28 on Wikipedia and fake user accounts being set up to run promotional campaigns that defend the conference.

Learn more: 8 types of greenwashing (and how to spot them)

Is COP still important?

Previous COP conferences have been behind some of the biggest global commitments made towards tackling climate change in history. The famous Kyoto Protocol, a commitment to reduce emissions among 37 countries, was signed in 1992 at COP3. The similar Paris Agreement was drawn up in 2015.

Despite the criticism and controversy surrounding the climate conferences, COP is still very important and stands as the most significant discourse for sustainability in the world, owing to the influence and position of the various world leaders who attend it.

While change resulting from the events can be slow, they’re an opportunity for politicians and world leaders to be held accountable and for countries to work with environmental scientists and each other towards a common goal. These conferences are needed if humanity is to take unified action to reverse the climate crisis.

The agenda for this year’s COP event is as follows:

  • Nov 30 – Opening
  • Dec 1-2 – World Climate Action Summit
  • Dec 3 – Health/Relief, Recovery and Peace
  • Dec 4 – Finance/Trade/Gender Equality/Accountability
  • Dec 5 – Energy, Industry/Just Transition/Indigenous Peoples
  • Dec 6 – Multilevel Action, Urbanisation and Built Environment/Transport
  • Dec 7 – Rest
  • Dec 8 – Youth, Children, Education and Skills
  • Dec 9 – Nature, Land Use, and Oceans
  • Dec 10 – Food, Agriculture and Water
  • Dec 11-12 – Final Negotiations

We will be covering COP28, with particular emphasis on the built environment and education. Ahead of the event, Jessica Gordon-Calvert, UCEM’s Sustainability Education & Engagement Officer, commented:

“I have been following the COPs for a number of years now and hope (as with previous iterations) that COP28 truly holds our world leaders and big corporations (like Coca-Cola) to account. I also hope that there will be a substantial shift in representation from young people and those most adversely affected by the impacts of climate change: women; indigenous peoples; people of colour; LGBTQ+ and refugees.

“From a UK perspective, it’s imperative that our Prime Minister attend COP28 and reaffirm the UK’s commitments to those made when we hosted COP26 in Glasgow in 2021 and the Paris Agreement. Our leaders should be leading the way to mitigate climate change as much as possible – let’s hope they utilise COP28 to do this!”

Read Jessica’s full reaction to COP28 here: COP28: the good, the bad, and the ugly