The 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (28th Conference of the Parties, COP28) will be convened at Expo City, Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12. This marks the second consecutive year that the annual COP is being hosted in the Middle East and North Africa, with COP27 having taken place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in 2022. The escalating impacts of climate change have unquestionably intensified in recent years, focusing global attention on COP28. The agenda for this year's COP encompasses various themes designed to engage a broad spectrum of stakeholders, with the goal of catalyzing action on multiple fronts, in an effort to address the urgent challenges posed by climate change.

With COP28 set to kick off later this week, here are five key questions that will influence the course and outcomes of the proceedings:

1. Will the hottest year on record and the global stocktake propel energy transition efforts substantially forward?

Following an extraordinarily hot summer season worldwide, this year is on track to become the hottest year on record. With this level of unprecedented seasonal warming potentially occurring again with greater frequency and longer durations, there is genuine concern that we could be beyond the Paris Agreement goal of keeping future global warming to below 1.5° Celsius. The concern is about more than just dangerous levels of extreme heat but also the other climate impacts that come with it — flooding, extreme weather, and drought.

This acceleration in climate change comes at a critical year in the annual COP cycle. COP28 will be the culmination of the current global stocktake, a two-year process that began at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, and will provide an inventory of where all global parties stand in their climate mitigation efforts against the goals laid out under the Paris Agreement. The results will provide a new benchmark in terms of the (likely wider) gap between current mitigation and what is needed to prevent increases in global warming beyond the critical thresholds of 1.5° and 2° Celsius. This needs to be the last call for meaningful and accelerated action on climate mitigation and energy transition by all nations. There is no time left to issue warnings after this new shift into a hotter climate regime and the quantitative analysis that the global stocktake will provide on how short we are in terms of bending the warming curve for future climate. Nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and national climate strategies will have to be upgraded, but more importantly, implementation of climate mitigation plans can no longer be delayed.

2. Can we get beyond the funding shortfall to begin mobilizing climate financing for implementation?

The negotiations at COP27 ended with an agreement on developing a loss and damage fund for the benefit of climate-vulnerable nations. But progress since then on ironing out the details by a transitional committee composed of both developing and developed nations has been slow due to lack of agreement on key points. On the one hand, developed nations did not want to solely finance the fund and pushed for other wealthy nations from the developing world to contribute. On the other hand, developing nations resisted having the fund housed and managed by an institution in a developed country. After tense meetings, and begrudgingly, the committee conceded to having the fund based in and managed by the World Bank on an interim basis. But the actual details on how the fund would operate — including key issues like how money would be disbursed, to whom, and under what criteria — are yet to be determined. 

Other forms of climate financing have been underperforming in terms of funding and operating goals. The objective of mobilizing $100 billion in climate financing from developed nations for developing nations was finally met in 2022, two years after its intended target of 2020. Similarly, the longer-standing Green Climate Fund has been plagued by slower processes of approval and implementation of climate mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries. The risk of irrecoverable climate damage in developing nations has increased dramatically with the recent amplification of climate change. Preventing further delays in securing adequate climate financing and operating the respective climate funds efficiently has become a matter of urgency.

3. How will the crisis in Gaza affect the conference proceedings?

As the crisis in Gaza continues to unfold, capturing the world’s attention, its effects threaten to spill over into the COP28 meeting. For the first time, a day dedicated to recovery and peace is part of the COP thematic agenda. But this otherwise benign thematic day looks to become more controversial in light of the situation in Gaza, as the crisis there will likely dominate the conversation. With ongoing protests worldwide against Israel’s devastating military campaign in Gaza, Israel’s attendance at COP28 will be just as polarizing. Israel had planned to send a large delegation to COP28 and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was personally invited to attend. The details of who will participate from the Israeli side are still unclear, although the delegation is expected to be much smaller than originally planned.

Another COP-related output is in jeopardy due to the Gaza conflict as well. The Jordan-Israel solar-for-water resource exchange deal brokered by the UAE, with a memorandum of understanding signed at COP27, is now for all intents and purposes dead in the water. It is also difficult to see how further climate cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors will be possible for the foreseeable future.   

4. Will water security be elevated appropriately as a critical issue at COP?

Water security as a topic has not usually been prominent at COP. It was not part of the presidency program at COP26, and though it was in the thematic program for COP27, it was not a prominent topic as would have been expected, especially since Egypt was the host, a country that prioritizes water security (given its dependency on the Nile River). Water’s role in climate resiliency is widely understood yet understated. Although emphasis on food security as an adaptation measure and growing discussions about the role of green hydrogen with respect to the energy transition are becoming part of the conversation at climate meetings, there is little discussion of the key role of water in making food security and green hydrogen expansion possible. But there is hope that this level of disconnect between water and climate in global climate conferences, like COP, will change.  

The United Nations convened a water conference earlier this year, for the first time since 1977. With themes on water’s relation to health, sustainable development, climate resilience, cooperation, and action, the conference was a much-needed step toward enhancing the importance of water in the global agenda for sustainable development. The hope is that through conferences like this, water will no longer just be an afterthought or enabling tool for other environmental goals (such as has been the case for achieving food security) but recognized as a critical component of climate resilience that must be accounted for before assuming its benefits in other sectors.

5. How will uncertainty on COP29 factor into the final negotiations of COP28?

Over the last two COP meetings, it has become almost customary that negotiations yield a deal of some kind that cements the contributions of that year’s meeting (and host) into an output that is meant to be carried forward into subsequent COPs. COP26 produced the underwhelming Glasgow Pact, while COP27 saw the landmark agreement on the development of a loss and damage fund. A similar outcome is expected from COP28. But a broader uncertainty looms just beyond COP28 that will bleed into the proceedings of this year’s conference.

Based on the rotation for hosting the annual COP meetings, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Eastern European region was slated to host COP29 next year. But geopolitical complications and ongoing conflict in that region are preventing that from happening. Russia is effectively holding COP29 hostage by blocking all attempts to have any European Union country host the conference next year. Armenia and Azerbaijan have both presented themselves as host nations for COP29, but are blocking each other’s bids due to disputes over Karabakh, heightened by Azerbaijan’s recent recapture of the region in a military operation.

With COP29 likely without a host nation in Eastern Europe this close to COP28, the UNFCCC is in a difficult position when it comes to determining where next year’s conference will be held. Brazil has confirmed its intention to host COP30 in 2025 (taking it out of contention for COP29), and the UAE has signaled that it would not host COP29. Another alternative that has been floated is to hold the conference at the UNFCCC’s headquarters in Bonn, Germany. But resolving the location problem does not address the question of who will undertake the COP29 presidency, a critical role that shapes the agenda and directives of the meeting. These lingering questions will cast a shadow over the forward-looking developments coming out of COP28 at an extremely inopportune time, as we cannot afford to have another gap year (literally or figuratively) in 2024 due to the uncertainties around COP29.


Mohammed Mahmoud is the director of the Climate and Water Program and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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