FAQ: Annual climate negotiations are about to start. Do they matter?
Updated November 27, 2023 at 8:14 AM ET
A major, annual international climate meeting kicks off later this week in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
World leaders are meeting from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12 to discuss the effects of climate change, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the increasingly pressing question of who will pay for the costs of a hotter planet.
Attendance at the annual negotiations has ballooned and hit an estimated 45,000 people last year. Thousands of climate scientists, mayors, activists, corporate executives and representatives of major oil companies will also fly to the petroleum-dependent host country to attend hundreds of side events.
The meeting comes at the close of the hottest year ever recorded on Earth. Extreme weather is killing people around the world. And while it's still possible for humans to avoid catastrophic climate change effects — such as mass extinctions and runaway sea level rise by the end of this century — it is only possible if greenhouse gas pollution falls dramatically and immediately, scientists warn.
Meanwhile, a fight is brewing over whether the countries most responsible for causing climate change will follow through on promises to help the most vulnerable countries foot the bill for adapting to a hotter world.
Here's what you need to know about what's at stake and what to expect.
Why is this meeting happening and what is it supposed to achieve?
This meeting happens every year and is arranged by the branch of the United Nations that handles global negotiations about climate change. In U.N.-speak, the climate meeting is called the Conference of the Parties, or COP. This is the 28th Conference of the Parties, so it's called COP28.
At the end of the 2015 COP meeting, world leaders signed the landmark Paris climate agreement.
The Paris Agreement requires virtually every country on Earth to pledge how much they'll cut planet-warming pollution and update those plans every few years. The goal is to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to temperatures in the late 1800s, and ideally no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
This year, world leaders are required to review humanity's collective progress toward that goal. And the situation is not good.
A U.N. analysis released this month found that global greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, and the planet is on track for at least 2.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century. And while it's still possible to stay below 2 degrees of warming — and every tenth of a degree of warming the world avoids will save lives — scientists warn that the 1.5 degree target is slipping away.
These meetings have been happening for 30 years, and it feels like climate change is only getting worse. Do they really matter?
Last year's COP27 meeting in Egypt ended with a watered-down agreement that left out language calling for a phaseout of all fossil fuels — the biggest driver of global warming.
The summits have become a circus, "with the petrostates as the ringmasters" and everyone else as "the clowns," Sandrine Dixson-Declève wrote last year, as co-president of The Club of Rome, a nonprofit in Switzerland that works on climate change.
The problem, Dixson-Declève told NPR, is combining international negotiations with a trade show. The number of lobbyists who attend the events has soared, she says, and civil society groups struggle to afford the cost of reserving pavilion space in the COP conference hall.
"Some are actually given easier access than others because they can pay for it. And that means that those that have pavilions might be able to invite certain governments to come and have a conversation," Dixson-Declève says. "It may not seem like direct lobbying, but it is potentially indirect lobbying, depending on where the conversation goes. So I think it's incredibly important that we take into consideration this aspect, which has created a very unfair playing field."
Yet the COP meetings remain crucial events for activists and poor countries hit hardest by climate-fueled disasters.
"One of the big values of the U.N. process, actually, is that everybody's at the table," says David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute.
The meetings are not "a panacea," Waskow adds, but they "give us a sense of the direction we need to travel in and also can be a catalyst."
Rishikesh Ram Bhandary, assistant director of the Global Economic Governance Initiative at Boston University, says he understands the public's frustration with the climate talks. Part of it seems to stem from a mismatch between the U.N.'s multilateral process, which ensures every country has a say but often delivers incremental progress, and the urgency people feel as the impacts of climate change get worse.
That tension has only grown as the United Arab Emirates, a big oil producer, prepares to host this year's meeting.
Given its knowledge of oil and gas, the UAE has a chance to chart a practical but ambitious path to move the world off of fossil fuels, Dixson-Declève says.
"That would be the perfect scenario," she says.
But the world seems to be moving in the opposite direction. António Guterres, the U.N. secretary-general, said earlier in November that governments "are literally doubling down on fossil fuel production."
What will be a contentious topic at these talks?
One of the biggest debates will be over compensation that wealthier countries could pay to nations hardest hit by climate change. It's known as "loss and damage." Lower-income countries bear the brunt of climate impacts, such as floods, fires and drought that cause billions of dollars in destruction. But they have contributed little to the planetary warming driving those disasters.
Countries like the U.S. and those in Europe built their wealth through fossil fuel use and are responsible for most of the heat-trapping emissions in the atmosphere today.
For years, developing nations have argued that they're owed for the damage caused by climate change. Loss and damage funding could be used to prepare for future impacts, like building infrastructure or relocating communities, as well as compensating them for irreplaceable cultural resources that have been lost.
At the 2022 climate summit, countries made a historic agreement to create a fund especially for that purpose. Since then, negotiations have been bumpy. Countries have argued about which nations should pay into the fund, which should be eligible to receive funding and where the fund is housed.
Right now, the plan is for the World Bank to house the "loss and damage" fund temporarily. But global leaders would need to sign off on that plan at the COP28 talks. And some developing countries are concerned about the plan, because it only urges, not requires, richer countries to contribute funding.
Why is money such a big topic at the meeting?
Industrialized countries have pledged $100 billion annually to developing countries to help them adapt to global warming and move away from fossil fuels, but studies suggest much more money is needed.
"The needs for climate finance are much, much higher — more on the order of a trillion dollars per year," says Laura Kuhl, assistant professor of public policy and international affairs at Northeastern University.
A recent assessment from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development says developing countries will need at least $2.4 trillion each year by 2026.
This money — called "climate finance" — can help developing countries switch from planet-heating fossil fuels to clean energy. It also includes money for adapting to climate change.
Stacy-ann Robinson, an associate professor of environmental studies at Colby College, says you can't talk about climate finance without talking about climate justice.
"Countries in the Global South," Robinson says, "are saying, 'Listen, we contributed the least to historical greenhouse gas emissions, but based on a number of factors — environmental and otherwise — we will be impacted the most.'"
That's why back in 2009 at the climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, industrialized nations announced that they would take the lead on climate finance. They pledged that by 2020, they would give $100 billion each year toward funding climate adaptation and reducing fossil fuel use in the Global South.
They missed the 2020 goal. And although industrialized nations may have finally reached the $100 billion mark in 2022, in Dubai the discussions will center on how to get closer to the trillion dollar range. This will involve engaging countries, institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, and the private sector.
How do wars in the Middle East and Ukraine affect climate talks this year?
They won't help. Climate diplomacy is already contentious. The conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East are further complicating, if not worsening, diplomatic relations among some of the world's largest historic contributors to climate change — namely, the United States, Russia and China.
U.N. Secretary-General Guterres acknowledged the problem in recent remarks, saying that it's clear that world leaders face "distractions" from addressing climate change.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has trashed its relations with the U.S. and the European Union, which have been providing Ukraine with billions of dollars in aid and weaponry.
At last year's climate talks, representatives from developing countries raised questions about why rich countries like the U.S. have been quick to deliver weapons, while slow-walking funds for climate adaptation and clean energy.
Those concerns are likely to come up again in Dubai, as the U.S. is now delivering billions of dollars more to Israel.
Israel's continued bombardment of the Gaza Strip is also raising the ire of other countries in the Middle East and Global South, and a broader regional conflict could cause chaos in the world's energy markets.
All of this makes it more difficult for world leaders to maintain consensus and focus on addressing the global issue of human-caused climate change.
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