What to expect from COP28

In a year of such extreme weather...
10 November 2023

Interview with 

Mark Maslin, UCL


The nighttime skyline of Dubai, featuring the Burj Khalifa.


Soon, the 28th annual United Nations climate meeting will kick off in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. It follows a year of extreme weather events in which many climate records have been broken. So, what should we expect from COP28? Mark Maslin is a professor of earth system science at University College London and the author of 'How to Save Our Planet: The Facts.'

Mark - The COP meetings are where a huge number of people get together every year and it's sort of like the end of the negotiation process. So the climate change negotiations are going on all year round and this is just the jamboree at the end to try and actually get agreement and push the agenda forward. And people don't realise that COP is actually really complicated. So you have this small inner circle, which is the negotiators for about 196 countries and they're the ones trying to work on the wording and the actual agreements that are going to come out. Then round that, you have what's called the blue zone, and these are all organisations who are involved in the negotiations. So this is like the World Bank, the world food agencies, and also things like, there's a youth pavilion, there's an indigenous peoples pavilion. Then outside that you have the whole business community that turn up because they know that they're going to have all these organisations, all these negotiators there at the same time as them. And so they have business to business meetings. And then if it's in particular countries, then you have civil society and it's a huge, I would say, melting pot of ideas, but also lots of negotiations going on within the actual negotiations, but also outside.

Chris - What are they actually negotiating?

Mark - So what they're trying to negotiate is how the world moves forward. How do we actually decarbonise, how do we reduce all those greenhouse emissions and how do we do it in an equitable way? The whole of the negotiations are on that path to net zero. We are now in a new era of negotiations where it's not if we're going to do this, it's when we're going to do this.

Chris - Is it actually happening though, or is it all just hot air? Because I keep hearing all these promises and then I hear that more promises are coming and then we'll see more headlines saying that what we agreed in Paris, well that's gone and we've already broken that particular target. That's history. So have they actually got teeth into these agreements and if so, what does that involve?

Mark - Really what these international negotiations do is set the agenda. So the most important one was in Paris in 2015 where there was an agreement by all countries that we were going to hit net zero in the middle of this century. And the most important thing is that it came with a target. It said, look, we will try to keep climate change to just two degrees, but we have an aspirational target of one and a half degrees. This has driven global economics, it's driven countries and how they put in policies. So the huge growth in renewables that we see around the world is driven in part by this top down sort of approach.

Chris - I read a quite poignant piece someone had written the other day in which they say the amount that China will increase its output this year is more than if the UK went net zero tomorrow. In other words, they are eclipsing just the increase in their emissions, our entire carbon footprint annually, and they're not the only ones. Obviously India, America, and it's increasing. Now is everybody signed up to do this or are we going to be in a position where they're very virtuous countries impoverished themselves and beggar their economies and actually achieves net nothing for them?

Mark - So the first thing to take away is that 90% of the world's GDP is currently under a pledge for net zero. The United States, Europe, and the United Kingdom will go net zero by 2050. China has said 2060 and India 2070, but this whole China excuse many countries in the western world had this huge legacy. We have been burning fossil fuels since the 1880s, okay, when the industrial revolution really took off. And so many countries have a long legacy. So what we're doing now isn't huge compared with what we've done in the past. So there's a historic legacy, but the interesting thing is we've moved past that as a global community. It is just now not who's going to go quickest. It's like we all have to go net zero and can we actually push other countries to do it?

Chris - But China and India, that's a third of the world's population and if we allow them extra leeway, then since they're accounting for the lion's share of the output between them, are we not really ignoring the elephant in the room?

Mark - Well, so India has a really good comeback to that, and they turned around and said, if everybody lived like an average Indian person now there would be no climate crisis. So we have to be very careful because individually, if we look at the amount that we as individuals in the UK actually produce per person as a society, it's much higher than a person in India and much higher than a person in China. So there's this idea of equity, but we're all on the same process. We're all going the same way. And of course, are we going to try and push China and India to decarbonise as quickly as possible? Absolutely. But the other thing that people forget is that if we are going to do it, we are going to be the ones with the technology. We're the ones that are going to save all that money because what we don't really get across to people is now we really invested in renewable energy 10 years ago. The cost of living crisis that everybody's suffering from now wouldn't have affected us because it's a lot more efficient, it's a lot cleaner. We get less air pollution and it's cheaper.

Chris - Solar panels aren't cheap, Mark.

Mark - So the energy that is produced from solar panels is a lot cheaper. So huge solar farms, offshore wind is a lot cheaper than actually gas and gas produced electricity. And the interesting thing is that you are talking about individuals, and this is where many of us would disagree with the politics, which is why should the individual person have to pay for solar panels? We didn't have to pay for the gas grid. So why do we have to pay for the solar panels on our house, which are going to produce electricity, which we're going to sell back to the grid. So there's an interesting, I would say, separation here about what is good for the country and should be funded and what's being put onto the individual.

Chris - Are there any controversies around the fact that that cop is going to be happening in Dubai this year?

Mark - Oh, this is a massive controversy. So we are going to be in the United Arab Emirates, one of the biggest oil and gas producers. The president of COP is also the CEO of the United Arab Emirates Oil and Gas National company. And he has declared that they're going to double their production of oil and gas by 2030 at the same time as chairing a meeting where we are all on that pathway to net zero. Huge controversy. But the interesting thing is, is that going to help? Because we have to get the oil and gas nations on board. We have to be able to persuade countries like the UEA, like Russia, like Saudi Arabia, that they need to decarbonise and they also need to reduce the supply of oil and gas because we're going to be using less of it in the future.

Chris - So how's that going to go down?

Mark - I have no idea. And this is interesting because having talked to lots and lots of regular goers to COP meetings, people that actually understand the geopolitics, we have no idea what's going to happen at this COP. Strangely enough, in Glasgow, I had a really good idea what the British government and the Italian government were going to do. I had a really good understanding of how the Egyptians were going to play it. This, I don't think we can call it. Again, maybe it's just a staging post. Maybe it'll be a talking shop and we don't get any new agreement. Or maybe because of the actual idea about national pride. This is the United Arab Emirates actually going, right, we're going to help the world decarbonise. We're going to lead the world into a new state of negotiations. So it's interesting how this politics plays out.


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