'Deadly cycle' of climate change must change, U.N. chief warns ahead of COP28 summit

What to expect from the annual, two-week climate conference beginning on Thursday.

A worker dusts an event board for the COP28 climate conference.
A worker dusts an event board before the COP28 climate conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Annie Sakkab/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

After visiting the Arctic earlier this week, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of the dangers posed by sea level rise due to melting glaciers. He also called for major action to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change at the U.N. climate summit known as COP28, which begins Thursday in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

“We are trapped in a deadly cycle," Guterres said. “At COP28 … leaders must break this cycle.”

But what is COP28, and how could it combat climate change? Here are all the key facts and contentious issues to know about ahead of the summit.

What’s happening

The United Nations Climate Change Conference is an annual, two-week session to negotiate action to deal with global warming. COP stands for “Conference of the Parties,” referring to the nearly 200 countries that signed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992.

Antonio Guterres.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

Why it matters

COP28 opens on the heels of a year rife with record-breaking heat waves and devastating disasters; 2023 is set to be the hottest on record.

According to a U.N. report released earlier this month, greenhouse gas emissions need to drop 42% by 2030 to stay below 1.5°C (2.7°F) of warming above pre-industrial temperatures, which all the nations committed to at COP21 in Paris. However, the report says that emissions are instead on pace to rise 3% this decade.

Closing that gap is a major goal of the conference.

“We’re really assessing where we’ve come since Paris, and, unfortunately, we know we’re not on track to achieve the goals of Paris,” COP28 Director-General Majid Al Suwaidi told Yahoo News in July. “So that means we have to say something about what we’re going to do to get back on track.”

What the organizers hope to achieve

Majid Al Suwaidi.
Ambassador Majid Al Suwaidi, director general of COP28. (Ali Haider/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Al Suwaidi identified several "pillars" of the upcoming conference:

  • Closing the "emissions gap." Getting all the participating countries to step up their pledges to go from a 3% projected emissions increase to a 42% decrease is the first priority.

  • Doubling of adaptation finance. Since climate change is already wreaking havoc in the poorest countries, developing nations need money to adapt — building sea walls to hold back rising tides, for example.

  • Operationalizing the loss and damage fund. With developing countries suffering severe losses from climate change-related catastrophes such as stronger hurricanes, rich countries agreed at COP27 to establish a fund at this year’s conference to provide some compensation for such loss and damage.

  • Increasing climate finance. Developing countries such as India are trying to deliver electricity and rising incomes to millions of impoverished people. To do this, they say they need developed countries to provide loans for building up their capacity to generate electricity from clean sources such as solar and wind power in exchange for limiting their emissions.

Big promises, smaller progress

At COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, and COP27 in Sharm-el Sheik, Egypt, countries pledged to reduce deforestation and emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. But deforestation continues to run rampant, and methane in the atmosphere — largely caused by oil and gas drilling and cattle ranching — keeps reaching new heights.

However, nations have begun bending their emissions curves downward: the 3% projected increase in emissions is less than the 16% increase projected for this decade when the Paris agreement was made in 2015. Thanks to policies implemented since Paris, warming by 2100 is projected to be around 2.5 to 2.7°C (4.5 to 4.9°F), down from 3.7 to 4°C (6.7 to 7.2°F), as of 2015.

Certain big emitters have made major strides in recent years, including a dramatic drop in deforestation in Brazil, declining emissions in the European Union, and unprecedented clean energy investment by the U.S. in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.

John Kerry rides in a cart.
Special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry rides in a cart in Dubai in Nov. 29. (Peter Dejong/AP Photo)

U.S.-led momentum

Although President Biden will not be attending COP28 after speaking at the last two COPs, the United States is again taking a leading role. Special presidential climate envoy John Kerry is leading the U.S. delegation, and he and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua announced earlier this month that the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters are committing to tripling global renewable energy capacity, reducing methane emissions and halting deforestation by 2030.

“There literally will be hundreds of initiatives that will be announced [at COP28], many of them coming from the United States, but also many coming from other parts of the world, and I think it’s going to be a very exciting presentation of a global effort that is taking place, even though it’s not happening fast enough or big enough yet,” Kerry said at a Wednesday morning press briefing.

Sticking points

At every COP, rich and poor countries argue about money:

  • According to the U.N., developing countries will need $340 billion annually by 2030 for climate adaptation but received only $29 billion in financing for it in 2020.

  • Developing countries and climate justice advocates want an increase in funding, but rich countries are reluctant to pony up.

There is also an annual fight over fossil fuels: