The choice of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to host the 2023 conference is controversial, due to the nation’s track record, and projected expansion in its production of fossil fuels. Moreover, COP28’s president is Sultan Al Jaber, head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), who has been responsible for a marked enlargement of oil and gas production, during a period in which these industries are being urged to curb their recovery of hydrocarbons, in order to combat climate change. A BBC report has referred to "leaked briefing documents" which showed that the UAE intended to use COP28 to target foreign governments with oil and gas deals. However, Sultan Al Jaber has vehemently denied this.
On November 27, from an investigation by the Centre for Climate Reporting and Channel 4 News, it was reported that, over the border, Saudi Arabia is now promoting a global development plan to "hook" poor countries on oil, increasing the use of fossil fuel-powered cars, buses and planes in Africa and elsewhere, as rich countries increasingly switch to clean energy. Mohamed Adow, the director of the think-tank Power Shift Africa, said: “The Saudi government is like a drug dealer trying to get Africa hooked on its harmful product", and further commented that: “Africa cannot catch up with the rest of the world by trudging along in the footsteps of the polluting nations. It would mean we miss out on the benefits of modern energy solutions that Africa can take advantage of due to its massive renewable energy potential. We have the latecomer advantage, which means we can leapfrog to a genuine energy transition.”
Sultan Al Jaber is also chairman and a founder of the renewable energy company Masdar. In addition, he leads the UAE's climate envoy, and serves as their minister for industry and advanced technology. An open letter from over 130 US lawmakers and Members of the European Parliament, called for the removal of Al Jaber as the president-designate of COP28, and expressed reservations over how the private sector polluters were exercising "undue influence" over the climate summit’s process.
Amnesty International has voiced its dissatisfaction, stating that, "Sultan al-Jaber cannot be an honest broker for climate talks when the company he leads is planning to cause more climate damage.”
As a result of its combination of high temperatures and humidity, the UAE is especially susceptible to the effects of global heating and climate change. In the years 1990-2022, the observed annual average mean surface air temperature in the UAE rose by 1.27°C (2.29°F). Should greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, by 2070, wet-bulb temperatures in the region are expected to exceed 35°C (95°F) for prolonged periods. [A wet-bulb temperature of 35°C is the threshold at which the human body is unable to keep itself cool by sweating and, if sustained is likely to be fatal, even to fit and healthy people]. Thus, if people anywhere should be concerned about climate change, it is there.
Indeed, the greatest number of heat-humidity extreme events in the world occur in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf regions, and on several occasions, these have broken above the safe wet-bulb temperature threshold. Other climate change-driven phenomena in this area are dust storms, drought and sea level rise. The UAE has pledged to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, and was also the first Middle Eastern country to sign the Paris Agreement on 21 September 2016.
The need for international cooperation as a successful climate action has been emphasised, and while the head of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, expressed optimism that COP28 will bring significant results, he noted that the geopolitical situation, with many nations at loggerheads over the war in Ukraine, and still frosty relations between the US and China, would make for a difficult summit. He said, "The most important challenge [to limiting temperature rises to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels] is the lack of international cooperation.” A lack of global solidarity has been proposed by the Bangladeshi climate envoy as being the main obstacle to averting climate change, and has stressed the need to create a loss and damage fund. Disquiet has also been expressed that, in addition to the war in Ukraine, the 2023 Israel-Hamas war may adversely affect negotiations at COP28.
At a pre-COP meeting, held at the end of November 2023, attended by 100 delegations and 70 ministers (more than at any previous pre-COP meeting), the COP general director, Majid al-Suwaidi, insisted that COP28 would deliver the promised “loss and damage” outcomes from last year's COP27.
In advance of the conference, Pope Francis issued the apostolic exhortation, Laudate Deum - a follow on from his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si - in which he urged that immediate action be taken against the climate crisis and condemned those who would deny the existence of climate change.
COP28 is the first COP to raise discussion about the public health impacts of climate change. Organisations representing 46 million health professionals have written to Sultan Al Jaber, calling for a total phase-out of fossil fuels. The World Health Organisation has exhorted ministers of health to make “health” a force for propelling climate action, via climate-friendly healthcare systems, and called for climate finance as a means to afford protection to human well-being both now and in the future.