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What is COP28 and why is it important?

Massachusetts will be well-represented at this year’s climate summit in Dubai. Plus, hot topics, high stakes, and history.

Though President Biden is not at this year’s conference, the Bay State is well-represented at the climate talks in Dubai.JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images

Thousands of politicians, civil servants, academics, and business leaders are gathering in Dubai, a city in the United Arab Emirates, for two weeks for the 28th annual Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The proper name is a mouthful, so those in the know just call it by the acronym COP28.

The conference runs from Nov. 30th to Dec. 12th. It will include tense discussions about how to move the world past fossil fuels — like coal, oil, and gas — which drive climate change, who should pay for that transition, and how to address economic losses that come with more severe events driven by global warming like heat waves, hurricanes, drought, and flooding.


Representatives from nearly 200 countries will attend.

As the conference begins, the stakes continue to rise — a Nov. 20 report from the UN found that the planet is “set to blow well past the agreed-upon international climate threshold.”

Here are the basics.

What is COP?

The international climate summit has occurred annually since the first meeting in Berlin in 1995. This year is the 28th meeting, thus, the nickname COP28. It has never been held in the United States.

Two landmark agreements stand out in the history of the conference: the 1997 Kyoto Protocol — a legally binding treaty to reduce carbon emissions — and the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees Celsius,” while also pursuing efforts to limit the rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The planet has already warmed about 1.2 degrees Celsius. The World Meteorological Organization warns that there’s a 66 percent chance the world will reach 1.5 degrees of warming, at least temporarily, within the next five years, and global temperatures could swing between 1.1 and 1.8 degrees higher over pre-industrial levels during that time.


Where is this year’s conference?

This round, the UAE is playing host. The choice of a country whose economy is driven by oil profits reignited in controversy after it was revealed that the president of COP28, Sultan Al Jaber, allegedly planned to use the conference to strike oil and gas deals, according to documents released by the BBC and Centre for Climate Reporting. This would be in clear contradiction to the goals of the conference.

Al Jaber, who has denied the charges, is president of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, and critics have long argued his appointment to COP28 president is a conflict of interest.

More than 70,000 people are expected in Dubai, making it by far the most well-attended climate summit in history.

Who is going from Massachusetts?

Though President Biden is not at this year’s conference, the Bay State will be well-represented by scientists, academics, and students.

More than a dozen Harvard University faculty members are in Dubai, representing six Harvard schools and a range of disciplines. The list includes James Stock, who served as a member of President Obama’s council of economic advisors.

Two professors and one research staff member are representing Boston University at COP28. Additionally, eight scientists from Woodwell, a Falmouth-based climate research center, are attending.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute sent three students as part of an educational partnership focused on sustainability between WPI and the American University of Sharjah in the UAE. Boston College sent a delegation of 20 people, both staff and students. The University of Massachusetts Lowell is also represented by a student group.


Neither the Healey administration, nor the city of Boston is sending anyone this year.

What’s at stake this year?

The year 2023 is likely to become the hottest on record, a reminder of the dire consequences of global temperature rise. The thrust of the discussions in Dubai will be about paths forward to limit that warming by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, mainly coming from transportation, buildings, and agriculture.

This year, nations will make an accounting of their progress cutting greenhouse gasses for the first time since the Paris Agreement. This review is intended to put the spotlight on countries to get things moving.

Then there’s the thorny question of who pays for the negative impacts we’re already seeing from global warming — damage from more frequent and intense storms, drought, floods, and heat.

At the UN’s climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, wealthier, heavier-polluting countries pledged to spend $100 billion a year to help poorer nations cope with the impacts of climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Contributions have run far behind schedule and now trillions of dollars are needed to invest in green energy, according to the UN.

At COP 27 last year in Egypt, nations agreed to provide “loss and damage” funding for vulnerable countries hit hard by climate disasters. But sticking points remain, including who should pay and which countries would be eligible to receive funding


Technology will also be at the forefront of this year’s talks. Mitigation strategies, including ways to capture carbon emissions before they enter the atmosphere, will be a hot topic. This is welcome news for Massachusetts — the Boston area has quickly become one of the leading centers of green technology innovation.

Vivi Smilgius can be reached at vivi.smilgius@globe.com. Follow her @viviraye.