COP is the biggest annual conference on the climate crisis, and COP28 is being held this year in Dubai from the 30th November – 12th December. In this article, we look at COP’s history, key achievements and what’s likely to be on the agenda in 2023.

What is COP and when did it begin?

COP stands for Conference of the Parties. It’s the biggest annual conference on the climate crisis, held by the United Nations. It sees representatives from hundreds of countries gather to agree actions to tackle the climate crisis, and this year it’s being held in Dubai.

The origins of COP go back to 1992, when 197 countries joined the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a means to work together to limit global temperature increases that drive climate change.

The first COP (COP1) took place in Berlin in 1995, with the aim of agreeing how global temperatures would be limited, and strengthening the UNFCCC. Almost every year since then (apart from in 2020 due to Covid-19), countries have gathered to review progress compared with the latest climate science, and set new commitments on both preventing and adapting to the climate crisis.

What are some landmark COP commitments?

Some landmark commitments made during past COPs include:

  • Kyoto Protocol (COP3, Kyoto 1997)  The Kyoto Protocol committed “industrialised nations and economies in transition to limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with agreed individual targets.” 192 countries are part of the Kyoto Protocol, but it only set legally binding emission targets for 37 industrialised countries and the EU. It ran until 2020, and has been superseded by the Paris Agreement.
  • Paris Agreement (COP21, Paris 2015) – The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty, in which countries committed to limiting global heating to well below 2 degrees (and ideally 1.5 degrees) compared to pre-industrial levels. 
  • Glasgow Climate Pact (COP26, Glasgow 2021) – The Glasgow Climate Pact saw nations agree to reduce the gap between current emission reduction plans and the action needed to limit heating to 1.5 degrees. It was also the first time a COP agreement included commitments to phase down coal power and fossil fuel subsidies.
  • Loss and damage fund (COP27, Sharm el-Sheikh, 2022) – Developing countries that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change often contribute the least to global emissions. Finally, a fund was agreed at COP27 to support the costs of rescuing and rebuilding infrastructure following extreme weather events.

What are the priorities of COP28?

2023 is on track to be the hottest year on record, with July, August, September and October all surpassing monthly records by substantial margins. Extreme weather has affected people around the globe: wildfires have devastated Canada, Hawaii and Greece (among other locations). Torrential rain has caused flash flooding across China, the Philippines and the African Great Lakes. The planet saw its hottest average temperature ever recorded – showing the world that we are not moving fast enough in the fight against the climate crisis.

Here are some of the items on the agenda for COP28:

offshore wind farm wind turbines

Fossil fuel phasedown: A group of 15 nations has called for all fossil fuels to be phased out entirely, at preliminary talks ahead of COP28.

Renewables expansion: The EU, USA and UAE are calling for governments to agree to triple the amount of renewable energy this decade.

1.5 degrees: Time is running out to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees – with the UN’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 only giving us a 40% chance of achieving this target. No doubt this will be central to discussions at COP28.

Climate finance: Extreme weather events continue to devastate lives and livelihoods. Climate finance commitments will be important to help countries to adapt and rebuild.

Health: For the first time, there will also be a day dedicated to Health at COP28 – recognising that climate change poses a health emergency.

It’s also confirmed that King Charles and Pope Francis will be attending COP28 – after King Charles was famously advised against attending COP27 in Egypt last year.

“Droughts, storms, floods and wildfires are devastating lives and livelihoods across the globe [and] getting worse by the day. We need climate action on all fronts and we need it now.” 

António Guterres, UN secretary general

What are some criticisms of COP?

COPs have taken place almost every year for nearly three decades. And while some universal climate action has been achieved, the world is still on track for global temperature increases of over 2 degrees.

Dubai hosts COP28 this year, amid controversy.

This year’s COP faces criticisms due to its location. The UAE is one of the world’s biggest producers of oil – a climate-damaging fossil fuel. It has also nominated a very controversial figure to lead on the global climate talks – Sultan Al Jabar, CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

It goes without saying that getting oil and gas producers to make meaningful climate commitments is absolutely key to a successful transition to net zero – but the location and presidential choice have been labelled by many as a form of greenwashing.

Other recent criticisms of COP, such as COP26 in Glasgow, was that it wasn’t as accessible to delegations and activists from poorer nations as it could be due to the high cost of travel and accommodation. It was also noted that most representatives were male, and that the voices of indigenous peoples who protect the majority of the world’s biodiversity were not given a big enough platform. 

Why is COP still important?

Despite the actions delivered by COP feeling frustratingly slow, it remains the most significant occasion when representatives from 197 countries come together to attempt to agree meaningful action on the climate crisis. 

The event enables representatives on the frontline of the climate crisis, such as the Alliance of Small Island States threatened by sea level rises, to directly address the world’s biggest emitters. Their arguments have been key to increasing funding for climate adaptation, and in agreeing a loss and damage fund for climate vulnerable nations. COP also serves as a focal point for mass demonstrations such as the International Day of Climate Action, which takes place mid-way through the conference. This brings together millions of protesters at events across the world, to demand urgent action against climate breakdown.

What can you do to support climate action?

Everyone can play some part in tackling the climate crisis, year-round. Here are some ways to take part:

Support climate campaigns
Good Energy partners Friends of the Earth, a veteran environmental charity that has played a vital role in campaigns such as getting fracking banned in the UK. Find out about their current campaigns, or join a local climate network to stand up for the planet from home.

As well as well-known charities, there are plenty of smaller organisations with specific environmental goals. Green New Deal Rising aims to get MPs on side to agree deals that decarbonise our economy. Good Law Project is taking Rishi Sunak’s government to court over its climate change commitments. Stop Cambo campaigns against our government’s recent approval of Rosebank oil field. 

Crowd of climate protestors, with one person holding a sign reading 'we are on fire, act now'.

Vote for change
The UK political scene at the moment is…chaotic to say the least! Whenever you have an opportunity to vote, whether in local council or general elections, look into your candidates’ environmental policies. Use They Work for You to check past voting records, and Write to Them to easily contact your political representatives about the climate crisis.

Live by your values
Every tonne of carbon that can be saved matters. Which means that individual changes to help the climate are still important. Check out our other articles for plenty of ways to get started: