The COP28 climate summit gets underway Thursday in Dubai, as scientists warn the world is heading for irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change.
2023 is on course to be the hottest year on record, according to data from the European Union, which says that climate change combined with this year's El Nino weather pattern have fueled recent record-breaking temperatures. Fearsome heat, forest fires and flash storms have characterized a year of extreme weather around the world, with no continent left untouched.
The COP28 summit comes at a crucial moment, according to Tom Rivett-Carnac, a former strategist at the UNFCCC and now with the Global Optimism climate think tank.
"This is the launch of what's called the 'global stocktake.' So, this is the first time since the Paris Agreement [in 2014] the world has taken stock of how we are doing on the objectives we set ourselves back then.
"And it's challenging to see what that report says. We should be reducing our emissions by 43%. By the end of this decade, that latest trajectory suggests they're actually going to rise by 9%, with catastrophic impacts for people all over the world," Rivett-Carnac told VOA.
The annual summit, officially known as the 28th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, runs for two weeks until December 12. Some 70,000 delegates from 197 countries are expected to attend, including many heads of state – though the leaders of the U.S. and China, two of the leading emitters of carbon emissions, are not expected to attend.
The COP summits involve complex negotiations. The 198 parties to the UNFCCC – comprising nearly every country in the world – largely agree on the goal of reducing global emissions to curb climate change. However, there is often disagreement over who should bear the costs of reducing those emissions and on how to mitigate the impact of climate change that is already happening.
Less developed nations say richer nations are responsible for most historic greenhouse gas emissions and therefore they should compensate poorer nations for reducing their use of fossil fuels. Poorer nations argue they also need help to adapt to the changing climate.
"Different countries have different priorities. Those who are most vulnerable are concerned about the financial flows to help them deal with the crisis. Those who are less vulnerable, and more wealthy are concerned about collective attempts to reduce emissions. So, any outcome needs to be balanced," Rivett-Carnac said.
Loss and damage
"Last year, one of the big breakthroughs was the creation of what's called a loss and damage fund to help countries deal with the impacts that we can't avoid. This year, we need to see a big step forward towards the operationalization of that fund," Rivett-Carnac said.
The 2014 Paris Agreement aims to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, by 2050.
However, according to data published earlier this month by NASA and Columbia University, climate change is currently accelerating, and the world will cross the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming threshold this decade.
Melting ice caps
The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited Antarctica last week ahead of the COP summit, in a bid to highlight the urgent need to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
"To rescue Antarctica, to rescue Greenland, to rescue the glaciers that I've seen in the past, it is absolutely crucial to end the addiction to fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are the first source of climate change, and I hope that the next COP will be able to decide the phase out of fossil fuels with a clear time frame that is compatible to guarantee that the temperature will not rise more than 1.5 degrees [Celsius]," Guterres told the Associated Press.
Scientists have long warned of rapidly declining sea ice in the Arctic – and they say the region could be ice-free in the summer within a generation.
Until 2015, there was little evidence of ice melt in Antarctica. Now scientists say the rate of ice retreat is accelerating rapidly.
"The big struggle that we have right now in the climate and polar sciences is, why is Antarctica all of a sudden so fast? Will this trend continue? Will we really lose sea ice at that pace? And how can we stop that?" said Antje Boetius, president of the German Alfred Wegener Institute.
"These things all together mean it's time to talk about losses and damages. It's time to talk about socioeconomic solutions because it cannot be that the ones that are transforming, the ones that have little CO2 emissions, that they are punished the most.
And it must be that those who have the highest emissions and who have a wealth from that help others who have had all those losses," Boetius told Reuters.
Biden, Xi absent
The COP28 summit looks set to be without the leaders of the world’s two biggest polluters, the United States and China, which together account for 42 percent of global CO2 emissions.
A U.S. official said this week that President Joe Biden would not be attending the talks, without giving a reason. Chinese President Xi Jinping is also not expected to attend the Dubai meeting.
Biden has frequently warned of the urgent need to tackle global warming, recently announcing a $6 billion investment to address climate change under the Inflation Reduction Act.
At their meeting in California in November, Biden and Xi agreed to deepen cooperation on tackling climate change. "What you see is that if the U.S. and China are in lockstep and have a clear sense of what they want to achieve together, it's much easier for the world to come together around those commitments," said former UNFCC strategist Rivett-Carnac.
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry will be leading day-to-day negotiations for the United States.