COP28 at a climate justice and human rights juncture


Human rights, equity and climate justice must guide all COPs. These principles are needed more than ever at COP28.

Written by Shereen Talaat (MENA Fem), Iolanda Fresnillo and Leia Achampong (Eurodad)

COP28 was always going to be a crucial event for the future of the planet. And for the people of the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, where the summit has been held since November 30, the stakes could not be higher. As well as being one of the regions of the world most affected by the climate crisis, it also includes some of the most indebted countries. This dual climate and debt injustice is destroying people’s livelihoods, ecosystems and, in some cases, entire economies. 

This year’s host, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) could turn COP28 into a success by facilitating an agreement amongst countries to phase out fossil fuels; prioritising renewable energy, coupled with energy efficiency measures; taking human rights far more seriously; and making progress towards setting a robust new global climate finance goal by 2024 that prioritises grants over loans, while meeting existing finance goals. 

Instead, so far, the UAE seems to have opened the door to turning the UN climate talks into a ‘talking shop’ for the fossil fuel industry’s lobbyists to push false greenwashing solutions. This not only undermines the integrity of the Paris Agreement, but also puts people and planet at risk of even more severe climate change and human rights violations, exacerbating inequalities between and within countries. 

As we move through the last week of the official COP agenda - a week which includes the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) - we look at how we have reached this point and whether this COP can still deliver the action the world needs. 

The failure to deliver on phasing out fossil fuels 

One of the most concerning aspects of this year’s COP was the choice of the UAE as host. This is a nation that is not fully committed to tackling climate change and has failed to adhere to the principles of the UDHR. 

The UAE's disproportionately high per capita carbon dioxide emissions surpasses those of low- and middle-income countries combined, and remains a significant environmental challenge. Despite investments in renewable energy, the nation's heavy reliance on fossil fuels has continually raised  questions about its commitment to addressing climate change and transitioning to a low-carbon economy. The appointment of Sultan al-Jaber, head of the UAE’s Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), as COP28 President was also seen by many as a stark contradiction of COP's core goals. 

Furthermore, the presence of an unprecedented 2,400 fossil fuel lobbyists at COP28 raises questions about the role of these interests in climate negotiations. While steps have been taken to disclose lobbyists when they register, doubts persist about the impact of such measures on curbing the fossil fuel industry's influence over the summit. This issue demands stronger measures to ensure a fair and impartial representation at this and future COPs, ensuring that the summits do not become a place for rampant greenwashing. 

Human rights concerns

Furthermore, civil society organisations in the MENA region and globally have expressed deep concern about the UAE’s human rights record, including restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Such restrictions are hindering the ability of civil society organisations and  activists to freely express their views and engage in the COP28 discussions.

Climate finance vs. the ongoing debt burden 

Debt remains a high priority for the people of the MENA region.  As well as crippling debt repayments, countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan are forced to pay additional charges to the IMF for their lending, known as “surcharges”. While the need for debt cancellation and fair debt resolution mechanisms and the elimination of IMF surcharges, are not part of the COP28 negotiations, they deeply affect countries’ ability to tackle the climate emergency. According to Development Finance International calculations, in 2023, “spending on debt service will be 12.5 times higher than spending on climate adaption. In 2024, it will be 13.2 times higher”. 

Instead of discussing the need for comprehensive and unconditional debt cancellation, COP28 has so far focused attention on false and partial solutions like debt swaps. As a Eurodad report recently showed, debt-for-climate swaps are unlikely to provide substantial funds to address climate and environmental challenges, will not address the severe and ever worsening debt problems in the global south, and usually come with problematic governance and transparency issues. At the same time, more than 70 per cent of public climate finance between 2016 and 2021 was provided in the form of loans, adding to the already unsustainable debt levels. This creates a vicious circle between the debt and climate emergencies

The impact of the debt-climate crisis on human rights

This vicious circle also undermines the capacity of governments to protect their people’s rights, and even results in human rights violations, for instance through cuts in essential public services and social protection. It has a very particular impact on gender justice. Women, girls and gender minorities are not only more exposed to the impacts of debt crises and the implementation of fiscal consolidation and austerity measures, they also bear a heavier burden from the impacts of climate change and environmental destruction. In this sense, climate change and the debt crisis act as compounded multipliers of existing intersectional gender-based inequalities. Despite these impacts, climate flows are “largely exclusionary to women, girls, Indigenous women, racialised and ethnic women, non-gendered communities and disabled women”, who are disproportionately impacted by climate change and so need greater access to climate finance. 

The role of the private sector still looms large

The UAE Presidency has also launched a new US$30 billion renewable energy fund for developing and emerging economies that currently has approximately $6.5 billion committed. It’s a collaboration with BlackRock, Brookfield and TPG and the aim is to “mobilize US$250 billion globally by 2030”. However, it is largely a vehicle for private finance and blended finance and has already been criticised by civil society. The fund’s lack of grants and highly concessional finance risks it being a mechanism that exacerbates existing inequalities, promotes further financialisation of climate finance flows and worsens the debt crisis. 

CSOs are calling for the Fund's governance to be aligned with the principles of the Paris Agreement and for the Fund to integrate mechanisms for grants and concessional finance too.

Loss and Damage Fund, so far a key COP28 outcome 

A key part of the COP28 Package announced on day one, was the agreement to operationalise the Loss and Damage Fund to support countries in addressing the irreversible impacts of climate change. The Fund, which will be hosted by the World Bank - at least for the first four years - must now be filled with new and additional public climate finance and be disbursed as grants. Unfortunately, contributions from global north countries remain voluntary, and the pledges have so far only reached US$655.9 million - equivalent to less than 0.2% of the irreversible economic and non-economic losses that global south countries are facing every year. These pledges are far below identified financing needs to address ongoing loss and damage. For the L & D Fund to be effective, all those in need must be able to access it and be a part of decision-making and project implementation processes. This includes girls, women, indigenous and ethnic women, and gender minorities. 

What could still be done during COP28? 

Civil society organisations and development and climate experts have been calling for debt cancellation for climate justice. They have also been calling for new and additional, debt-free climate finance to support vulnerable nations to adapt to and mitigate against climate change, as well as to address loss and damage impacts, all while transitioning to net-zero economies. Contributing climate finance to the global south is a responsibility and an obligation enshrined in the UNFCCC Convention text. As those most responsible for climate change, and under the UNFCCC’s common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR-RC) principle, global north countries must increase public funding flows towards global south countries. Countries in the global north must increase gender-responsive funding flows towards global south countries, ensuring that traditionally marginalised women are a priority. This includes disbursing grants to women-led organisations in local communities.

Human rights, equity and climate justice must guide all COPs. These principles are needed more than ever at COP28.