Seven things to watch out for in world leader speeches at Cop28

Leaders including Narendra Modi, Rishi Sunak, Emmanuel Macron and Lula will share their climate plans in Dubai on Friday and Saturday

A hat on a row of seats

World leaders will gather at Expo City in Dubai on Friday and Saturday (Photo credit: Kiara Worth)


It has become a tradition for world leaders to kick off the annual UN climate conference by telling each other and the world what they’re doing to tackle climate change.

This year, some big hitters like the US’s Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping will stay away. Other influential leaders including Narendra Modi, Emmanuel Macron, Mohamed bin Salman, Mia Mottley, William Ruto and Lula Da Silva are due to attend.

World leader speeches at Cop28 are a chance to show off ambitious policies, bear witness to climate impacts, pledge funding and point fingers. Here are seven things to watch out for.

1. Fossil fuel phase-out

A broad coalition of nations is calling for a phase out, or at least phase down, of fossil fuels. They will face resistance from countries that rely on fossil fuels to generate revenue and keep their people content.

Any deal on a fossil fuel phase out will be struck by negotiators in closed meeting rooms towards the end of Cop28 in two weeks time.

But we will get a good sense of the strength of resistance from the first two speeches on Friday – that of UAE’s Mohamed Bin Zayed and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman.

Its not just Gulf petrostates that defend fossil fuels though. Several African leaders in particular want to exploit their fossil fuel reserves, they say, to bring wealth and electricity to their people.

Senegal’s Macky Sall and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Felix Tshisekedi are among them. They may use their speeches to ask why they shouldn’t pump for new oil and gas when the likes of the US and Canada plan to increase production.

2. Tales from the frontline

After a year that had climate scientists reaching for the thesaurus to describe their shock at global temperature spikes, leaders will share how climate disasters hit their people.

In Libya, extreme rainfall overwhelmed decrepit dams and washed away much of the city of Derna in September. 

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Leaders from Iraq and East African nations may tell of extreme drought while South American leaders could address their weird winter heatwave. 

Then there are the slow, creeping climate impacts. In the Pacific, rising seas and intensifying storms are eroding narrow atolls, while expanding desert eats into the fertile land of northern Africa and mountain glaciers retreat.

3. Start-up cash for a loss and damage fund

Negotiators are set to agree at Cop28 on how to set up a global loss and damage fund for victims of the climate crisis.

A handful of pledges are expected from the EU and others to get it started. Don’t get too excited: we’re talking in the region of $0.5-1 billion, not the $100bn a year developing countries ultimately want to see flowing through the fund.

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Avinash Persaud, climate adviser to Barbados’ prime minister, told Climate Home that amounts like that should not be dismissed. “Countries can’t pull billions out of a hat,” he said, “because you have to budget in advance.”

Climate Action Network’s Harjeet Singh took a stronger line. “Recovery costs are soaring into the billions,” he said, “far exceeding the expected pledges of a few hundred million.”

4. Green Climate Fund pledges 

The UN’s flagship climate fund held its four-yearly fundraising round in October. Pledges from wealthy countries totalled a disappointing $9.3bn – less than last time in 2019. 

That’s left the fund’s secretariat looking to have to scale back ambition – help fewer farmers adapt to climate change, conserve less forest, protect fewer countries with early warning systems.

A few late pledges could improve its fortunes. Italy, Sweden and Switzerland have yet to announce contributions. Their leaders are attending.

The US and Australia are not sending leaders but could announce funds elsewhere. Both now claim to be climate leaders. This is the time to prove it with cash. 

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5. Bridgetown developments

Two years ago, Barbados’ prime minister Mia Mottley got some influential allies together in her capital city Bridgetown to plot how to transform the global financial system to make it work for climate. 

Since then, her speeches have become must-watch verdicts on how that mission is going and where it should go next. We’re expecting her to call for more ambition in reforming banks like the World Bank so that they spend more on climate.

Her speeches often include innovative ideas. Last year, she suggested that oil companies should pay for climate damages. With Barbados’ support, France and Kenya have set up a task force to look into making that happen, which Emmanuel Macron and William Ruto are likely to promote. So what Mottley proposes this year is worth watching.

6. Coal-to-clean updates 

Two years ago in Glasgow, the concept of a Just Energy Transition Partnership was launched. The idea was for rich countries to financially help coal-reliant emerging economies switch to renewables. 

South Africa piloted the idea, while agreements with Indonesia and Vietnam came next. All have been plagued by arguments over the pace of change and the nature of finance. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa will give an update on South Africa’s package on Friday. The most advanced of the partnerships, it nonetheless faces political challenges.

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Vietnam is due to announce its investment plan at Cop28. Prime minister Chinh Pham Minh will no doubt talk it up, without mentioning that he’s jailed several environmental campaigners. 

The words of Indonesian president Joko Widodo could be interesting as, ahead of February’s elections, he could air his complaints about rich countries’ insistence on mainly loans not grants.

With India uninterested, there are no more in the immediate pipeline but plenty of leaders will emphasise the volume of investment needed to support clean development.

7. Bids to host Cop29

Two years ago, we already knew that we’d be in the United Arab Emirates for Cop28. Similarly, we already know that Cop30 will be in Belém in Brazil in two years time. 

But we don’t know where we’ll be this time next year. It’s up to the UN’s Eastern Europe group to decide. Various EU states have offered but Russia has vetoed them because of EU support for Ukraine.

Russia supports Azerbaijan’s candidacy but Armenia, which is at war with Azerbaijan, opposes that and wants to host itself – which Azerbaijan opposes right back. 

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The various potential hosts could use their speeches to make their case. If there’s no agreement the default is for the UAE to keep the presidency with the physical conference held at the UN climate headquarters in Bonn, Germany.

For Cop31, contenders include Australia, whose leader is not on the speaker list, and Turkiye whose president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will speak on Friday.

Read more on: Cop28 | UN climate talks