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The geopolitics of international climate diplomacy: A read-out from COP28

Article by Dr Andrew Gawthorpe

December 19, 2023

The geopolitics of international climate diplomacy: A read-out from COP28

This year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), held from 30 November to 12 December 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), got off to a rocky start. Hosting the conference in the UAE, a country where fossil fuels make up 30% of the economy, was always going to be controversial, as was the decision to pick as President of the Summit Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of the country’s state oil company.[1] When audio emerged of Al Jaber recently claiming that there is “no science” to indicate that a phase-out of fossil fuels is necessary for the world to meet its climate targets, many analysts were ready to write the conference off entirely.[2]


Especially when judged against such low expectations, the final results of the conference are best described as ‘limited but positive.’ For the first time ever, a UN climate summit ended with a declaration that explicitly mentioned the need to “transition away from” fossil fuels.[3] Traditionally such a statement has been opposed by, among others, China, India, Saudi Arabia, and sometimes the United States (US). On the other hand, the Summit’s final text has been criticised for containing numerous loopholes and for doing little to provide low-income countries with the financing that they need to transition away from fossil fuels.[4]


The outcomes of UN climate summits are profoundly influenced by geopolitical and political trends unfolding in the world at large. In particular, the attitudes of China and the US have often played a key role in determining whether progress can be made. The two countries are the world’s largest emitters, key green energy innovation hubs, and potential sources of climate finance for less developed countries. They also have a fiercely antagonistic relationship, one which has, at times, threatened to extinguish the possibility of climate cooperation altogether.


The climate and US-Chinese competition

In recent years, climate policy itself has become a key arena of US-Chinese competition. Both countries want to be the global leader in green energy technology, to ensure a sustainable energy transition at home as well as to enhance their influence abroad. China has been heavily subsidising its renewables industry for decades, with the result being that the West is now heavily reliant on China for a number of technologies vital to the green transition, such as solar panels and electric vehicle batteries. In response, US President Biden’s administration has unveiled expansive subsidies for American green energy companies and placed a number of trade sanctions on China. These moves were denounced by China, which sees them as an attempt to suppress the rise of the Chinese economy.[5]


This has coincided with a general downturn in US-Chinese relations prompted by former Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in August 2022 and the Chinese spy balloon caught floating over the United States earlier this year. Beijing cancelled ongoing climate talks with Washington after Pelosi’s trip, raising fears that the two countries’ climate envoys would not even be talking to each other in the run up to this year’s COP28 Summit.


The talks finally restarted in the summer of 2023, just in time to begin preparations for COP28.[6] Although this reopening of dialogue did not represent any major underlying improvement in the relationship between the two countries, it did indicate that both see the climate issue as having significance beyond their own bilateral relationship. The leadership in both countries recognise the need to address climate change and that failing to do so will harm their diplomatic standing among the nations which stand to suffer from unchecked global warming the most. Crucially, this summer also coincided with a renewed push in Beijing to improve its relations with the US as the Chinese economy experiences unprecedented difficulties.[7]


With this, the stage was set. One of the great virtues of the UN climate summit system is that it creates periodic bursts of pressure on world leaders to come up with new commitments to tackle climate change. For the US and China particularly, there is a powerful incentive not to be seen as a spoiler. This has enabled – or forced – Washington and Beijing to come together to enable important breakthroughs in the past; as they did in the run-up to the Paris Climate Summit in 2015 and the Glasgow Summit in 2021, which saw a breakthrough on methane reduction. Once again, in the run-up to COP28, this system worked – but it also exposed the ways in which geopolitics continues to shape and limit the extent to which progress can be made.


The key issues at COP28

At COP28, the two main issues facing delegates were the phasing out fossil fuels and the provision of climate finance to developing nations. Both required US-Chinese cooperation to come to fruition, but in the end only one of them did.


The phase-out of fossil fuels has traditionally been a point of major contention at UN climate summits. Although the entire edifice of international climate diplomacy is premised on a transition away from greenhouse gas-emitting fuels and towards renewable energy sources, actually explicitly calling for fossil fuels to be abandoned has proved a step too far for many countries. Producing countries like Saudi Arabia have an obvious reason for refusing to denounce their major source of revenue. However, less-developed countries like India and various African nations have also been wary of abandoning the only affordable source of energy they have access to.


In the past, China has aligned itself with the less-developed countries, claiming that it is unfair for developed nations to now deny others a cheap source of energy after using it to get rich themselves.[8] The Trump administration was also opposed to endorsing a phase-out of fossil fuels, particularly as America was undergoing an oil and gas boom, which has now transformed it into the world’s largest producer.[9]


China’s decision at COP28 to endorse a “transition away from” fossil fuels will hence be remembered as a key moment in international climate diplomacy. Although the decision-making of the Government in Beijing is notoriously opaque, one reason for the shift may be that China’s energy mix is increasingly starting to look like that of a developed rather than a developing country. In 2023 alone, China built enough renewable energy capacity to power all of France.[10] As the global center of production for many of the technologies, which will power the green transition, China also stands to benefit as the world becomes increasingly reliant on those technologies.


In the end, the Summit declaration’s language on fossil fuels was agreed between the US and Chinese delegations, highlighting once again the importance of their cooperation.[11] Yet on the other key issue at the Summit – finance – no breakthrough was found.


Developing nations require trillions of dollars annually to keep the global green transition on track.[12] Where this money should come from is a key point of contention. China argues that the developed countries that have benefited the most from past greenhouse gas emissions should cover it, whereas the United States and other Western countries thinks China – and also India – should pay.[13] However, the West’s position is undermined by the fact that it has often not even fulfilled its own pledge of paying $100bn annually. With an election looming in the United States next year, there was little chance that the Biden administration would make any new commitments in this area, and the deadlock encountered at past summits remained.


The limits of progress

Overall, the outcome of COP28 shows that while progress can be achieved when the interests of the world’s most powerful countries align, the battle against climate change remains dependent, at least to some measure, on geopolitical harmony. In their written submissions to the conference, many countries – including China – warned that rising trade and technology protectionism was a threat to global climate cooperation.[14] Yet there seems little chance that either the US or China will bow out of the race to dominate the green sector anytime soon. Moreover, a major blow-up in some other aspect of the relationship – say, over Taiwan – could derail progress entirely.


The world therefore finds itself in an uncomfortable position, with any future progress on climate change dependent on stability in what is a heavily contentious bilateral relationship. With the US Presidential election looming next November, there is also the possibility of Donald Trump returning to the White House, a development that is likely to result in the US abdicating itself once more from its global responsibilities.


Amid these swirling geopolitical and political currents, all progress on the climate is fragile and reversible. COP28, at least, turned out somewhat better than expected. We must hope that the same can be said of future summits too.


Andrew Gawthorpe is an expert on US foreign policy and politics at Leiden University and the creator of America Explained, a podcast and newsletter. He was formerly a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, a teaching fellow at the UK Defence Academy, and a civil servant in the Cabinet Office.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.


[1] United Arab Emirates (UAE) Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UAE Economy, undated,

[2] Damian Carrington and Ben Stockton, Cop28 President Says There Is ‘No Science’ Behind Demands for Phase-Out Of Fossil Fuels, The Guardian, December 2023,

[3] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, First Global Stocktake, December 2023,

[4] Damian Carrington, Failure of Cop28 On Fossil Fuel Phase-Out Is ‘Devastating’, Say Scientists, The Guardian, December 2023,

[5] Andrew Gawthorpe, U.S.-China Competition Is Weaponizing The Green Transition, World Politics Review, September 2023,

[6] Aime Williams and Demetri Sevastopulo, John Kerry Visits Beijing To Restart Stalled US-China Climate Talks, Financial Times, July 2023,

[7] Laura He, Beijing Is Ready To Improve Ties With US, Says Chinese Vice-President, CNN, November 2023,

[8] Andrew Freedman, Top Emitter China Says No To Fossil Fuel “Phase Out” Language At Cop28, Axios, September 2023,

[9] Lindsay Maizland and Anshu Siripurapu, How The U.S. Oil And Gas Industry Works, Council on Foreign Relations, August 2022,

[10] Xu Yi-chong, COP28: Why China’s Clean Energy Boom Matters for Global Climate Action, The Conversation, December 2023,

[11] Maha El Dahan, David Stanway and Valerie Volcovici, How The World Agreed To Move Away From Fossil Fuels At COP28, Reuters, December 2023,

[12] News Wires, Developing Countries Need ‘Radical’ Investment To Fight Climate Change, UN Says, France24, November 2023,

[13] Navin Singh Khadka, COP28: Should India and China Benefit From A Climate Change Fund?, BBC News, December 2023,

[14] COP28, China’s Submission On The Elements For the Consideration Of Outputs Component Of The Global Stocktake, undated,—China%20-%20Submission%20on%20the%20Elements%20for%20the%20Consideration%20of%20Outputs%20Component%20of%20Global%20Stocktake.pdf

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