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How will Israel-Hamas conflict impact COP28 climate summit?

November 21, 2023

As the UN's annual climate conference convenes, the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza casts a long shadow. Observers suggest the conflict will impact regional cooperation and the future of Middle East environment policies.

A sign saying "#COP28" in Dubai
There's concern that some projects at COP28 might get derailed over Middle East conflictImage: Amr Alfiky/REUTERS

Last year, the much-praised eco-power project shared by former foes Jordan and Israel was touted as an example of how environmentally friendly policies could bring about a better future in the Middle East.

Visiting the region, Germany's own economy minister, Robert Habeck, praised what was known as the "water-for-energy" project. He said that if it worked out as planned, it would be a positive example of how Arab states were cooperating with Israel and that it would "build trust and be an impulse for cooperation instead of confrontation." 

But as of last week, hope for the project — which was supposed to see Jordan provide Israel with solar energy and Israel send Jordan desalinated water in exchange — seems all but lost.

The tentative deal was agreed in November last year and the final version was to be signed at this year's climate conference, COP28, in the United Arab Emirates, set to take place from November 30 to December 12.

But as Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said during a TV interview on Al Jazeera last Thursday, "We will not sign this agreement any longer. Can you imagine a Jordanian minister sitting next to an Israeli minister to sign a water and electricity agreement, all while Israel continues to kill children in Gaza?"

COP28 feels collateral damage from Israel-Hamas conflict

This may only be one example of collateral damage to COP28 caused by the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict.

COP28 is considered one of the world's most important international conferences on climate change because it brings together all the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. COP is short for "conference of the parties" to the convention — there are 198, and they include all UN member states as well as the European Union — and it occurs annually. This is the 28th edition, and it's taking place in Dubai, in the UAE.

But as the fate of the Israeli-Jordanian deal shows, negotiators attending COP28 will likely have to deal with at least some repercussions from the current conflict.

"International climate politics and climate action do not happen in a vacuum," said Ruth Townend, a research fellow at the UK-based think tank Chatham House, whose focus is climate risk and diplomacy. "Governments' positions are shaped by the broader geopolitical context, which constrains or enables effective action and influence," she told DW.

An electronic sign shows the temperature and humidity in Kuwait City on July 11, 2017, during a heatwave
As the climate warms heat waves are expected to regularly reach temperatures of more than 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit), such as here in KuwaitImage: Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images

Observers suggest there are a number of ways the Israel-Hamas conflict, ongoing since an October 7 attack by the Hamas militant group, might impact COP28 negotiations, in both concrete and more ephemeral ways.

This year's summit is expected to be the biggest one yet, and safety could be a concern for some of the around 70,000 delegates expected in Dubai amid the heated emotions the conflict is causing in the Middle East.

The UAE, a monarchy that, according to rights groups like Amnesty International, doesn't allow unauthorized or anti-government protests, has not seen the same kinds of violent, anti-Israel protests as other nations in the region. Nor have any countries issued travel advisories or warnings about going to Dubai.

Nonetheless, some countries and international companies have expressed concern. Earlier in November, Swiss bank UBS warned staff against business travel to the Middle East.

Israel had planned to send around 1,000 delegates to Dubai. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had also been invited to attend and was expected in Dubai in early December. Some reports now say that the delegation will be reduced.

DW asked Israel's Environment Ministry whether the country still planned to send as many delegates and senior politicians to COP28, but the ministry did not respond before publication.

Protests will 'likely raise the plight of Gaza'

There may well be protests during the summit, too. The UAE has said it will allow environmentally-focused protests and these "will likely raise the plight of Gaza, drawing attention to how an escalating Israeli invasion, with its attendant destruction of water infrastructure and services and massive displacement, will have catastrophic and generational effects on Palestinians' already severe vulnerability to climate change," Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in mid-October

Financing for climate initiatives could also be affected, experts said. If the conflict continues or spreads, it will have a negative impact on the world economy, the International Monetary Fund has warned, which would influence how much money is available to fight climate change and how richer — and more polluting — nations feel about financial compensation to poorer, less developed countries.

A group of protesters wear T-shirts with #FREEALAA after a panel with Sanaa Seif, sister of Egypt's jailed leading pro-democracy activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah
At last year's COP27 in Egypt, political protests were tolerated by the authoritarian governmentImage: Nariman El-Mofty/AP/picture alliance

Another less tangible impact may be reflected in the attitudes of different countries when it comes to agreeing to deals on environmental protection. It has been suggested that some of the senior diplomats who usually prepare for talks at COP28 — which is often when deals are finalized rather than technical details debated — will have been distracted by the conflict.

It's also possible that diplomats from certain countries may now be less willing to compromise with others because they stand on different sides of the conflict.

"Because of the Western world's stance in this conflict, they [Western nations] now have to show that they are interested in multilateral development and the global fight against climate change," Federico Tassan-Viol, a senior policy adviser for diplomacy at Italian climate change think tank Ecco, told DW. "They must show they believe in multilateralism in their foreign policy choices."

"In fact," he continued, "this could even be an opportunity for closer cooperation, to show they mean business when it comes to climate change. These negotiations could be a means to achieve peace and security."

Not quite business as usual

Despite the list of potential impacts, most observers believe that the host, the UAE, will do its best to partition COP28 from the conflict in Gaza.

Each day at COP28 is themed with a certain topic, and December 3 focuses on "Health/Relief, Recover, and Peace."

That day, "some countries will likely be more vocal about justice or freedom," said Tassan-Viol. But that shouldn't make a huge difference to the final agenda of COP28, he added, referring to the fact that negotiations on technical details of agreements began long before COP28 and also continue afterward.

"From a technical point of view, I think in many ways, the preparatory works have given a clear direction and the path has already been set," he said. "The UN's climate change body is not the UN Security Council. So from that point of view, I don't think they [delegates] will be blinded by the polarization on the international level about the Gaza conflict."

Chatham House's Townend hopes concerns over a warming planet will overcome any polarization at COP28.

"As climate impacts increase, we are unfortunately likely to see increasing disasters, tensions and conflicts over strained resources," she pointed out. "Governments and policymakers will need to find ways to cooperate and compromise to address climate risks that ... cannot be put on hold while current crises, however tragic and however pressing, are tackled."

Edited by: Andreas Illmer

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.