‘Historic’ COP28 deal reached on fossil fuels, but is it enough?

13 Dec 2023

Image: © Nicola/Stock.adobe.com

While many are praising the COP28 agreement, others claim it is filled with loopholes and is more incremental than transformational.

A deal has been reached at the COP28 UN climate conference in Dubai, which pushes nations – for the first time – to transition away from all fossil fuels.

The deal calls on the 198 countries and regions at the conference to contribute to several global efforts to reduce the effects of the climate crisis, including tripling renewable energy and doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030.

Countries are also called to transition away from fossil fuels in a “just, orderly and equitable manner” to achieve net zero by 2050, with a call to accelerate action in this current “critical decade”.

The deal has been praised by various leaders, with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen calling it “historic” and the “beginning of the post-fossil era”.

Smaller island nations – which are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis – have been more critical of the deal, however.

The Alliance of Small Island States – which represents 39 nations – said the deal has a “litany of loopholes” and is “incremental” instead of transformational. “We have made an incremental advancement over business as usual when what we really needed is an exponential step-change in our actions and support,” said Anne Rasmussen, a delegate from Samoa.

Rasmussen said the alliance was “a little confused” as the deal was approved while they “weren’t in the room”.

Meanwhile, the commitments are vague in terms of a timeframe for action, as it calls on countries to contribute to global efforts in a “nationally determined manner”.

Phase out terms omitted

An earlier draft of the deal was heavily criticised by COP28 attendees, after it dropped references to phasing out fossil fuels, as the Financial Times reported.

The German Council on Foreign Relations describes the term ‘phase out’ as a complete cessation of the use of fossil fuels, while ‘phase down’ refers to a structured reduction of the use of fossil fuels.

But the new deal also fails to call on nations to phase out their use of fossil fuels, adopting the term “transition away” instead. The new deal only calls on countries to phase out “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” that fail to address energy poverty or just transitions “as soon as possible”.

The agreement includes a commitment to phase down “unabated” coal power, but fails to make similar commitment for oil and gas.

One youth delegate at COP28 showed that earlier discussions on how the deal would be phrased include options such as “phasing out of fossil fuels in line with best available science”.

Former US vice-president Al Gore said the recognition that fossil fuels are at the heart of the climate crisis is an “important milestone”.

“But it is also the bare minimum we need and is long overdue,” Gore said. “The influence of petrostates is still evident in the half measures and loopholes included in the final agreement.”

The decision to host COP28 in the United Arab Emirates – a massive global producer of oil – also drew attention from climate activists. Leaked documents shared with the BBC last month suggest the country planned to discuss fossil fuel deals with 15 nations during the conference.

A step in the right direction?

The COP climate conferences have been heavily criticised in recent years. COP25 was viewed as a failure in 2019, while 2021’s COP26 was deemed disappointing by many experts.

Last year’s COP27 included a loss and damage fund to support developing nations, but was viewed as “a mixed bag” by some experts due to its lack of fossil fuel reduction commitments and uncertainty over how parts of the deal would be handled.

With these previous conferences in mind, the decision to at least mention fossil fuels can be seen as a victory.

The deal also recognises a need for “deep, rapid and sustained reductions” in greenhouse gas emissions to ensure global average temperatures are limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels.

That temperature threshold is significant as it indicates when climate impacts will become “increasingly harmful” for people and the planet. A report from the World Meteorological Organization last year said there is roughly a 50pc chance that the global average temperature will hit this threshold by 2027.

But the lack of a clear timeframe in the COP28 deal appears to ignore the urgency of action required to avoid passing that threshold. In 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said human activities have already caused global heating of about 1.1 degrees Celsius.

Earlier this year, the IPCC said a livable, sustainable future is still possible, but that it requires urgent action – particularly from wealthier nations.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic