Is the fossil fuel age ‘out of gas’? What to expect at COP28

29 Nov 2023

Image: © Rafael Henrique/

We look at the state of play ahead of the UN’s annual climate conference, which gets underway in Dubai this week.

“The world is failing to get a grip on the climate crisis.”

These were the words of United Nations (UN) secretary-general António Guterres in response to the latest UN climate crisis report which calculated that, if countries achieve all of their current climate targets, the world will experience between 2.5 and 2.9 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of this century.

The is well above the Paris Agreement adopted by 196 countries at COP21 in 2015, which aimed to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The UN says that global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) need to fall by 45pc by 2030, compared to 2010 levels, to meet the 1.5 degrees goal. However, this latest report shows that emissions are set to rise by 9pc in 2023, a year that has seen record temperatures, droughts, storms, floods and other catastrophic weather events at an unprecedented scale.

In his statement, Guterres called for a stronger global response to the climate crisis at COP28. “Inch-by-inch progress will not do. It is time for a climate ambition supernova in every country, city and sector.”

The COP28 UN climate conference, attended by 198 countries and regions, is due to get underway this Thursday (30 November) in Dubai.

A high-profile forum for countries to assess ongoing climate efforts, negotiate targets and financing, and showcase scientific and technological advances, these conferences serve as a climate crisis ‘temperature check’ but critics argue they are stuck in a political quagmire and fail to achieve meaningful progress on climate action.

The road to COP28

Last year’s COP27, which was held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, promised to be transformative as the first ‘African COP’, but many activists at the time criticised the cordoning off of protests far away from conference centres and the remote location as aimed at stifling dissent. Egyptian authorities also arrested several climate activists before the conference.

Away from the controversies of the host and location, the major milestone of the event was the agreement to set up a loss and damage fund to help vulnerable countries pay the rising costs of climate breakdown that they are already suffering.

‘It is time for a climate ambition supernova in every country, city and sector’

The issue of loss and damage (which can be defined as negative consequences of the climate crisis that people are unable to adapt to) had received lots of attention in the run-up to the conference and the fund was seen as a significant win for lower emitting, developing countries in the global south. To decide how to finance this fund, a Transitional Committee was set up and is expected to make recommendations during COP28.

The major disappointment of COP27 was the failure to include a resolution to phase out all fossil fuels. Surprisingly, COP26 was the first time a resolution on fossil fuels had been included in the final agreement (that was an agreement to phase out coal only). After serious debate throughout COP27, the wording on fossil fuels remained the same as that of COP26.

A fiery debate

Scientists agree that the only way to halt climate breakdown is to reduce GHGs to limit global heating, so critics have pointed out the strangeness of hosting the annual climate conference in a petrostate. COP28 is being held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and this year’s president is Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc).

Adnoc is the world’s 12th largest oil company. On its website, it states that it plans to increase oil production by 25pc from 4m barrels per day in 2021 to 5m by 2030.

This is in line with the UN’s latest Production Gap Report which reveals that overall governments plan to produce 110pc more fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with temperature goals.

“We cannot address climate catastrophe without tackling its root cause: fossil fuel dependence,” said Guterres. “COP28 must send a clear signal that the fossil fuel age is out of gas – that its end is inevitable.”

Al Jaber has the stated aim of offering “a pragmatic approach” to the energy transition and says that he sees “climate action today [as] an immense economic opportunity for investment in sustainable growth”.

Earlier this week, the BBC revealed leaked documents which appear to show that the UAE is using COP28 meetings to discuss private fossil fuel deals with 15 countries. A UAE spokesperson told the BBC that “private meetings are private” but that the work of the UAE team has been focused on “meaningful climate action”.

The Climate Action Tracker, a scientific project that tracks governments’ climate actions, rates the UAE’s latest commitments as “insufficient”. The tracker stated that the UAE is “planning to increase fossil fuel production and consumption”, though its targets had “improved” compared to previous years.

With some of the world’s major polluters, including the US, UK and EU also labelled as “insufficient” and China and Canada labelled as “highly insufficient”, there is little hope for meaningful fossil fuel phase-out targets making it into the final agreements this year.

However, it is not only world leaders who have failed to curb emissions. Just last week, The Guardian published a report in collaboration with Oxfam, the Stockholm Environment Institute and others, which revealed that the richest 1pc of people are responsible for more carbon emissions than the poorest 66pc. These 77m people, which includes billionaires, millionaires and those paid more than $140,000 a year, accounted for 16pc of all CO2 emissions in 2019.

No climate progress without climate justice

There is a clear injustice in that the world’s biggest carbon emitters – the world’s richest countries and individuals – suffer the least from climate breakdown. Increasingly, climate activists are demanding that world leaders recognise this injustice and the links between this and other forms of economic and social injustice around the world.

The influential young climate activist Greta Thunberg didn’t attend COP27, accusing the conference of being an exercise in “greenwashing”. For Thunberg, the COPs are political events used by world leaders to get attention. She doesn’t believe the COP process will lead to the kind of system change that is necessary to tackle the root causes of the crisis.

Thunberg has faced criticism recently for supporting the people of Palestine. At a climate rally in Amsterdam earlier this month, she said there can be “no climate justice on occupied land”, joining many others in linking systems that oppress people with systems that destroy the planet.

‘We need people to feel urgency’

In a recent report, UN agencies stated that “pregnant women, babies and children face some of the gravest consequences” of the climate crisis. “An over-heating world is increasing the spread of deadly diseases like cholera, malaria and dengue, with dire consequences for pregnant women and children for whom these infections can be especially severe,” the report said.

The setting up of the loss and damage fund shows that activists’ calls for a just transition are finally being heard to some extent. Pacific nations, which are already suffering the effects of the climate crisis, celebrated the establishment of the fund last year because they have been calling for it for three decades.

Until now, COP conferences have largely focused on mitigation efforts, that is ways to reduce emissions, but activists are calling for COP28 to focus more attention on adaptation given that many countries, particularly in the global south, are already suffering the effects of the crisis.

Global stocktake

A central focus of this year’s conference is the global stocktake. This if the first time there will be a full ‘inventory’ of countries’ actions to implement the targets of the Paris Agreement. Organisers say it will provide an opportunity for countries to reassess their actions and to ramp up ambition.

There are three stages to the stocktake – the first was to gather information and the second was a technical assessment which concluded in June 2023. The final stage involves the consideration of the assessment outputs at the highest level which will take place during COP28.

It is clear from all the recent reports that not enough is being done to meet our climate targets globally. Delegates will be eagerly awaiting the outcomes of the stocktake to see if world leaders show the ambition Guterres called for, and to see if more focus is given to climate finance and the support of adaptation measure to aid lower emitting low- and middle-income countries in the fight against climate suffering.

A sliver of hope

“It’s going to be a difficult COP.” This is according to former president of Ireland and former UN high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, when she spoke at University College Cork’s (UCC) Sustainable Futures Forum earlier this week.

Robinson is attending COP28 as chair of The Elders, an organisation founded by Nelson Mandela to work for peace, justice, human rights and a sustainable planet.

In an interview with Dr Marguerite Nyhan, Robinson said that “we have to phase out fossil fuels with a just transition”. As part of that, she wants to see the issue of taxation raised at this year’s conference, arguing that fossil fuel companies, which made $4trn in profits last year, should contribute their fair share to climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Speaking to The Irish Times ahead of COP28, Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan, TD, also called for polluters to pay for climate efforts. “It makes sense to use this COP as a moment to get political agreement on changing the financial architecture of the world,” Ryan said. Though he does not see any major overhaul happening quickly.

Robinson spoke of the slow pace of change in the political arena and attributed it to the fact that people in power are still “not in crisis mode”.

“We need people to feel urgency,” she said. She wants to see world leaders taking tough decisions to stop the climate crisis, no matter the consequences for their political careers.

However, Robinson feels very hopeful about our capacity to solve the crisis. She sees the world as “on the cusp” of a better future, a climate-safe and more equal world that is achievable if people are only “10 times bolder” in their efforts.

“It’s a moment in history we’ve never had before … all we need is to move faster.”

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Rebecca Graham is production editor at Silicon Republic