COP28: Landmark Fossil Fuel Deal Falls Short of Phase-Out

The COP28 climate summit, the largest in history, concluded with a landmark but contentious agreement to transition away from fossil fuels, endorsed by 198 nations. This historic agreement, known as the UAE Consensus, represents the first time in the 28-year history of UN climate summits that nations have collectively resolved to move away from the fossil fuels that are at the heart of the climate crisis.

The final agreement calls for a “just, orderly, and equitable” transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems to achieve “net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science”. A call for a complete “phase-out” of fossil fuels was left out of the final agreement after intense lobbying from oil-producing countries led by Saudi Arabia, despite strong support for the phase-out wording from 127 nations, representing over 72% of the nations attending the climate summit.

“To those who opposed a clear reference to phase out of fossil fuels during the COP28: Whether you like it or not, fossil fuel phase-out is inevitable,” United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come too late.” 

The final agreement notably restricts the call for a fossil fuel transition to “energy systems”, raising questions over the agreement’s applicability to fossil fuels used in heavy industry, as feedstocks for chemicals and plastics, and in transportation — all major contributors to annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, the summit’s president, lauded the agreement as a “historic” triumph of “unity, solidarity, and collaboration.”

“Together, we have confronted realities and we have set the world in the right direction,” said Al Jaber. “We have given it a robust action plan to keep 1.5 within reach. It is a plan that is led by the science.”

Reactions from scientists, activists, and policymakers were mixed, with many highlighting both the deal’s historic nature and its shortcomings.

“The deal is historic, no doubt. The final text signals the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era,” Dr Maria Neira, head of the Department of Climate, Environment and Health at the World Health Organization (WHO) told Health Policy Watch.

“However, as fossil fuels are the leading driver of climate change and its health impacts, responsible for seven million premature deaths every year, and many other additional health hazards, a rapid and ambitious phase-out will be critical for health,” Neira added.  

Language in the UAE Consensus limiting the transition away from fossil fuels to “energy systems” has raised concerns about the scope of global commitments to reduce dependence on fossil fuels in other sectors. / Data: IEA

Dr Friederike Otto, a prominent climate scientist from Imperial College London and a founding member of the World Weather Attribution group, expressed profound disappointment with the outcomes of the COP28 agreement.

 “The lukewarm agreement reached at COP28 will cost every country, no matter how rich, no matter how poor. Everyone loses. With every vague verb, every empty promise in the final text, millions more people will enter the frontline of climate change and many will die,” said Otto.  

“It’s hailed as a compromise, but we need to be very clear what has been compromised. The short-term financial interest of a few has again won over the health, lives and livelihoods of most people living on this planet,” she added. 

Small island states, already grappling with the existential threats of rising sea levels and intensifying storms, epitomize this sense of sacrifice and imminent danger on the frontlines of climate change. Delegates from these imperilled island nations characterized the absence of a complete fossil fuel phase-out in the final agreement as a “death sentence” for their homelands.

“We have built a canoe with a weak and leaky hull. Yet we have to put it into the water because we have no other option,” a representative from the Marshall Islands told the closing plenary of the summit. “We need to phase out fossil fuels. It’s a small step in the right direction. In the context of the real world, it is not enough.”

‘A historic COP’

The agreement, nonetheless, is groundbreaking. It recommits the world to the 1.5°C warming target of the 2015 Paris Agreement, a goal reiterated 13 times in the text, and clearly states that the science dictates countries must cut emissions by 43% by 2030, and 60% by 2035 relative to 2019 levels.

It also commits to reaching net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, calls for a tripling of global renewable energy capacity, and slashing methane emissions. 

The agreement also candidly addresses the immense scale of the financial challenges ahead. It estimates that developing countries will require between $215-billion and $387 billion in adaptation finance by 2030, with a global annual investment of $4.3 trillion in green energy required until 2030, escalating to $5 trillion thereafter. 

The agreement also includes a call for reforming the global financial architecture, notably the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, to enable developing countries to access vital finance to adapt to climate change. 

“We got a loss and damage fund. We got the recapitalisation of the Green Climate Fund for adaptation. We got an affirmation of a climate finance system, which runs from public finance to private finance. We got a commitment to the tripling of renewables and we got an affirmation of transitioning away from fossil fuels,” Avinash Persaud, Special Envoy to Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, said in a media briefing on Wednesday. 

“Those are five difficult things,” he added. “It’s a historic COP, the best we’ve had in eight years (since Paris).” 

Further accomplishments of the UAE Consensus include pledges to halt deforestation by 2030 and to incorporate health as a distinct sector in adaptation funding, a key ask of the World Health Organization and global health experts. 

“Health is firmly embedded in the newly adopted Global Goal on Adaptation,” Arthur Wyns, COP28 advisor at the WHO, told Health Policy Watch. “A dedicated health adaptation target helps to ensure the health sector itself will receive a stronger focus on adaptation going forward.”

‘A litany of loopholes’

Global greenhouse gas emissions has steadily increased year-on-year since the first UN Climate Summit in 1995.

Despite these advancements, the agreement’s non-binding nature and “litany of loopholes” elucidated by the Alliance of Small Island States have raised significant concerns about its implementation and whether it will mark a true turning point in the climate crisis.

The final agreement contains a series of concessions to fossil fuel interests, including references to “transition fuels” — code for natural gas — and carbon capture and storage technologies, which remain unproven on a large scale. An estimated 79% of operating carbon capture capacity globally is used to reinject captured carbon into the ground to produce more oil. These technologies also incur significant costs and frequently result in net increases in emissions

A timeline for the complete phase-out of methane emissions – a potent but short-lived greenhouse gas – and language calling for a peak in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, were removed from the final agreement.

Global standards for regulating carbon markets, a key issue given the prevailing skepticism about the legitimacy of carbon markets as a means to offset emissions, remained unestablished due to opposition spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, China, and India.

These loopholes leave considerable room for interpretation and potential exploitation by vested interests, Simon Stiell, President of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) said in his closing remarks on Wednesday. 

“Loopholes leave us vulnerable to fossil fuel vested interests, which could crash our ability to protect people everywhere against rising climate impacts,” Stiell remarked in his closing comments. “Transparency and people holding their governments to account will be vital to closing these loopholes.”

“Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end,” said Stiell. “Now all governments and businesses need to turn these pledges into real-economy outcomes, without delay.”

Climate finance question remains unanswered

Climate finance from rich countries fell to $21 billion in 2021, hundreds of billions short of the estimated financial needs of developing countries every year for adaptation alone.

While the agreement recognizes the need for trillions, not billions, of dollars to tackle climate change,  it stops short of outlining specific funding sources. The more than $85 billion mobilized in new climate finance at COP28 is significant but falls far short of what is required for developing countries to transition equitably to green energy. The United States, the world’s largest economy, committed a mere $20 million in new climate funds at the summit.

Madeline Diouff Sarr, chair of the Least Developed Countries Group representing nearly 50 of the world’s poorest nations, expressed disappointment in the agreement, describing it as “the very lowest possible ambition we could accept.”

“There is recognition in this text of the trillions of dollars needed to address climate change in our countries. Yet it fails to deliver a credible response to this challenge. Next year will be critical in deciding the new climate finance goal,” said Sarr. “Today’s outcome is full of eloquent language but regrettably devoid of actionable commitments.”

While COP28 marked a day-one victory for climate finance by operationalizing the Loss and Damage Fund, which aims to provide financial assistance to vulnerable countries in the path of the most devastating effects of climate change, the fund is effectively empty so will do little to bridge the climate finance gap in the short-term.

“Limiting warming to 1.5°C is a matter of survival,” said Sarr. “[It] not only requires countries to urgently reduce domestic emissions but also the delivery of significant climate finance.”

Fossil fuel production paradox

Governments’ fossil fuel expansion plans show they intend to produce, in total, 110% more fossil fuels in 2030 than are compatible with the 1.5°C limit set out in the Paris Agreement, and 69% more than is consistent with 2°C of warming, according to UNEP.

The agreement also fails to address the paradox of ongoing global fossil fuel production expansion. Despite a clear mandate for drastic emission reductions by the decade’s end, there remains a significant gap between current efforts and those required to maintain the 1.5°C target.

Saudi Arabia and other oil and gas-producing states made headlines for their efforts to exclude fossil fuel language from the final agreement, but governments and industries worldwide continue to ramp up fossil fuel production, casting a shadow over the commitments made in Dubai.

Ursula von Der Leyen, President of the European Commission,  praised the Dubai agreement as “historic” and marking “the beginning of the post-fossil era,” yet European countries continue to spend billions on new liquified natural gas terminals as the continent diversifies away from Russian oil and gas and increase imports from the very African countries it is asking to limit use of these energy sources. 

The United States, which backed stronger language on eliminating fossil fuels, continues to lead the world in oil and gas production, which is at historic highs, and expand production. 

Adnoc is opening up new oil and gas fields in the United Arab Emirates and expanding its drilling sites off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula. 

Adnoc, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company run by COP President Al Jaber, plans to invest over $150 billion over the next five years to expand production – the largest such plan by any company in the world. More than 92% of Adnoc’s oil and gas expansion plans are not compatible with the 1.5°C pathways, according to data from German environmental NGO Urgewalt. 

Despite the escalating climate crisis, 96% of oil and gas companies involved in exploration for new deposits continue to develop new oil and gas fields, according to the Global Oil and Gas Exit list, a database which tracks the activity of companies responsible for 95% of global oil and gas output.

“COP is meant to be the vehicle for solutions, but all it seems to do is recognise problems that the rest of the world identified years ago,” said Mike O’Sullivan, a leading climate expert from the University of Exeter. “It’s obvious to most people that limiting global warming meant reduced fossil fuel use, but only now do our leaders say this.

“But so what? Where are the real global plans for the energy transition, without relying on fanciful tech solutions, with adequate support for poorer nations? Where is the global leadership to take the right action, not the selfish action? Across the globe, there are plans to expand fossil production – how does this fit with the text that’s just been agreed?” said O’Sullivan. 

The market’s reaction to the COP28 pledge did not indicate concern for its potential impact on the fossil fuel sector. In fact, premarket trading saw a modest increase in the shares of oil giants Chevron and Exxon Mobil on Wednesday. 

In another sign of confidence in the sector, Aramco, the leading global oil producer, finalized an agreement on Tuesday to secure a 40% stake in Gas & Oil Pakistan, marking its inaugural venture into the Pakistani market and the latest chapter of the company’s global expansion. 

Mike Berners-Lee, a carbon footprinting specialist at Lancaster University, cautioned that the fossil fuel sector achieved its goals at the summit.

“Cop28 is the fossil fuel industry’s dream outcome,” he observed. “Because it looks like progress, but it isn’t.”

Image Credits: UNEP.

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