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The COP28 Deal Tackles the Elephant in the Room: Fossil Fuels

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Delegates from the Marshall Islands at the final meeting of COP28 with Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, left.
Delegates from the Marshall Islands at the final meeting of COP28, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Dec. 13, 2023, with Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, left. Although small island countries bemoaned the results of the conference, saying the results didn’t do enough to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions, the deal calls on the world to “transition away” from fossil fuels. COP28/CHRISTOPHER EDRALIN

As temperatures broke records around the world this summer, António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, warned in September: “Humanity has opened the gates of hell.”

On Dec. 13, he hailed delegates at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, as two weeks of fraught talks ended. “For the first time, the outcome recognizes the need to transition away from fossil fuels,” he said. “The era of fossil fuels must end, and it must end with justice and equity.”

More than 190 nations accepted a text on Wednesday morning calling on the world to “transition away” from fossil fuels. But is this a historic deal that will spell the eventual end of gas, oil and coal? Or will it be one more step on the road to hell?

In the world of climate talks, these two paths are not mutually exclusive. The text that was gaveled on Wednesday, known as the “global stocktake,” enjoins countries for the first time to embark on a de facto phaseout of fossil fuels. But it cannot require them to do so and it contains “a litany of loopholes,” according to the small island states that are most vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis, which will hamper the world from cutting greenhouse gas emissions drastically enough to limit global heating to 1.5 C (2.7 F) above pre-industrial levels.

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The COP28 president, Sultan Al Jaber, the United Arab Emirates host of the conference, hailed the adoption of the key text on Wednesday, calling it the “UAE consensus.” A consensus but not quite unanimity: Samoa spoke for small island states at the final meeting to say they would not block the deal but warned that the world was still far off track from the 1.5 C limit, and this outcome was not enough to correct that course.

As they and other developing countries pointed out, there are plenty of problems with this deal. Poor nations still need hundreds of billions more in finance to help them transition from coal, oil and gas. Developed countries and oil producers will not be forced to move as fast as climate science urges.

The United States will get away lightly from this COP, having pledged just over $20 million in new financing for the poor world and its position as the world’s biggest oil and gas producer intact. China will continue to pursue coal production as well as renewable energy, and India’s coal industry will also have little to fear.

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But this deal, imperfect as it is, faced colossal opposition from the world’s oil-producing countries. Saudi Arabia tried until the final moments, in the early hours of Wednesday, to remove any reference to fossil fuels, and it succeeded in inserting some references to carbon capture and storage, a technology it professes to love but strangely fails to invest in.

Russia worked behind the scenes to scupper progress, and will do so far more next year when the COP is held in Baku, Azerbaijan. This deal, like all multilateral UN deals, is fragile, and oil producers may try to backtrack next year.

They worked so hard to scupper the deal because they realize that it is not merely words, as some critics insist. The deal will have an impact on the real world, in the decisions made by investors, banks, financial institutions, by governments and by private companies. It may seem incredible, but it has taken 30 years of nearly annual climate summits to come up with an agreement that includes clear directions on the future of fossil fuels.

For 30 years, the world has been forced to avoid the elephant in the room: the overwhelming source of the climate breakdown we are experiencing: fossil fuels. Oil-producing countries, abetted by many rich countries, having reluctantly agreed to talk about the climate, refused to allow legally binding treaties to make the link with fossil fuels explicit.

At COP26 in Glasgow, Britain as president managed to get one fossil fuel into the final outcome for the very first time, in the form of a reference to the need for a phasedown of coal, a commitment that was itself watered down in the final moments from a phaseout. Last year, at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, attempts to incorporate a further reference to fossil fuels were shot down.

That it has taken an oil-producing country to introduce such a commitment into a COP outcome for the first time is remarkable. That the president of this COP is chief executive of the United Arab Emirates’ national oil company, Adnoc, almost defies belief. Few people predicted a strong outcome from this COP, and Al Jaber was personally vilified. He beamed through his exhaustion as he opened the final plenary meeting and was hugged by the UN climate chief, Simon Stiell.

Yet Adnoc is still planning a massive increase in production capacity, as are other oil companies and countries. But Al Jaber has managed what no other COP presidency has done: to bring Saudi Arabia to the table to agree that a transition from fossil fuels must be a global priority.

The mood in the closing plenary at COP28 was clear: this deal represents significant progress for the countries that want to tackle the climate crisis. The world must take this signal as the end of the fossil fuel era — now, before the gates of hell close behind us.

This story was originally published by The Guardian and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now www.theguardian.com/enviroment/series/covering-climate-now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate crisis.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the COP28 deal?

Fiona Harvey is the Guardian’s environment correspondent.

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The COP28 Deal Tackles the Elephant in the Room: Fossil Fuels
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