Fossil fuels will not be “phased out”, but the world has now agreed that we must rapidly transition away from using oil, gas and coal in order to reach net zero by 2050, in a historic moment at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
At 1100 local time on 13 December, countries adopted the text of an agreement that calls for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.”
“30 years we’ve spent to arrive at the beginning of the end of fossil fuels,” Wopke Hoekstra, the European Union’s climate commissioner, told a plenary of countries at the summit.
The agreement — known as the Global Stocktake — also calls for countries to take a series of steps to decarbonise their energy systems, including tripling renewable energy capacity and doubling the rate of energy efficiency improvement by 2030.
“The world needed to find a new way,” COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber told the plenary, after a standing ovation following the adoption of the text without any objections, calling it a “historic package to accelerate action.”
“It is the UAE Consensus,” he said. That consensus was reached after two weeks of contentious debate among countries focused around the specific language that would be used to describe the future of fossil fuels, which pushed the summit overtime by more than 24 hours.
Late into the night on 12 December, tired negotiators from each country filed into final consultations with Al Jaber to consult with him about on any last concerns about the agreement. An exhausted negotiator from Iraq told New Scientist they had delivered one message to the president: focus on emissions, not fossil fuels, a sentiment reflected by other oil-exporting countries.
An earlier draft of the agreement had been condemned by many other countries for the opposite reason, for failing to include language on phasing out fossil fuels, something more than a hundred countries and scores of civil society groups had been lobbying for months ahead of the summit.
Still other countries, such as the African Group, opposed the draft because it lacked sufficient support to help countries adapt to climate change, and because the language on reducing fossil fuel use didn’t adequately recognise that higher- and lower-income countries have different responsibilities ending fossil fuel use.
Following consultations with these groups, Al Jaber released a new draft of the core agreement at 0700 on 13 December, which appears to have found a compromise among these fundamentally divergent views.
“The signal is very clear: we’re moving away from fossil fuels,” Dan Jorgensen, the climate minister of Denmark, which leads an alliance of countries committed to ending the use of fossil fuels, said in an informal huddle just ahead of the plenary. “We’re standing here in an oil country, surrounded by oil countries, saying let’s move away from oil.”
But there are still numerous ways in which the agreement falls short on what is needed to address climate change, countries and observers say.
“Overall, the text looks like a major victory for the oil and gas producing countries and fossil fuel exporters,” says Bill Hare at Climate Analytics, a think tank, pointing to a lack of a clear date for peaking emissions and a reference to importance of “transitional fuels”, usually interpreted a reference to fossil fuel gas.
“We cannot afford to return to our islands with the message that this process has failed us,” Anne Rasmussen, a negotiator from Samoa, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), told the plenary. These small island countries have been a powerful voice for action throughout the summit, saying repeatedly that an agreement that did not do more to keep temperature rise below 1.5°C would be a “death certificate.”
“We have come to the conclusion that the course correction that is needed has not been secured,” she said.
However, the fact that the agreement makes explicit reference to fossil fuels, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, represents a major step for global action on climate change. “This is a much stronger and clearer as a call on 1.5 than we have ever heard before,” John Kerry, the US climate envoy, said to the plenary.
Fossil fuels have been the most contentious issue of the summit, but the agreement also addresses many other issues related to climate change, including what is needed to help vulnerable countries adapt to climate change to steps to reduce methane and other non-CO2 greenhouse gases.
Overall, it represents the world’s official response to the finding that the greenhouse gas emissions remain far off-track levels that would be in line with climate targets under the Paris agreement, with around 3°C of warming expected even if all existing climate pledges were met.