28th Feb 2024

COP28 deal to only 'transition away' from fossil fuel agreed

  • UAE's chief oil executive Sultan al Jaber led the UN climate talks in Dubai (Photo: ADSW)
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Despite the overwhelming presence of oil and gas lobbyists, the UN climate summit (COP28) presidency led by the United Arab Emirates successfully crafted a text on Wednesday morning (13 December) that signals a commitment to phase out fossil fuels.

Sultan Al Jaber, the UAE's chief oil executive now leading the climate talks, described the text as "balanced" and "historic."

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One of the top-line agreements that found little resistance among attendant countries was a pledge to triple renewable energy by 2030 and double energy efficiency.

But diplomats had to be more creative to get to a final text on fossil fuels and win over oil producers and those calling for more decisive action.

Instead of the hoped-for fossil fuel 'phase-out', there is now the far more vague "transitioning away from fossil fuels."

Low-income countries were reassured with a line that allows them to achieve net zero by 2050 "in keeping with science" on their own path.

It is the first time fossil fuels were mentioned at all in the final agreement.

"The decision to finally recognise that the climate crisis is, at its heart, a fossil fuel crisis is an important milestone," said climate advocate and former US vice-president Al Gore. "But it is also the bare minimum we need and is long overdue."

Upon closer inspection, the text leaves the door open to "transition fuels", which was lacking in previous agreements and refers to the use of fossil gas to replace coal or oil.

One of the aims of the UAE this year was to position itself as the "link between East and West" and become a major hub for the production, liquefaction and trade of gas and hydrogen.

Gas contains less heat-trapping carbon dioxide than oil and coal.

The problem is that methane — a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide— tends to leak into the atmosphere at various points along the supply chain.

Depending on where the gas is produced and moved from, researchers have found lifetime gas emissions, in reality, often surpass those of coal.

The COP agreement includes a line on methane reduction but no reduction strategy.

The final text calls for accelerating carbon removal technologies — a demand of oil-producing countries — despite decades of accumulated evidence of the technology's shortcomings.

Another first is the inclusion of a call for a phase-down of "inefficient fossil fuel subsidies" that do not address energy poverty. However, it remains unclear what subsidies this refers to exactly.

'Virtue signalling'

It is "hard to get excited about ending fossil fuels if the money isn't there," said Avinash Persaud, finance advisor to Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley, in a press call attended by EUobserver.

He also said that oil and gas-producing countries prioritising a fossil fuel exit amounted to "virtue signalling."

"The US, Canada and Australia were all very eager to be a part of the phase-out conversation because they know it will not happen any time soon," he said. "We cannot end fossil fuels until we have tonnes of renewables."

This means everyone, including low-income countries, needs more money to ramp up green investment.

But despite a "historic" breakthrough that led to an agreement to finance a Loss and Damage fund to help low-income countries deal with the effects of global warming, the lack of available climate finance is one of the major issues that has remained largely unresolved.

The text "highlights" the growing gap between what is pledged and what is needed and estimates that €5.5 trillion is needed until 2030 to help developing countries achieve their climate targets.

Thereis no shortage of ideas to close the gap, energetically advocated for all year by Mottley and Persaud among others, but critics say the final text offers little of substance to get developing nations started.

"Rich countries say they want a global phase-out of fossil fuels, but they are refusing to fund it," said Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, an environmental group.

The final text "notes" that wealthy countries have met their $100bn [€90bn] annual climate finance pledge in 2022 and "urges" them to keep annual financial flows on the same level.

But even this may be too optimistic as researchers have previously shown that the true figure is likely much lower due to systematic overcounting of the official climate finance resulting in"significantly inflated" numbers.

"There is simply not enough in the current text for African countries to believe there will be finance to help them leapfrog dirty energy nor adapt to climate impacts," said Adow.

"Whether this is a turning point that truly marks the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era," said Gore. "depends on the mobilisation of finance required to achieve them."

This article was amended to add quotes by Avinash Persaud.


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