The conversation around climate change is heating up, literally and figuratively—according to scientists, 2023 will be the hottest year on record1. And after two weeks of debates at COP28, an unprecedented agreement on fossil fuels confirms the climate emergency.
For the first time since the inaugural global conference on climate change, representatives from nearly 200 countries have agreed to an international pact that calls for “transitioning away from fossil fuels” like oil, gas and coal that are warming the planet.
The new climate deal was finalized on Wednesday, December 13th, 2023, as the discussion around gas, coal, and oil pushed the conference into overtime. COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber has been a controversial figurehead given his involvement with ADNOC, but he noted in his final speech that the agreement was “historic.”
“We have language on fossil fuels in our final agreement for the first time ever,” he added, noting that the deal represented “a paradigm shift that has the potential to redefine our economies.”2
Before climate advocates around the world start celebrating, it’s important to note the nature of the agreement. Although decisive in noting that countries need to transition away from nonrenewables, the agreement fails to mandate that nations need to “phase out” fossil fuels—a revision that more than 100 countries and climate advocates had been calling for, and had been included in previous versions of the draft. But after facing intense pushback from oil-exporting nations, serious alterations were made to the document.3
Instead, the final version of the Stocktake “calls on” countries to “contribute” to global efforts to reduce their emissions to their own best abilities, suggesting that “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems … accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050.”
While climate experts welcome the direct reference to the damage of fossil fuels in the agreement, they were quick to point out the serious weaknesses of the document. While the intention has been formally set, the path to chart is much less clear, and marred by countless potential escape routes for the fossil fuel industry, particularly in the references to accelerating relatively new technologies like carbon capture, storage, and abatement, which circumvent the root of the problem.
The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) also expressed concern over their inclusion in the drafting and approval of the document, an issue that has largely overshadowed the presence of the smallest countries at climate conferences. Countries also expressed concern at the agreement’s recognition of “transitional fuels” in the fossil fuel transition—which likely refers to natural gas, which is still a planet-heating fossil fuel.
Despite the earlier establishment of a “loss and damage fund” to help countries on the frontlines of climate change, the pact includes no instructions or requirements for developed nations to actually finance the developing world, leaving nations that are still highly dependent on fossil fuel infrastructure up in the air on how to actually start shifting to renewables. The tentative plan is to return to the topic at next year’s conference in Baku, Azerbaijan.
One very critical caveat of the agreement is that it isn’t legally binding—it can’t force any country to take decisive climate action. But over the next two years, each nation is expected to submit a detailed plan, guided by the new text, on how it intends to curb emissions in the next decade.
Although long overdue, the agreement is the first COP text to specifically cite fossil fuel usage as a key cause of climate-changing emissions. While the pact certainly leaves much to be desired in terms of mechanisms and mandates, many still believe that the outcome of COP28 is still a step in the right direction.
According to the U.S.Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, Secretary John Kerry, the agreement was “much stronger and clearer as a call on 1.5 than we have ever heard,” referring to the landmark Paris Agreement’s aims to restrict global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
“All of us can find a paragraph or sentences, or sections, where we would have said it differently,” Kerry continued. But, “to have as strong a document as has been put together, I find is cause for optimism…The message coming out of this COP is we are moving away from fossil fuels,” he said. “We’re not turning back.”
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