COP28 summit calls for ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels

Negotiators adopt resolution titled Dubai Consensus; the text reflects a compromise between developed and developing countries on emissions

December 13, 2023 09:13 am | Updated December 14, 2023 02:04 am IST - New Delhi

Delegates meet on the day of COP28 draft deal negotiations, during the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on December 12, 2023.

Delegates meet on the day of COP28 draft deal negotiations, during the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on December 12, 2023. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Nations took a small but decisive step towards ridding the world of fossil fuels, after negotiators in Dubai on Wednesday adopted a resolution, called the Dubai Consensus.

The standout clause in the 196 paragraphs of this 21-page text is the one that “calls on Parties [to be] ...Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.” However, this language of “transitioning” has been diluted from earlier drafts that had called for an actual “phase-out” of all fossil fuels.

Creating a path to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is humanity’s best shot at keeping global temperatures from rising beyond 1.5 degrees C by the end of the century, according to scientific assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This implies cutting emissions to 43% of 2019 levels by 2030 and 60% by 2035, an onerous ask given that just seven years remain for the first target, while emissions keep rising, year on year.

Also read: COP28 Summit and India | Is climate fatigue setting in?

Compromise agreement

The consensus text reflects a compromise between developed and developing countries on what the world should do to stem greenhouse gas emissions while also ensuring that countries contribute proportionally, on the basis of their historic responsibility for the climate crisis. These climate talks, known as the Conference of Parties (COP), are annual affairs, but move forward incrementally because the UN rules say that an agreement can result only if all 198 signatories agree on every line in the text.

On the one hand, delegates from vulnerable nations such as Samoa and the Marshall Islands expressed their unhappiness that the agreement does not go far enough to end fossil fuels, putting the future of their countries at risk. At the other end, several countries — including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Colombia, and Senegal — said that while the agreement was a step forward for a fossil-free future, there was very little movement to ensure that the funds promised by developed countries in previous COPs actually made their way to developing countries.

Reflecting this range of opinions, COP 28, scheduled to end on Tuesday, went into overtime, with wrangling over the final agreement continuing until the early hours of Wednesday. The final text was released on Wednesday morning. Though it was cleared by noon, proceedings only drew to a close six hours later, with several countries using the interim period to make statements expressing their happiness, or unhappiness with aspects of the text, even while accepting the deal. These grievances are expected to feed into future deliberations.

New funding commitments

“The world needed to find a new way. By following our North Star [of keeping the 1.5 degrees C target in mind], we have found that path,” said COP 28 president Sultan Al Jaber during his closing speech. “We have worked very hard to secure a better future for our people and our planet. We should be proud of our historic achievement.”

Among the successes that Dr. Al Jaber counted at COP 28 were commitments worth $750 million to the Loss and Damage Fund, meant to help countries deal with climate disasters. There were also pledges worth $85 million — made outside the main COP text — to accelerate both private and public sector action to decarbonise the global economy.

“This sends a clear signal that the world is moving decisively to phase-out fossil fuels, turbocharge renewable energy and efficiency, and tackle forest loss and degradation. It puts the fossil-fuel industry formally on notice that its old business model is expiring,” said Jake Schmidt, senior strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S.-based non-profit.

Also read: Key COP28 draft document says countries must show progress on adapting to climate change by 2030

Diluting stronger language

Previous versions of the draft text that had explicitly incorporated terms such as a ‘phase-out’ have been rebuffed. There are several countries — for instance, Saudi Arabia — who have been adamant that there should be no reference to “phasing out fossil fuels” in the text as it discriminates against countries that are significantly dependent on oil exports. Previous drafts also had stronger language that asked countries to replace their fossil fuel sources with renewable energy.

Wednesday’s final edition of the text also tones down, by a few notches, the rhetoric on the use of a coal — a point that is crucial for India, which draws about 75% of its power needs from burning coal. From an initial call to “rapidly phase down” coal, the new text only calls for “...accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power”.

Financing promises broken

While mitigating or cutting down greenhouse gas emissions is the main focus of climate talks, there are two other major strands of negotiations: adaptation, which involves making countries more resilient to cope with present and future impacts from climate change; and the means of implementation and support, whereby developed countries are expected to provide financial support and technology to developing nations to transition away from fossil fuel-led development.

A major criticism at the heart of the division between developed and developing countries is that many of the promises made by the former have been broken. A 2009 commitment to mobilise $100 billion a year between 2020 and 2025 has only been partially realised, with the Dubai Consensus agreement noting that this was a matter of “deep regret”.

Diminishing carbon space

“We are not investing and thinking hard enough about adaptation in a [world where temperatures rise by] 2 degrees C or more,” said Anand Patwardhan of the University of Maryland. “A global net zero by 2050 does not and should not imply a net zero for all countries at that time. In fact, developed countries need to reach net zero much earlier (2035-2040) to provide even a modicum of carbon space for developing countries,” he noted.

Carbon space refers to the atmosphere’s capacity to hold carbon that will not result in temperatures increasing by 1.5 to 2 degrees C by the end of the century. The globe is already 1.1 C hotter than it was in the pre-industrialised level. Most of this carbon space has already been taken over by the developed nations in over a century of fossil fuel and greenhouse gas emissions, and developing nations have insisted that what space remains ought to be left for them, while the industrialised western nations must cede space by taking on far more stringent reductions than they have committed to so far.

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