Climate pledge by 200 nations seeks to ‘transition away from fossil fuels’

The COP28 meeting ended with about 200 nations agreeing to “transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems” – the first time they have made that pledge – to meet the goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

The UAE Consensus made history by becoming the first climate agreement that explicitly calls for moving away from such non-renewable energy sources. It comes after two weeks of negotiations, with consultations running into the early hours.

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“We have delivered a paradigm shift that has the potential to redefine our economies,” said Sultan al-Jaber, president of COP28, after striking the gavel on the pact that provides a roadmap for achieving goals of the Paris Agreement. However, Al-Jaber, also chief executive of UAE state-owned oil firm Adnoc, warned that “an agreement is only as good as its implementation. We are what we do, not what we say.”

Pacts give some leeway
The president of COP28 had consistently stressed his intention to supercharge climate action. Even as it signals progress, the UAE Consensus hass loopholes that allow oil and gas exporters the space to continue operations, observers said. Countries agreed that “transitional fuels,” a euphemism for gas, “can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security.” This free pass for the expansion of gas production is a particular blow, given that the associated methane leakage could make gas “even worse” than coal, an expert said.

Consensus was reached after anger over an earlier weaker version led to the strengthening of the wording.

“Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end,” Simon Stiell, the UN‘s climate boss, said at the closing plenary.

However, Samoa lead delegate Anne Rasmussen complained on behalf of small island nations that “the course correction that is needed has not been secured.” The agreement could “potentially take us backward rather than forward,” she said. Rasmussen was given a standing ovation.

The agreement also includes “abatement and removal technologies such as carbon capture, utilisation and storage” among zero- and low-emissions technologies. The agreement does not limit the use of these to “hard-to-abate sectors.”

“The final outcome is certainly a clear signal from the global community, heralding a gradual shift away from fossil fuels,” said Jan Kowalzig, senior policy adviser, climate change, Oxfam. “However, this signal comes with annoying concessions that jeopardise compliance with the 1.5 degrees C threshold.”

Accommodating the pushback
This balancing act between oil and gas producers and the demands for action to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C reflects the difficult task that faced the COP28 president and his team. Through the two weeks, oil and gas-producing countries, in particular, Saudi Arabia, pushed back against inclusion of a call to phase out fossil fuels. The Gulf region’s major oil producer and the chair of the Arab Group claimed to have the support of 18 countries, a number large enough to block any deal. OPEC too got into the act with clear efforts to pressure the COP28 presidency. The loopholes and caveats notwithstanding, COP28 is a “pivotal landmark,” said Johan Rockstrom, co-director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

This consensus needs to be translated into action. “We needed this COP to send crystal clear signals on several fronts,” said Stiell. “We needed a global green light signaling it is ‘all systems go’ on renewables, climate justice and resilience. On this front, COP28 delivered some genuine strides forward.”

India perspective
For India, the effort to focus on coal – with more aggressive timelines for phasing out its use – was a cause for concern. The final deal calls for accelerating the phasedown of unabated coal. While India and other coal-dependent countries may take comfort in this language, the lack of parity between coal and other fossil fuels that India sought to correct at Sharm El-Sheikh persists.

Coal is the only fossil fuel that is referred to in the text. “From an Indian perspective, this text displays greater parity between coal and other fossil fuels, but it appears to absolve developed countries of the responsibility of phasing out their fossil fuel use in this critical decade,” said Ulka Kelkar, executive director, climate, World Resources Institute India.

The deal also fails to provide a robust outcome on adaptation, or helping countries adapt to, climate change. This is a priority issue for developing countries, particularly least developed ones. There is a reference to the Glasgow decision to double finance for adaptation. There are also mentions of the need to scale up adaptation finance, but there is no indication of how this will be done. “It exonerates developed countries from making up the finance gap so (wide), though it recognises that the gap in adaptation finance is ‘widening,’ and that doubling the current low levels of adaptation finance will be insufficient,” said Kelkar.

Though COP28 began on a positive note, with the operationalisation of the loss and damage fund, it has “largely disappointed on all fronts,” said Arunabha Ghosh, chief executive of Delhi-based think tank Council on Energy, Environment and Water. “It hasn’t sufficiently raised climate ambition, held historical polluters accountable, or established effective mechanisms to finance climate resilience and a just low-carbon transition for the Global South.”

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