Delegates including U.S. climate envoy John Kerry (center) look on as the final agreement text is announced at the COP28 climate talks on Wednesday. (Image: COP28 UAE/Flickr)
For the first time in almost three decades of United Nations climate talks, the central outcome of this year’s session (COP28) includes an agreement to transition the world away from fossil fuels.
Around 85,000 participants attended COP28 to discuss the state of the climate crisis and negotiate how to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Everyone was watching one particular sentence in the COP28 text. The final version 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.”
Amidst strong pushback from oil-rich nations against language they said attacked any source of non-renewable energy and their push for a focus on emissions rather than fuels, some have called this consensus a historic milestone. But how a just, orderly and equitable energy transition will be financed remains an unanswered question.
The transition away from fossil fuels
More than 80 countries came into COP28 saying they supported a global agreement to "phase out" fossil fuels. This language wasn’t included in the final text, leading to disappointment among many. Oxfam International, an organization focused on alleviating global poverty, for example, called the outcome “grossly inadequate.”
But the final text still fosters hope for others. “The Earth is down but not out, as countries agree to transition away from fossil fuels, but fall short of consensus on the full phase-out of coal, oil and gas at COP28,” said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, global climate and energy lead for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), who served as president of the COP20 climate talks in Lima, Peru. “After three decades of U.N. climate negotiations, countries have at last shifted the focus to the polluting fossil fuels driving the climate crisis. This outcome must signal the beginning of the end for the fossil fuel era.”
The agreement completes the first Global Stocktake, an assessment done every five years to evaluate the world's progress in achieving the climate goals set in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The next step is for countries to include the outcomes in their own climate policies — specifically their greenhouse gas commitments under the Paris Agreement, formally known as nationally determined contributions or NDCs, which are also updated every five years. These will be presented in Berlin in 2025 and subject to scrutiny.
The agreement also included targets to triple renewable energy generation and double energy efficiency by 2030. “The inclusion of tripling renewables in the final COP28 text is unprecedented and signals the start of a massive clean energy revolution,” said Bruce Douglas, CEO of the Global Renewables Alliance. “It is the first time all nations have recognized renewable energy as the main solution to the climate crisis, representing a paradigm shift in the energy transition.”
Yet the final text was missing input from the Alliance of Small Island States, which didn’t make it to the room on time, according to a public statement it released on Wednesday. The alliance represents 39 small island developing states that are among the most at risk from climate change globally. They called for stronger language around a fossil fuel phase-out, with the statement reading: "We do not see any commitment or even an invitation for [countries] to peak emissions by 2025." But whether their presence would have changed the agreement by any significant measure is unlikely, said David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) International Climate Initiative.
Climate finance: Where will the money come from?
In total, $4.3 trillion in annual climate-related finance flows are needed by 2030 to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, according to the U.N. Where the financing to facilitate the energy transition away from fossil fuels will come from remains a big question.
“The agreement itself is not the highest or most ambitious outcome that we could have got out of the scope, because it does not address the finance package that is needed in order to help developing countries make the transition,” said Jamal Srouji, an associate in the WRI global climate program. “But it is a step forward and will be an important discussion at COP29.”
By 2030, $100 billion a year will be needed to address losses and damages caused by climate change. On day one of COP28, parties pledged $792 million toward the Loss and Damage Fund to support the countries most vulnerable to and impacted by climate change.
“Finance is key to unlocking climate action,” said Stephen Cornelius, the deputy global climate and energy lead at WWF. “The many pledges we have heard at COP28, while welcome, are a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed. The funding pot will now need to grow by orders of magnitude to adequately help people in harm's way. The need for loss and damage and adaptation funding will only continue to rise rapidly if countries do not invest more in cutting emissions and phasing out polluting fossil fuels.”
COP28 reiterated the call for high-income countries to at least double their 2019 adaptation finance commitments by 2025. Some estimate this will only amount to $40 billion.
“Developing countries, and the poorest communities, are left facing more debt [and] worsening inequality with less help and more danger and hunger and deprivation,” said Nafkote Dabi, Oxfam International’s climate change policy lead.“COP28 was miles away from the historic and ambitious outcome that was promised.”
Unabated emissions, nature-based solutions, and carbon capture and storage dominate the conversation at COP28
The COP28 agreement urges countries to accelerate their phase-down of unabated coal power — meaning coal power with emissions that are not offset by something like carbon capture — and “substantially reduce non-carbon dioxide emissions, including methane emissions, by 2030.” However, the text still “recognizes that transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition,” allowing the continued use of fuels like natural gas.
“It is unfortunate that with the inclusion of the word ‘unabated’, the outcome suggests there is a considerable role for dangerous distractions such as large-scale carbon capture and storage and ‘transitional fuels,’” said Pulgar-Vidal of WWF. “This is not the case. For a livable planet, we need a full phase-out of all fossil fuels.”
There is much debate around carbon capture and storage technologies, especially when fought for by the oil industry. The final stocktake text doesn’t put strict guardrails on the use of carbon capture and storage, Srouji from WRI said. “This technology should be limited to hard-to-abate sectors and not be used as an argument to further delay the transition toward cleaner energy sources,” he added.
In conjunction with the discussion of nature-based solutions at COP28, the text also “encourages the implementation of integrated, multi-sectoral solutions, such as land use management, sustainable agriculture, resilient food systems, nature-based solutions and ecosystem-based approaches” to protect, conserve and restore nature and ecosystems. But not all countries are taking that recommendation.
“Along with phasing out fossil fuels, nature is integral to effective climate action,” said Fernanda Carvalho, the global climate and energy policy lead at WWF. "It is disappointing to see countries not including the recommendation … to protect 30 to 50 percent of all ecosystems."
Looking toward COP29 in Azerbaijan
The next two years are critical to follow through with the negotiations agreed upon at COP28. Azerbaijan will host COP29 in November 2024, and Brazil will host COP30 in November 2025. The hope is that the scale-up of financing will be addressed at next year's talks, where setting a new collective goal on climate finance will be central to the conference.
Abha Malpani Naismith is a writer and communications professional who works towards helping businesses grow in Dubai. She is a strong believer in the triple bottom line and keen to make a difference. She is also a new mum, trying to work out a balance between thriving at work and being a mum. In her endeavor to do that, she founded the Working Mums Club, a newsletter for mums who want to build better careers and be better mums.