COP28 negotiating countries failed to include clear language on the phasing out of fossil fuel production as the climate conference in Dubai came to a conclusion. The legally binding treaty of the Paris agreement, where countries agreed to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels”, is now left in tatters.
Although COP28 extended beyond its official finishing time on Tuesday 12 December, giving rise to the possibility of a historic landmark agreement, the decisive and bold language to compel countries to phase out fossil fuels was missing.
After fraught negotiations and a lack of definition over key terms, including ‘phase out’ and ‘phase down’, countries failed to collaborate for the future of humanity to make decisive promises to uphold the Paris agreement.
At the start of the summit, COP28 President Sultan al Jaber declared that “Failure is not an option”. For many commentators, especially ex-Vice President Al Gore, climate commitments have dried up and died in Dubai.
Failure to achieve ‘highest ambitions’
On Monday 11 December, the UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell called for the “highest ambitions” to be delivered as outcomes. He said:
“Negotiators have a chance, right here in Dubai over the next 24 hours, to start a new chapter – one that really delivers for people and planet.
“The highest climate ambition means more jobs, stronger economies, stronger economic growth, less pollution, better health.
“One thing is for certain: ‘I win – you lose’ is a recipe for collective failure. Ultimately it is 8 billion people’s security that is at stake.
“Science is the backbone of the Paris Agreement, especially when it comes to the world’s temperature goals and the planetary limit of 1.5. That center must hold.”
However, later that day, a draft agreement was presented by the summit president Sultan Al Jaber, which caused seismic rifts between parties owing to the lack of forceful language.
Opening positions on global action
The draft agreement was typically full of conference language such as “recognizes”, “reaffirms”, “emphasizes”, and “notes” which do not mean much to the general public. There was an optimistic opening though, with the agreement stating that rising emissions are not in line with the Paris agreement to which countries are signatories.
“… 20. Recognizes that the impacts of climate change will be much lower at the temperature increase of 1.5 °C compared with 2 °C and resolves to pursue efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5 °C;
“… 28. Notes with significant concern that despite progress made, global greenhouse gas emissions trajectories are not yet in line with the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement, and that there is a rapidly narrowing window to raise ambition and implement existing commitments in order to achieve it;
“Negotiations are always going to come down to the obstacles of meanings of particular words or the omission of words. At this stage, the lack of the inclusion of ‘phase out’ fossil fuels caused significant distress to countries such as the Marshall Islands, with the MInister Senator John Silk stating, ‘The Marshall Islands did not come here to sign out death warrant. We came here to fight for 1.5C and for the only way to achieve that: a fossil fuel phase out’.”
An optional phase out will not be successful
The agreement offered optional plans for countries to reduce emissions – encouraging individual countries to ignore what wasn’t in their short term best interests, by stating that parties “could” choose to include these in their action plans.
“… 39. Also recognizes the need for deep, rapid and sustained reductions in GHG emissions and calls upon Parties to take actions that could include, inter alia:
(a) Tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030;
(b) Rapidly phasing down unabated coal and limitations on permitting new and unabated coal power generation;
(e) Reducing both consumption and production of fossil fuels, in a just, orderly and equitable manner so as to achieve net zero by, before, or around 2050 in keeping with the science.”
These optional steps contrast sharply against the stated aim of the summit holders that:
“Negotiations at COP28 continue today with the hope that Parties will deliver an ambitious agreement that sets the world on a path to a more sustainable future.”
Has the 1.5℃ climate goal finally died in Dubai?
Gore was highly condemnatory of the draft agreement, posting on social media that:
“COP28 is now on the verge of complete failure. The world desperately needs to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible but this obsequious draft reads as if OPEC dictated it word for word. It is even worse than many had feared … the final text must include clear language on phasing out fossil fuels. Anything else is a massive step backwards from where the world needs to be to truly address the climate crisis and make sure the 1.5℃ goal doesn’t die in Dubai.”
Sir Alok Sharma, who held the presidency of COP26, commented, “It is difficult to see how this text will help to achieve the deep and rapid cut in emissions we need by 2030 to keep 1.5c alive. With so many countries backing clear language on fossil-fuel-phase-out, who does this text actually serve?”
COP28 failed to deliver on ambition
The final agreement came out in the early hours of Wednesday morning UK time and was celebrated by the COP28 president as being an “unprecedented reference to transitioning away from all fossil fuels”, further declaring that this was “… the moment history was made. Everyone came together from day one. Everyone united, everyone acted, everyone delivered”.
To be sure, including the naming the ‘elephant in the room’ of fossil fuels is a huge step forward in language only, it is not a step forward in action.
The new final agreement moved the language from “could include” to a slightly stronger invite word of “calls on”.
“Further recognizes the need for deep, rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in line with 1.5℃pathways and calls on Parties to contribute to the following global efforts, in a nationally determined manner, taking into account the Paris Agreement and their different national circumstances, pathways and approaches.”
As a result, Professor Bill McGuire, of University College London, told Yorkshire Bylines:
“The final deal has now been utterly agreed, and it is dismal.
“We need emissions to be almost halved in 72 months, and we get some meaningless drivel about ‘transitioning away’ from fossil fuels. No roadmap, no timeline, nothing.
“At the same time, we are told by the COP28 President and oil boss ‘we have delivered a robust action plan to keep 1.5℃ … in reach’. This is duplicitous nonsense. Staying this side of a 1.5℃rise (compared to pre-industrial times) is practically impossible, and the laughable outcome of COP28 has done nothing to change this.
“Massive reform to the COP process is needed if it is ever to accomplish what the science says is needed. A good start would be to scrap COP29 – slated to be held in another oil state, Azerbaijan, and rethink the whole process.”
COP28: what happens now?
Professor Stefan Rahmstorf, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research bleakly commented on social media:
“How will we explain to our children and grandchildren that unfortunately we couldn’t leave them with a livable planet because a few petro-states vetoed phasing out fossil fuels?”
The likely result could be more groups taking countries and governments to court for breaking both domestic law and legally binding international climate agreements. It may be that stronger calls for reform may see the voting rules change at climate conferences, or even we may have seen the last COP.
The result of COP28 won’t do anything to lessen the increasing climate risks that are happening today for people globally.