Countries reach ‘historic’ COP28 deal to transition from fossil fuels

Countries have reached a deal at the COP28 climate summit to transition away from fossil fuels in an attempt to reach global net zero emissions by 2050.

Celebrated as “historic” by COP28 president Sultan al-Jaber and praised by the US and EU, the deal was nonetheless criticised by 39 small island nations that complained it was rammed through without their support.

Countries will now be asked to set “ambitious, economy-wide” emissions reduction targets covering all greenhouse gases and in line with limiting global warming to 1.5C degrees over the next two years, taking into account the agreement on fossil fuels.

However, the text recognises that the targets should be set “in light of different national circumstances”, a reference to the principle that poorer countries may find reducing emissions more difficult than wealthier countries. 

The future role of fossil fuel was the key issue at COP28, which is being hosted in the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s largest oil and gas producers. Diplomats said Saudi Arabia and other Opec countries had pushed heavily for a weak agreement.

European, Latin American and vulnerable island states, as well as the US and UK, intensified efforts over the past day to obtain a stronger agreement on dumping oil, gas and coal, after a previous draft document caused outrage by dropping all references to phasing out fossil fuels and offered an “à la carte menu” of options that countries “could” take.

The final agreement came after a night of intense consultations that lasted into the early hours of the morning. Jaber held meetings with ministers and diplomats, including US climate envoy John Kerry, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman and officials from Samoa, Australia Canada and the EU.

Ministers from around the world, including the EU and Canada, praised the Dubai deal, which comes during what is set to be the hottest year on record, as historic.

John Kerry, special climate envoy for the US, said the agreement was a cause for “optimism” and sends a “very strong message to the world”. 

But he added: “Many people would have liked clear language about the need to begin peaking and reducing fossil fuels in this critical decade. But we know this [agreement] was a compromise between many parties.”

Dan Jørgensen, Denmark’s minister for development co-operation and global climate policy, one of two delegates leading the so-called global stock-take for COP28, said the agreement was “very, very good”.

“What we’re basically saying is the way you make your living now . . . you need to change because we’re moving away fossils. Fossils is not the future,” he said. “Did we solve all problems? Of course not.”

However, the lack of detail on how poorer countries with large debt piles will finance a shift from fossil fuels and adapt their economies to global warming was criticised.

Rachel Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group comprising more than 200 scientists and researchers, said the agreement was “pretty good”, especially in the wake of sustained pressure from oil and gas producers.

But she added that it was “sorely lacking” when it came to financing the shift away from fossil fuels, particularly in poorer countries, arguing: “We won’t get to where we need to without the financing.”

Jaber, also the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, brought down the gavel on the agreement within minutes of opening a UN plenary session on Wednesday morning.

“We have language on fossil fuels in our final agreement for the first time ever,” he said Jaber, to a standing ovation. “We have set the world in the right direction.”

Anna Rasmussen, chief negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, a group of nations vulnerable to climate change, said: “We are a little confused about what just happened. It seems that you gavelled the decisions, and the small island developing states were not in the room.”

Rasmussen told the plenary that “the course correction that is needed has not been secured” in the agreement and warned of a “litany of loopholes” in the text.

“We have made an incremental advancement over business as usual when what we really needed is an exponential step change in our actions and support,” she said.

Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s minister of energy, second from right, at the COP28 negotiations in Dubai on Wednesday © AP

Dubbed the UAE Consensus, the agreement “calls on parties to contribute” to take actions including “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 in keeping with the science”.

The accord also highlights a role for “transitional fuels”, which is likely to be contentious as some countries and climate experts argue it supports continued use of gas.

It also calls for a tripling of global renewable energy capacity by 2030 and for countries to accelerate the development of low-emissions technologies including nuclear, low-carbon hydrogen and carbon capture and storage.

Some developing countries argue that wealthier countries — which are the largest historical emitters of greenhouse gases — must cut their emissions fastest. Some developing countries also criticised the watering down of language on financing, in a separate text aimed at setting a “global goal on adaptation”.

Previous iterations of the text requested that developed countries provide long-term, additional financing and technology for developing countries. The latest text released on Wednesday “reiterates that continuous and enhanced international support . . . is urgently required”.

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