COP28: Kicking off the end of the fossil fuel era?

As COP28 draws to a close, Sylvan Lutz summarises IF’s thoughts as an official observer. Despite the historic call to move away from the use of all fossil fuels, the agreement is representative of worldwide governments’ failures to send an unambiguous signal that the fossil fuel era is over.

After a long night of negotiations in Dubai, the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) released their final communique on 13 December 2023. Taking place in an oil-producing nation, the role of fossil fuels in the future global economy became a major flashpoint.

COP28 started with a significant agreement on contributions to the loss and damage fund for those least responsible for climate change and ended with a call for a “transition away” from fossil fuels that has been called the “beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era.” Nevertheless, COP28 falls short on sending the unambiguous signal needed to protect future generations: that all expansion of fossil fuel investments must stop. The signalling of a “soft end” to the fossil fuel era also plagues domestic climate policy here in the UK. To maximise the benefits of the low-carbon transition for current and future generations it is time to show that the fossil fuel era is over by ending the sale of new licences in the North Sea.

Urgent reductions in fossil fuel production and consumption are needed to protect future generations

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that to have a 50% chance of staying below 1.5°C, the world can emit no more than 400 gigatons of carbon dioxide from 2020 onwards. However, at the current rate of emissions, this budget will be exhausted by 2030. In order to achieve that goal, the world needs to cut emissions by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Currently, coal, oil and gas account for approximately 80% of the world’s primary energy supply, and are key drivers of climate change, air pollution, health problems and environmental degradation.

COP28 came after a summer that saw global temperatures surpass 1.5°C of global warming for the first time. Every ton of carbon dioxide emitted adds to the cumulative amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which determines the level of warming and its impacts. This means that the warming experienced by young people and future generations will be determined not only by our ability to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 but the speed at which we phase out fossil fuel production and consumption today.

Fossil fuel interests still wielded undue influence

Before and during the summit it appeared as if COP28 was being run by fossil fuel interests. The choice of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as the host country (one of the world’s top 10 fossil fuel producers) raised questions about the role and influence of the fossil fuel industry. The COP28 President, Sultan Al Jaber, is also Chief Executive of the UAE state-owned oil company, Adnoc, and has been accused of using his position to strike oil and gas deals with other countries. At one point during the summer, Al Jaber seemed to dismiss the calls for a global phase-out of fossil fuels, claiming that there was “no science” behind them and that they would take the world “back into caves.”

At COP28, the blue and green zones (different areas at the summit for government officials, non-government activists and corporate lobbyists to attend meetings and mingle) were flooded by the largest group of fossil fuel lobbyists of any previous COP. After accounting for the hosts – the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – and Brazil the fossil fuel industry had more delegates than any country at the conference (around 2400). The influence of fossil fuel lobbyists was seen in the first draft agreement which saw no langue on fossil fuels other than coal and the lack of language calling for an end of fossil fuel subsidies in the final agreement.

Dubai COP28 agreement contained some good news for future generations

Despite the intense pressure from fossil fuel interests a dedicated group of high-ambition countries and activists rallied in the final hours of the conference to get the historic agreement released on 13 December. Future generations will thank the negotiators and delegates in Dubai for advancing:

  1. The loss and Damage Mechanism: In a separate agreement at the beginning of the conference countries agreed on the operationalisation and scaling up of the loss and damage mechanism, including the establishment of a fund with initial pledges exceeding $500 million. A commitment to mobilise $100 billion annually from developed to developing countries was reiterated, with a new goal of $500 billion per year by 2030 for mitigation and adaptation.
  2. A “transition away from fossil fuels:” For the first time in COP history the final agreement included language that acknowledges the moving away from all types of fossil fuels. While the language was weaker than the “phase-out” of fossil fuels called for by over 100 countries, the historic shift in language, combined with the efforts of activists to get this language into the final agreement, must be celebrated.
  3. And, a tripling of renewable energy by 2030: The Dubai Climate Agreement calls for a tripling of renewable energy and to double the rate of energy efficiency gains by 2030. This is a significant acknowledgement of the inevitability of a transition to a global economy based on renewable and low-carbon energy.

Ending the fossil fuel era requires an unambiguous signal towards a phase-out of fossil fuels

The agreement to “transition away” from fossil fuels, rather than to phase them out, may seem like a minor difference in wording, but it has significant implications for the future of global energy and climate action. A phase-out of fossil fuels is taken to mean a radical reduction in fossil fuel burning down to zero, or as close to zero as possible, by 2050. This would require a rapid and massive shift to renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and hydro, as well as energy efficiency, electrification and carbon capture and storage technologies.

A “transition away from” fossil fuels, is a weaker term, indicating that fossil-fuel burning must decline without specifying by how much or when. This leaves room for continued fossil fuel subsidies and allows for some continued use of fossil fuels, especially natural gas, as a bridge or backup for renewable energy, as well as for some hard-to-decarbonise sectors, such as aviation, shipping and heavy industry. It also contributes to a false sense of security and complacency and delays the necessary and inevitable shift to a clean and renewable energy future.

The weak language in the COP28 agreement is inconsistent with global energy trends

The weaker language on the transition away from fossil fuels also contradicts the trends in global energy, which show a rapid growth of renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, and a decline of fossil fuels, especially coal. According to the International Energy agency (IEA), renewable energy sources accounted for about 30% of the world’s electricity generation in 2020 and are expected to reach 50% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. Solar and wind power are now cheaper than coal and gas in most regions and are becoming more competitive with new technologies and innovations. The IEA also projects that coal demand will peak in 2024 and decline by 40% by 2030, while oil demand will peak in 2026 and decline by 25% by 2030. Gas demand will peak in 2030 and decline by 15% by 2050. These projections, based on current policies and pledges, show that the transition to a near fossil-free energy system is inevitable. However, the timeline could be accelerated by stronger action and ambition from governments and businesses.

The role of the UK in ending the fossil fuel era

While UK negotiators were an important part of the international chorus calling for a phase out of fossil fuels, national policy is increasingly at odds with an inevitable low-carbon future. We have a responsibility to future generations to overcome the government’s retrenchment in climate policy, including the continual issuance of new licences for oil and gas permits in the North Sea and push for a full phase-out of fossil fuels. This will boost the UK’s position on the world stage and improve economic prospects at home.

The continuation of licences in the North Sea undermines the UK’s position at global negotiations, such as at COP28, and misses the chance to invest in clean energy alternatives that could create jobs and boost competitiveness. The UK’s call for a phase-out of fossil fuels would be far more credible if the current government was not permitting continued expansion of fossil fuel production at home. Global energy trends the potential to develop renewable energy sources and carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) technology at home means that the growth in those sectors is far more likely to offset job losses in North Sea oil and gas. According to the UK government’s own estimates, the CCUS and hydrogen sectors could support up to 50,000 jobs by 2030 and up to 100,000 jobs by 2050 in addition to those already being created in solar and wind energy production.

Sending an unambiguous signal towards a net-zero world

COP28’s weak language on fossil fuels and the UK’s continued support for North Sea oil and gas expansion represent a wider set of missed opportunities to align politics with global energy trends and build an energy system that supports, not harms, future generations. A clear and urgent shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy is crucial for keeping global warming as low as possible. In future COPs, the world must prioritise the phase-out of fossil fuels and embrace cleaner alternatives not only as a moral obligation on intergenerational fairness grounds but as a strategic move towards a sustainable, resilient global economy. In the UK that means leading by example by stopping the new production of oil and gas in the North Sea and using the country’s resources and energy expertise to boost hydrogen and wind energy production. Given the inevitability of the energy transition, this is not only a moral imperative to reduce the impacts of climate change on future generations around the world, but an economic imperative to create jobs with long-term viability for young generations in the UK today.

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