• Has COP28 achieved the first global commitment to ending fossil fuels?

Fuel for Thought

Has COP28 achieved the first global commitment to ending fossil fuels?

Dec 13 2023

In 1992, a conference of delegates from members of the United Nations passed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), declaring that the parties were: 

‘Concerned that human activities have been substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, that these increases enhance the natural greenhouse effect, and that this will result on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere and may adversely affect natural ecosystems and humankind’. 

Despite this concern, the Convention does not commit to the abolition of those ‘human activities’ responsible for this over-concentration. Indeed, Article 2 states that ‘The Parties shall […] take into consideration […] economies that are vulnerable to the adverse effects of the implementation of measures to respond to climate change’, which includes ‘economies that are highly dependent on income generated from the production, processing and export, and/or consumption of fossil fuels […] for which such Parties have serious difficulties in switching to alternatives.’ It was this document that established regular Conferences of the Parties (COPs) to co-ordinate mitigation and adaptation efforts but until this year’s Conference, the 28th of its kind, none had managed in any significant way to resolve this central contradiction.   

The Paris Accords mandated that the first Global Stocktake, a report assessing current efforts and establishing pathways to limit warming, be released in 2023. This task was taken up at COP28. In the draft of this report accepted by the delegates, one of the ‘global efforts’ to which Parties must ‘contribute’ is ‘Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner […] so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science’.  

When this new phrasing found its way to the newsrooms of the Western world, it was treated as a total shock. Before this, COP28 had been defined by fierce contestation over whether the final agreement ought to call for the ‘phase out’ or ‘phase down’ of fossil fuels. Days before COP28 opened its doors, President of the Conference, Sultan Al Jaber of the United Arab Emirates was reported by The Guardian to have stated in broadcasted conversation at a She Changes Climate event that: “There is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5°C.” Chief Executive of the state-owned oil firm, Adnoc, Sultan Al Jaber had been eyed suspiciously since the day it was announced that the UAE would host this year’s Conference, suspicions which only intensified when leaked documents obtained by the Centre for Climate Reporting and seen by The Guardian appeared to be invitations to various delegations to discuss new oil and gas deals at the Conference itself. Indeed, in an earlier draft of the Global Stocktake, released on Monday, the passage suggested simply ‘reducing both consumption and production of fossil fuels’ with no commitment to full abolition. 

It’s miraculous, then, that we have ended up with what appears to be the strongest wording of any COP so far. But just how significant is it, really? Shouldn’t we presume that delegates in sympathy with Al Jaber are unlikely to have changed their minds so significantly in just two weeks? Well, it’s unclear. Whilst ‘transitioning’ retains the original ambiguity of ‘phasing’, allowing for acres of wiggle room in which countries can claim they’re in transition by adding only a couple of percentage points of renewables to their fuel-mix, ‘away’ is certainly an improvement on ‘down’ but not at all equivalent to ‘out’. On the one hand, such a phrase could legitimise a mitigation purgatory in which nations endlessly “move away” from fossil fuels without ever really getting rid of them. On the other, it is an entirely different sentiment to phasing down or reducing carbon emissions, suggesting a genuine break with fossil fuels which can be, if only symbolically, co-signed by the international community. Of course, the only real test of this new agreement will be in practice, where a lot is still to be done. From the brink of historic failure, nevertheless, COP28 has managed to achieve what might just turn out to be a landmark in the history of climate action.   

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