Fossil fuels’ death-knell sounded at COP28 held in oil-rich UAE; Al Jaber takes credit for keeping 1.5ºC target alive

Experts slam final text as weak, inadequate, with loopholes, and not in accordance;with science;;hail;historical first entry of agenda in COP decision ;
Sultan Al Jaber, COP28 President and Simon Stiell, UNFCCC Executive Secretary, hug each other at the end of the event. Photo: @COP28_UAE / X
Sultan Al Jaber, COP28 President and Simon Stiell, UNFCCC Executive Secretary, hug each other at the end of the event. Photo: @COP28_UAE / X

The 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at Dubai came to an end on December 13, a day after its scheduled closure, with an all-agreed conclusion that several experts termed as ‘far too weak’ compared to what the science mandates to save the world and humanity.

However, the year’s most important climate summit also sounded a faint death-knell for fossil fuels by calling for a transition from them to acheive net zero by 2050. This a landmark decision, never featured formally in a COP decision before. It was ironic that the death-knell for fossil fuels, albeit faint, was sounded in a COP organised by a country that is a global major in terms of producing fossil fuels.

The final draft of the Global Stocktake (GST) says fossil fuels need to be replaced with clean energy. It talks about reaching global net zero by 2050 by tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030.

The text however remains weak on finance. It does not integrate the major decisions with agendas like ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ (CBDR) and equity. “The finance issues will be taken up in the next COP, when new and additional finances will be decided,” said an expert.

India was under pressure in the last draft text, which had a proposal for rapid coal cuts and stopping of new coal-based power generation. It has been largely relieved with coal language push back. New Delhi had to swallow a few unpleasant decisions, though.

Global Net Zero at 2050

Paragraph 28, the most crucial part of the text, says:

… (on) accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power (and) 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.

It also says:

… accelerating  efforts  globally  towards  net  zero  emission  energy  systems, utilizing zero- and low carbon fuels well before or by around mid-century; accelerating and substantially reducing non-carbon-dioxide   emissions globally, including in particular methane emissions by 2030.

The section adds:

accelerating the reduction of emissions from road transport on a range of pathways, including through development of infrastructure and rapid deployment of zero- and low-emission vehicles; (and) phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that do not address energy poverty or just transitions, as soon as possible.

Efforts to promote technological solutions such as nuclear, carbon capture and storage, as well as low-carbon hydrogen production, have been termed by several countries, scientists, and climate experts as “false solutions” and a “façade” for a few countries willing to continue the burning of fossil fuels.

Victory and push back

The final draft is a boon for India. It could, alongwith China, push back the strong language on coal used in the earlier draft.

That document had called for rapidly phasing down unabated coal. It had also asked for limitations on permitting new and unabated coal power generation. Those have been rolled back in the final draft.

But India had to give in on Net Zero. The draft agreed on global Net Zero by 2050 and did not refer to any country. The decision is expected to bring pressure on countries like India and China, major present-day emitters with far later Net Zero dates. China’s is in 2060, and India’s a decade later.

India is also expected to feel the pressure on methane cuts and fuel subsidies in the future.  

The short response of Union environment, forest and climate change minister, Bhupender Yadav, in the plenary bears testimony of India’s ‘not too excited’ political positioning with respect to the final conslusion.

The Union minister talked about “positive collaboration and camaraderie for an action-oriented approach towards a greener and healthier planet” at COP28. He referred to India’s climate role vis-à-vis the G20 presidency. Yadav, however, refrained from commenting on any specific issue in the draft.

“We support the proposal of the Presidency on the COP decision document while reiterating the fundamental principles enshrined in the Paris Agreement to take action for global good in accordance with national circumstances,” said the minister.

He referred to the principles of equity and climate justice, and urged developed countries to take the lead on the basis of their historical contributions. China , in comparison, was much more critical of developed countries. The United Kingdom counter-punched India and China, without naming them, by criticising the rollback on coal.

India vouched to counter all the points mentioned in paragraph 28-paragraph 39 in the earlier draft — mainly those on coal, Nationally Determined Contributions, and methane.

Vaibhab Chaturvedi, an energy expert with think tank CEEW, said: “The final text can be best described as bitter sweet for the developing world, including India. The good part is the removal of language around no new investments in coal power plants, infeasible for rapidly developing economies like India. But there is also nothing meaningful about finance.”

Final verdict?

“Over the last two weeks, we have worked very hard to secure a better future for our people and our planet … We have delivered a comprehensive response to the Global Stocktake and all the other mandates. Together, we have confronted realities and … set the world in the right direction (with) a robust action plan to keep 1.5ºC within reach … a plan that is led by the science,” claimed COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber.

He was speaking at the beginning of the closing plenary regarding the COP final decision that he chose to christen the “UAE Consensus”.

“We operationalised loss and damage… and started to fill the fund. We mobilised more than $85 billion in new financial commitments,” he further claimed.

Experts countered.

“After decades of evasion, COP28 finally cast a glaring spotlight on the real culprits of the climate crisis: fossil fuels. A long-overdue direction to move away from coal, oil, and gas has been set. Yet, the resolution is marred by loopholes that offer the fossil fuel industry numerous escape routes, relying on unproven, unsafe technologies,” pointed out Harjeet Singh, head (Global Political Strategy), Climate Action Network International to this reporter.

Aarti Khosla, director of Climate Trends, observed: “The Dubai deal is positive, though with gaps.”

“It is the first time that there is recognition of transitioning away from fossil fuels in a COP text — essentially meaning slashing not just coal, but also oil and gas. But coming alongside an absolute recognition of a warming world, and the need to take rapid action within this decade, the outcome text makes real concessions for gas and oil,” she alleged.

Sanjay Vashist, director of Climate Action Network South Asia, claimed: “The outcome of COP28 makes it clear that the world only belongs to the rich and influential in developed countries. The removal of equity and human rights principles from the final outcome text indicates that vulnerable communities in developing countries need to save themselves on their own, and the real climate culprits are not coming to their rescue.”

But a few see hope in the text. Ajay Mathur, director general of International Solar Alliance, said: “... The call to triple renewable energy had been made at G20. Signals at various multilateral gatherings have not only served as a catalyst for intensified collective efforts but also emphasise the urgency of addressing the well-being of the poorest and most vulnerable.”

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