The world came tantalizingly close to an agreement to phase out fossil fuels

What would have been a historic deal to address a planetary crisis slipped out of reach at the eleventh hour. Still, climate-vulnerable countries and environmentalists scored some important clean energy victories after heated climate negotiations concluded in the United Arab Emirates, one of the largest oil and gas producing countries.

This was the closest countries have come to a global agreement to phase out the use of coal, oil and gas. But the summit was still arguably a home run for fossil fuel interests, which had put their weight on the United Nations climate conference, called the 28th Conference of the Parties, or COP28, where tens of thousands of delegates and activists from almost every country have gathered on earth. for the past two weeks to argue about the future of fossil fuels.

Now that the dust has settled, these are some of the biggest decisions made in Dubai that could shape how we power our world in the future.

“This text is a step forward on our path to phasing out fossil fuels, but it is not the historic decision we had hoped for.”

More than a hundred countries came to the table and pushed for an official agreement to “phase out fossil fuels.” This would address a glaring omission in the 2015 Paris Agreement, which never actually mentions coal, oil or natural gas, despite being an international agreement to halt global warming. Unfortunately, countries are still not confronted with the root of the problem.

To complete the deal, almost 200 countries had to agree on the same language. Ultimately, draft language explicitly calling for the phase-out of fossil fuels was dropped from the final text of the agreements reached during this year’s climate talks. What the world has gotten instead is a weaker call to “avert the transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable way, accelerating action in this critical decade.” A landmark 2018 United Nations-backed climate report shows that countries need to nearly halve their emissions by 2030 to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

The final text also calls on countries to work to “accelerate efforts to phase out unabated coal energy.” To be clear, every word in that sentence is pretty dirty. Coal is of course the most polluting fossil fuel, a reason why this is difficult to ignore in a climate agreement. But a commitment to phase down its use is certainly weaker than phasing it out. It echoes the language of a recent letter to participating governments from COP28 President Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber – who also happens to be the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

The UN’s decision to hold the summit in the United Arab Emirates, a major oil and gas producer, ultimately gave the fossil fuel industry unprecedented access. There were more fossil fuel lobbyists in Dubai than at any climate conference in the 28 years the United Nations has convened them. Fossil fuel industry representatives outnumbered delegations from all countries attending the talks, with the exception of the United Arab Emirates and Brazil. Al Jaber even used his position as COP28 president to lobby for oil and gas deals with other governments, according to an investigation by the BBC and the Center for Climate Reporting.

Still, there were hopeful signs last week when the draft documents coming out of the conference included options to include language calling on countries to phase out fossil fuel use (there was also an option not to include such a clause to take). Subsequently, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) sent a letter to its member states, pressuring them to “proactively reject any text or formula that focuses on energy, that is, on fossil fuels, rather than on emissions .”

After the letter, language that previously called on countries to phase out fossil fuels disappeared from subsequent drafts. The response was quick. “This submissive design reads as if OPEC dictated it word for word,” the former US vice president said Al Gore posted on X on Monday. “COP28 is now on the brink of complete failure.”

That brings us back to the language coming out of COP28 that needs to be phased out without prejudice coal. Using the word “unabated” – whether in terms of coal, oil or gas – creates a huge loophole for fossil fuels. It means polluters can continue to burn fossil fuels as long as they combine them with emerging technologies that capture greenhouse gas emissions (although typically not 100 percent of those emissions) that have not yet been proven at scale.

“This text is a step forward on our path towards phasing out fossil fuels, but is not the historic decision we had hoped for… given the overwhelming momentum among countries in support of a renewable energy package and a long-awaited phase-out of fossil fuels. we needed a much more ambitious result.” Andreas Sieber, deputy director of policy and campaigns for environmental group, said in a statement before the draft agreement was finalized at the conference’s closing plenary.

While the lack of a clear plan to phase out fossil fuels is a blow to climate action, this is not exactly a zero-sum game. Solar and wind energy are already cheaper alternatives to coal, oil and gas in most of the world when it comes to meeting the new demand for electricity. Almost all of the world new According to the International Energy Agency, electricity supply in the coming years is expected to come from renewable energy and nuclear energy. The agency, which was initially created to secure global fuel supplies after the oil crisis of the 1970s, earlier this year called a global transition to clean energy “unstoppable” and predicted that demand for coal, oil and gas will increase this decade would reach its peak.

When push comes to shove, getting cleaner energy sources online seems inevitable at this point. There were also some notable new clean energy commitments in the final texts coming out of COP28. It calls for a tripling of global renewable energy capacity by 2030, something more than 100 countries had already pledged to do as negotiations took place last week. Ahead of the conference, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas polluters – the US and China – pledged to work together towards that goal when each country’s climate envoys met in California in November.

There is a lot of science behind these types of negotiations. The world is on average about 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than before the industrial revolution. That may not sound like much, but it’s enough to cause devastating hurricane and wildfire seasons, and droughts to suck vulnerable places dry, while displacing other communities facing rising tides.

The mountain of climate research we have today describes much greater risks to life on Earth if warming reaches two degrees. We are talking about the possible destruction of the world’s coral reefs. Twice as many megacities in the world could experience heat stress, exposing some 350 million people to dangerously high temperatures by 2050, even in places previously known for their cool weather. The longer the world runs on fossil fuels, the greater those risks become.

That’s why the Paris Agreement commits countries to working together to prevent two degrees of warming, and ideally prevent temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius. To stay below that lower threshold, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero as quickly as possible. And you can’t get rid of all those greenhouse gas emissions without also saying goodbye to fossil fuels.

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