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Historic COP28 climate agreement calls on nations to "transition away" from fossil fuels

COP28 was close to falling apart. But after two weeks of deliberations, the nearly 200 countries participating in the COP28 climate summit finally agreed on a climate deal. The deal has been lauded as an historic agreement – but critics say that the deal contains too many loopholes.

More than 130 countries, countless of scientists and civil society groups had urged for the agreement to include an explicit commitment to “phase out” fossil fuels. But ultimately, the agreement reached was a compromise and the text only calls for countries to “transition away” from fossil fuels. And the COP28 climate agreement is truly historic. It is, after all, the very first climate agreement that even mentions fossil fuels. And that alone shows just how far behind we – as a collective – are when it comes to taking meaningful climate action.

“We have delivered a robust action plan to keep 1.5C in reach,” said Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, the president of COP28 this year (who also just happens to be the head of UAE's state-owned oil company). “It is an enhanced, balanced, but make no mistake, a historic package to accelerate climate action. It is the UAE consensus. We have language on fossil fuel in our final agreement for the first time ever.”

But critics are not as jubilant. The Alliance of Small Island States, representing 39 countries at the summit, said in a response that “the process has failed us” and that the deal included a “litany of loopholes”. But the alliance did not formally object to the agreement. “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,” the alliance’s lead negotiator, Anne Rasmussen, said.

The COP28 text calls for “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 deal calls on countries to work toward “accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power.”

A commitment to “phase down” is clearly a much weaker language than one to “phase out” dirty coal power. And by using the word “unabated” for fossil fuels – such as coal and oil – could introduce dangerous loopholes for polluters. It allows countries and companies to continue to invest in and burn dirty fossil fuels, just as long as they pair it with new and unproven technologies that (hopefully) can capture and store most of the dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. The COP28 agreement also continues to allow countries to use “transitional fuels”, such as natural gas, that also emits dangerous greenhouse gas emissions.

The COP28 deal also includes a call for tripling the use of renewable energy and doubling energy efficiency.

United Nations Climate Secretary Simon Stiell cautioned delegates at the conference that what they adopted was a “climate action lifeline, not a finish line.”

To be able to stay within the 1.5C target, the COP28 deal projects – or rather, it hopes – that the world’s carbon pollution will peak in just two years. After the year 2025, the world’s carbon emissions must fall.

And if this doesn't happen, if our carbon emissions do not start to sharply fall, then we will move into an unknown and extremely dangerous future.

The world, on average, is now about 1.2C degrees hotter than it was before the industrial revolution. And our emissions keep growing at a rapid pace. It thus seems highly unlikely that the world’s emissions will peak in just two years when the emission curve is constantly going up.

Both climate scientists Pierre Friedlingstein and Johan Rockström sees it as "extremely unlikely" that the world will meet the 1.5C target. “We need a corona reduction every year for 30 years. That is the size of our transition,” Friedlingstein said in an interview that took place during the COP28 conference. Prof Johan Rockström, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, said in a response to the COP28 agreement: “No, the Cop28 agreement will not enable the world to hold the 1.5C limit, but yes, the result is a pivotal landmark. This agreement delivers on making it clear to all financial institutions, businesses and societies that we are now finally – eight years behind the Paris schedule – at the true ‘beginning of the end’ of the fossil fuel-driven world economy.”

Following the agreement, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, tweeted: “Whether you like it or not, fossil fuel phase-out is inevitable. Let’s hope it doesn’t come too late.”

Yes, for all our sake, let’s hope it really isn’t too late.


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