COP28: The Beginning of the End of Fossil Fuels?

The 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference, the Conference of the Parties (COP28), concluded in Dubai on 13 December 2023 with an important agreement, heralding the “beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era” according to the UNFCCC. The accord aims to further the change to a “swift, just, and equitable” transition marked by substantial emissions reductions and increased financial commitments, especially towards developing countries. The nearly 200 participating Parties collectively decided on the world's first global stocktake to intensify climate action before 2030, aiming to maintain the Paris Agreement global temperature limit of 1.5 °C. The 2023 record-breaking conference drew over 90,000 participants to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to negotiate, share solutions, and build partnerships.

The central feature of COP28, the global stocktake, provides countries with a framework to strengthen their climate action plans, due by 2025. Recognizing the urgency, the stocktake acknowledges the need for a 43% reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared to 2019 levels. In order to achieve this transformation, the agreement calls for global efforts to triple renewable energy capacity, double energy efficiency improvements, phase down unabated coal power, and eliminate inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. For the first time ever, the agreement also calls for a phase-down of unabated coal power and for an orderly and equitable transition away from fossil fuels. Despite these landmark achievements, however, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), along with India and China, still oppose more concrete language and action on oil, gas and coal, necessary to avoid the most harmful consequences of an increasingly harsh global climate.

What’s new in this year’s COP?

The two-week-long conference got underway with the World Climate Action Summit, which brought together 154 Heads of States and Government under the chairmanship of the UAE. Parties reached a historic agreement on the operationalization of the Loss and Damage fund – the first time a substantive decision was adopted on the first day of the conference. Commitments to the fund started coming in moments after the decision was approved, totaling more than 700 million USD as of writing.

Climate finance, as the enabler of the global energy transition, scored more important commitments. The Green Climate Fund (GCF) received a boost to its second replenishment with six countries pledging new funding at COP28 with total pledges now standing at a record 12.8 billion USD from 31 countries. Other smaller funds, like the Least Developed Countries Fund, also received important funding boosts. Overall the total pledged amount sums up to over 80 billion USD. As highlighted in the global stocktake however, these financial pledges are far short of the trillions that will be eventually needed to support developing countries with their clean energy transitions, implementing national climate plans, and other global adaptation and mitigation efforts.

Significant progress was also achieved on methane reduction, which is far more polluting compared to CO2 despite having a much shorter lifespan in the atmosphere. Over 100 countries pledged to cut its emissions by 30% by 2030 at COP28. Methane, which is mainly released from agriculture and energy generation, presents an opportunity for countries to reduce emissions relatively cheaply by modernizing natural gas infrastructure and closing up old wells that are leaking gas into the atmosphere.

Last but not least, nuclear energy saw a significant boost from a small but powerful group of countries that committed to tripling its output by 2030. France, China, the US and Russia are the world’s biggest users of nuclear power, a sustainable energy source that has been growing in popularity in the last decade thanks to its reliability and constant output, although unlike other renewables it comes with a significant economic and political price tag. Faced with growing calls to decarbonize their energy emissions, more countries are expected to turn to nuclear power to replace old fossil fuel plants and fulfill their climate commitments, although the politically dangerous question of nuclear accidents and nuclear waste pose a significant obstacle to more widespread adoption. 

The EU also used the forum to promote and unveil new pieces of its Global Gateway strategy, with which it aims to link sustainability, trade and geopolitics outside of the EU. European Commission President von der Leyen launched the Global Pledge on Renewables and Energy Efficiency at the summit along with more than 100 countries, in addition to a deforestation-free supply chain initiative tied to the Global Gateway. Given its lack of fossil fuel deposits, as well as concerns over the security of the raw materials that the European industry requires, the EU has been one of the biggest supporters of renewable technologies and the green transition, seeing it as a way to bring cheap and politically risk-free energy to the continent, adding force to its de-risking strategy.

India, China and OPEC

Despite the growing calls for countries to take action to restrict global warming to 1.5 °C, the agreement encountered severe difficulties in actualizing more ambitious climate goals, especially with language dealing with fossil fuels. On 6 December 2023, OPEC circulated a letter to its members urging them to “proactively reject any text or formula that targets energy, ie fossil fuels, rather than emissions” in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to exclude a fossil fuels phase-out from the final text. As the largest organization of oil producing countries worldwide, OPEC wields vast influence which it has predictably used at climate summits to block concrete demands to stop the use, sale and production of fossil fuels. 

The language of this year’s COP, however, is a sign that the currents are beginning to shift. After prolonged diplomatic pressure from several countries and groups including the United States, the EU and Australia, the final text was revised to include calls for a phase-down of unabated coal power and the transition away from fossil fuels. Global outrage over a previous version which gave parties four voluntary choices on how to proceed, effectively watering down the agreement, also helped to convince the remaining holdouts like Saudi Arabia to adopt the stronger language above, although they still managed to avoid a complete phase out.

The reduction of coal power, the most polluting fossil fuel, also faces significant hurdles, especially from China, India and Indonesia. The three countries account for most of the currently building and planned coal power plants worldwide, since despite its high emissions coal remains one of the cheapest fuels available. As a result, they have pushed back against proposals to call for the complete phaseout of coal power, supported by a string of developing countries relying on fossil fuel exports. The compromise on coal that has been hammered out at COP28 only calls for the end of unabated coal power, with ‘unabated’ essentially referring to its use without pollution reduction technologies and adaptations. 

Lessons for COP29

Every subsequent COP brings increasingly dire warnings from climate scientists. Yet, despite the unprecedented progress of COP28 not enough has been done to date to realistically limit global warming to 1.5 °C as per the goals of the Paris Agreement. Although much of the resistance comes from large oil producers and coal consumers, they are supported by a range of developing nations who rely on the export or use of cheap fossil fuels, like Botswana. Although the notable increases in climate finance devoted to helping such countries transition sustainably will help them to shift towards renewable energy sources, more funding and support will still be needed to ensure they can do so in a timely manner.

China and India, as the world’s largest developing countries by population, also have a crucial role to play in future COPs, given their role as global trendsetters and role models for developing countries. Although neither signed the Global Renewables and Energy Efficiency Pledge to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030, the test of China’s commitment will come in 2025, when it will release its official Nationally Determined Contribution targets for 2030. China’s role was also bolstered by the October Sunnylands Statement with the United States, released as a result of a greatly anticipated meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Biden in California.

leaked briefing to COP28 President Al-Jaber, who also acts as the CEO of the UAE’s state oil company ADNOC, included talking points with suggestions to use the forum to strike new oil and gas sales with dozens of countries. Not unlike COP28, held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), next year’s conference is almost certain to take place in Azerbaijan, one of the most fossil fuel dependent economies worldwide. Given the considerable importance of oil in Azerbaijan’s economy, where oil and gas make up more than two thirds of GDP, it is likely that COP29 may face similar challenges. It is thus imperative that China, the United States and the EU keep up the pressure on hesitant nations to continue the energy transition with increasingly ambitious climate goals, using their diplomatic and economic influence to weave green requirements in their trade policy. 

As part of the energy transition, further investments in wind, solar and renewable energy infrastructure are required to transition away from fossil fuels. Nuclear energy, which is increasing in popularity, can be important as a low-emissions but non-renewable method of energy generation, helping the transition to more renewable systems. The 2024 COP, to be held after important elections in the US and the EU, will also be an opportunity for European Commission President von der Leyen’s successor to showcase their climate programme. The current commission has created and implemented the European Green Deal as one of its flagship programmes, and in 2024 we will see whether the subsequent commission will further focus its efforts on even more ambitious climate legislation. Given that climate action is a topic where the EU and China have found much common ground, it is important that the EU keeps developing the topic in its relations with its Asian, but also other external partners for more effective cooperation.

Author: Giacomo Ferri, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo Credits: Unsplash