The decision of moving away from fossil fuels, and operationalisation of the loss and damage fund are major wins from COP28.
As the gavel struck on 13 December 2023 to mark the agreement at COP28, it signalled more than just the usual closure of another United Nations climate negotiation. This time, the setting was Dubai, presided over by the CEO of one of the world’s biggest oil companies, and the subject was fossil fuels – a topic historically untouched in the annals of these discussions.
For three decades, the international community had avoided the direct mention of fossil fuels in climate agreements. The burning of coal, oil, and gas – the primary drivers of global warming – remained a spectre of haunting negotiations, unacknowledged due to the staunch resistance from major oil and gas producers. These countries have historically drawn a red line, refusing to recognise the necessity of phasing down oil and gas to address the climate crisis.
However, COP28 shattered this status quo. The decision to transition away from fossil fuels, made in a petrostate and against the preferences of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), marks a significant leap towards acknowledging and addressing the root cause of climate change.
The agreement, aiming for a “just, orderly, and equitable transition away from fossil fuels”, is a nuanced wording to start reducing the production and consumption of fossil fuels. While it is not an explicit call for a phase-down or a phase-out, it sends an unmistakable message to the fossil fuel industry: The era of unchecked fossil fuel consumption is drawing to a close.
Yet, COP28 will be remembered for more than just this ground-breaking agreement. It also will be remembered for operationalising the loss and damage fund on the very first day of the conference to support vulnerable developing countries in dealing with climate disasters. While the initial pledges to the fund remains about US$800 million (with the host the United Arab Emirates contributing US$100 million and the United States just US$17.5 million), which is far less than what is needed, the operationalisation of the fund marks an important milestone in the climate justice movement.
But not all went well. The shortcomings of the Global Stocktaking (GST) process were glaringly evident. This critical element of the Paris Agreement, designed to assess global progress in addressing climate change, had nothing new to add other than what had already been published by scientific bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The failure of the GST to assign clear responsibility and provide actionable guidance to countries to enhance ambition for the 2025 emission reduction pledges was a significant missed opportunity. Especially concerning was its failure in highlighting the unfulfilled commitments of developed nations and its apparent leniency towards China, the world's largest emitter. This oversight has undermined the process's credibility.
The fact is that the developed countries have consistently not met any of their commitments on emissions reduction or financial support. They continue to invest in new fossil fuel infrastructure and emit more than their fair share. For instance, the US presently is the largest producer of oil and gas, producing nearly a quarter of global natural gas and 15 per cent of world’s crude oil. The problem is there is no sign that it is phasing down fossil fuels as the Biden administration has recently approved new offshore oil and gas leases. The developed countries have also not met their collective finance obligations of providing US$100 billion to the developing countries. On the other hand, China’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which is a quarter of the global emissions, needs to peak and reduce quickly to have any chance of meeting the 1.5 OC target. Yet, the GST failed to point out these crucial issues. The lessons from the first GST are that global climate action needs more than just pledges; it demands accountability, transparency, and equitable responsibility-sharing.
Business takes centre stage
COP28 marked a significant shift in the character of global climate conferences, with the robust presence of the business sector. Industry leaders, CEOs of major oil companies, and financiers were present in significant numbers, each bringing their perspectives to the climate table. While some critics likened the event to a trade show, voicing concerns over the influence of business interests and lobbyists in climate negotiations, this criticism overlooks a crucial aspect of climate action: The indispensable role of businesses.
There is a growing recognition in the business world about the threats and opportunities presented by the climate crisis. This shift in perception is crucial to realign capital away from climate-damaging activities towards sustainable practices. The large presence of businesses at COP28 suggests that this realignment may be starting to take shape.
For years, experts in sustainable development have advocated for a synergy between environmental concerns and business interests. COP28 can be seen as a tangible step towards this goal. It highlighted that the path to a sustainable future is not just the responsibility of governments and environmental activists but also of the corporate world.
The agreement reached at G20 under India’s Presidency had its imprint on the COP28 declarations. The adoption of the Delhi declaration's goals like tripling of renewable energy capacity and a doubling of energy efficiency improvement by 2030 by the COP28 is solidifying the role of G20 into multilateralism.
India's steadfast advocacy for a comprehensive approach to fossil fuel reduction also saw fruition. At COP27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh last year, India was the first country to demand a phase down of all fossil fuels and not just coal to accelerate climate action. This year's agreement on transitioning away from fossil fuels can be seen as a direct result to India's initiative last year.
Overall, the ‘UAE Consensus’ is a bold shift in climate action. Central to this shift is the emerging narrative of a just, orderly, and equitable transition away from fossil fuels—a theme that will increasingly dominate global discourse as countries internalise the imperative of shutting down fossil fuel establishments and building a new green economy.