The 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change concluded on Wednesday with a historic decision. For the first time, parties agreed to address the issue of fossil fuels, acknowledging the need for a “fair and equitable” transition away from them. The final agreement, the “UAE Consensus”, is said to be a significant step forward in the fight against climate change.
Before the conference, concerns were raised about the potential for fossil fuel interests to influence proceedings. The appointment of Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, as COP28 President was criticised by some activists who saw it as a conflict of interest. However, the final decision to address fossil fuels was met with praise from many, who see it as a crucial step towards addressing the leading cause of emissions and climate change.
The agreement was reached after extensive negotiations and multiple drafts. The conference proceedings extended past its scheduled closure date. The Presidency emphasised the need for ambitious language to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a goal they described as the “North Star.”
Despite this progress, the final decision left some developing countries dissatisfied.
Concerns of the developing world
Several developing countries, including Bolivia, Cuba, China, and others in the “G-77 and China” group, expressed dissatisfaction with the final text on fossil fuels at COP28, stating that it eroded principles of equity and climate justice.
Ulka Kelkar, Executive Director of Climate at the World Resources Institute India, expressed her concerns. “From an Indian perspective, this text displays greater parity between coal and other fossil fuels but appears to absolve developed countries of the responsibility of phasing out their fossil fuel use in this critical decade,” she said. “In fact, the reference to ‘transitional fuels’ explicitly gives gas-producing countries the licence to sell more gas rather than invest in renewable energy.”
Developing countries also highlighted the absence of concrete commitments on financial support for their transition away from fossil fuels. At the plenary, Cuba pointed out that “1.5 degrees has been characterised as the North Star but there is a whole constellation of purposes like eradicating poverty, sustainable development, etc. For this, we need huge resources in addition to our domestic resources.”
Before the final agreement, countries were divided on how to address fossil fuels, with options ranging from phasing out “unabated” fuels to transitioning away in a just and fair manner. Smaller developing countries and OPEC members opposed any measures seen as an “attack” on fossil fuels.
Despite President Al Jaber’s attempt to facilitate dialogue, the final text fell short of the ambitious commitments many hoped for. “COP28 has not delivered,” said Friederike Otto, Senior Lecturer in Climate Science. “By not phasing out fossil fuels, by only using language that leaves serious action on mitigation and adaptation voluntarily, we do not have a framework to get the world on track to achieve the Paris Agreement.”
Developing countries expressed further worries that any ambitious commitments could be used against them by developed countries to shoulder a larger burden of the climate battle. “The same countries saying we need to push out fossil fuels are the countries that are expanding fossil fuels. These are the US, Australia, Norway, Canada,” said Diego Pachego of Bolivia.
Climate scientists argue that while rich countries should be committing to more ambitious goals based on science, they are instead engaging in lesser ambition and attempting to rope in developing countries to follow suit. This, they say, is to pass on the responsibility to poorer countries while allowing rich countries to maintain comfortable targets.
No sight of finance
Despite starting off with the launch of the Loss and Damage Fund, finance emerged as a major sticking point at COP28, with developing countries highlighting its essential role in climate action. Despite the UN Convention mandating developed countries to take the lead in funding climate efforts, they consistently avoided mentioning specific financial commitments.
In 2010, developed countries pledged to mobilise $100 billion annually by 2020 to assist developing nations. While developed country leaders repeatedly referenced a report suggesting the goal might be achieved, the lack of a transparent mechanism to track and measure finance flows casts doubt on its accuracy. As Bolivia aptly remarked at the “majlis” discussions, “Developed countries say we have achieved the $100 billion goal, but we don’t see the money.” Different independent reports offer conflicting figures based on their definition of climate finance, further obfuscating the true picture.
Negotiations for a new financial goal, the New Collective Quantified Goal on Finance (NCQG), are already underway, with COP28 hosting discussions on its design. Developing countries advocated for a science-based approach to determine the new goal and a robust mechanism to track its progress. In contrast, developed countries persistently pushed for the inclusion of Article 2.1(c) of the Paris Agreement. This provision, signed in 2015, allows developed countries to withhold funding if they deem a project insufficiently climate-friendly. A final decision on the NCQG will be made at next year’s COP29.
Another critical issue with the previous goal was the meagre allocation for adaptation. Climate change has caused irreversible damage, necessitating new and innovative technologies for adaptation. While progress in this area remains limited, sectors like agriculture have developed adaptation methods that require financial support for implementation in poorer countries.
Recognising this need, countries held discussions on The Global Goal on Adaptation which was set up under the Paris Agreement to provide direction on how countries could increase their capacity to deal with the effects of climate change. COP28 saw the adoption of a framework under this, but left developing countries unhappy as there was no mention of an equitable process. African countries, leading the charge for developing countries, stressed the crucial role of “means of implementation” like finance and technology in climate adaptation. Encouragingly, COP28 also saw an agreement to double funding for adaptation efforts by 2025.
Unfulfilled climate finance commitments severely hinder the ability of developing countries to take meaningful climate action. As aptly stated by Colombia at the majlis, “We cannot jump from one rope to another if the other rope is not ready. Reality is that the other rope is not ready.”
Mitigating climate change: Promises and contradictions
Reducing fossil fuel dependence is a key strategy for mitigating climate change. Mitigation encompasses all efforts to reduce pollutants into the atmosphere, including emissions reduction and transitioning to renewable energy.
At COP28, over 120 countries signed the Global Renewables and Energy Efficiency Pledge, committing to triple global renewable energy generation. This global interest in renewables was first voiced in September at the G20 Summit in Delhi. However, India withdrew from the pledge at COP28 due to its opposition to the included call for ending coal investments, a major energy source for the country.
Discussions on mitigation were once again marred by the contentious issue of finance. Developing countries insisted on receiving financial support before committing to ambitious mitigation measures. They emphasised the responsibility of developed nations, with their higher income levels, to lead the charge in climate mitigation.
However, closer examination of proposed fossil fuel projects reveals a contradictory picture. The US, despite advocating for fossil fuel phase-out at COP28, remains the world’s top producer and consumer of crude oil (20 per cent of the global total).
A September report by Oil Change International identified the US, Australia, Canada, Norway, and the UK as the “richest planet wreckers responsible for oil and gas exploration.” These five countries alone plan to develop 51 per cent of the projected oil and gas fields by 2050. The US’ cumulative emissions from oil and gas between 2023 and 2050 are estimated to be equivalent to 454 new coal plants.
This year, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to “max out” the country’s oil and gas reserves while announcing new drilling permits for the North Sea. While Australia committed to ending overseas fossil fuel funding, it has approved numerous domestic projects, including coal developments. Former Australian climate commissioner Lesley Hughes has highlighted how the country’s fossil fuel production has remained constant since the 1999 environmental protection law was enacted.
Vaibhav Chaturvedi, Fellow at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, aptly sums up the situation: “The invisible hand of oil and gas powers has prevailed. Self-interest of the developed world has taken over global interests. The developing world must now be prepared for more climate impacts and adaptation interventions through its own resources, as funding support for that is going to be inadequate at best.”
Mrinali is Climate Change Research Lead with Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change, and natural resource governance in India.