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COP28: Towards a Tough Transition Away From Fossil Fuels

The whole world has to swim or sink together.

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Gathering in Dubai, the dazzling city built on oil wealth, it was unrealistic for the 7000 delegates, including 154 world leaders, to expect that COP28 (Conference of Parties) would mark the beginning of the end of fossil fuels as the primary source of energy in the future.

Therefore, like in most conclaves on environment and development, Dubai also created its own “language” to match the expectation with reality. By inventing the idea of transition, rather than phasing out, and stressing the urgent need to develop alternate sources such as renewable and nuclear energy, it is clear that fossil fuels will continue to energise the world as long as they are available in the womb of the earth. As a funny cartoon proclaimed, for oil-producing countries, the best way to phase out fossil fuels is to extract them and put them to use.

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Trajectory of Fossil Fuels Debate

The final deal struck by the President of COP28, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, after extending the conference for several hours, was a call for a transition away from fossil fuels, after a previous proposal met heated and widespread backlash. “With an unprecedented reference to transitioning away from all fossil fuels, the UAE Consensus is delivering a paradigm shift that has the potential to redefine our economies,” the President said.

The proposal announced in the early morning of 13 December and stated in the draft decision entitled “First Global Stocktake” called 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." A global goal to triple renewables and double energy efficiency, declarations on agriculture, food and health, and more oil and gas companies stepping up for the first time on methane and emissions were the other elements in the package. In effect, the proposal did not mandate an absolute phase out of hydrocarbons. This is the most nuanced and caveated statement he could have produced in the circumstances.

The OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) nations have come a long way from the position they took at COP1 in Berlin in 1995 when they walked out of the Group of 77 as they could not support any alternative to fossil fuels. They implied that the only answer to climate change was adaptation and not mitigation. COP28 marked a major change, brought about by years of negotiations and the realisation that the world is not divisible into different categories in facing the impending disaster of climate change. The whole world has to swim or sink together. To that extent, the pragmatism and the spirit of cooperation reflected in the decisions of COP28 are laudable.

The debate on fossil fuels reflected the debate at COP26 in Glasgow on a ‘phase out’ of the use of coal which ended with the acceptance of a ‘phase down’ at the last moment. It was argued in Dubai that a phase out commitment would likely have required a shift away from fossil fuels until their use is eliminated, while a phase down agreement would have indicated a reduction in their use—but not an absolute end. Many may have argued that coal and fossil fuels are like chalk and cheese, which cannot be compared. The new formulation satisfied governments, but not young activists, one of whom interrupted a Presidency event while holding a sign that read “End fossil fuels, save our planet and our future.” Greta Thornburg, if she was there, would have shouted, “Prove us wrong!”

The final compromise on fossil fuels made it easy for the conference to deflect other controversies. Scores of governments insisted on strong language to signal an eventual end to the fossil fuel era over protests by the members of OPEC and its allies. “It is the first time that the world unites around such a clear text on the need to transition away from fossil fuels. It has been the elephant in the room. At last, we addressed it head on,” said a European delegate. It is a mystery that the US and other western countries championed phasing out of fossil fuels as such a measure would affect them equally. The best explanation is that it was play-acting on their part to concede on such an issue in their effort to safeguard their emission levels.

Why COP28 is Being Characterised as Pathbreaking

John Kerry, the US climate envoy maintained that some fossil fuels may have to be phased out while employing carbon capture technology to reach net zero climate targets by mid-century, but appeared pleased with the transition idea promoted by OPEC countries. Some others like Russia accepted the decision as there was no other alternative. The unstated conclusion was that eventually, only a technological solution like carbon capture will alter climate change. In the interim, humanity should continue to find effective measures to alleviate the adverse effects of climate change.

As for the rest of the agenda of COP28, the global Stocktake completed in September this year concluded that the world was not on track in meeting the Paris Agreement goals. The findings of the United Nations indicated that action set out in countries’ National Declared Commitments would increase by 8.8 per cent over 2020 levels by 2030. The COP expects that the Governments will come up with a road map to accelerate climate action. A number of measures to assist the achievement of the objectives of the Paris Agreement have been outlined in the Joint Statement to maximise synergies among member states, avoid duplication of efforts, and ensure efficient use of collective resources.

The announcement of the operationalisation of the Loss and Damage Fund amounting to USD 700 million to help vulnerable countries recover from climate related damage prompted a standing ovation from the delegates. Hopes were also raised that the fund would be enhanced in future years. The historic agreement was hailed as a welcome breakthrough and one that helped to clear the way for negotiators on other issues.

On the crucial issue of funding, the glad tidings of the Green Climate Fund receiving additional pledges from six countries was a morale booster. The total pledges now stand at a record USD 12.8 billion from 31 countries with further pledges promised. In addition, 118 governments have committed resources to enhance the capacity for renewable energy. As many as 22 countries have pledged to triple global nuclear energy capacity by 2030, a move to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. These are hopeful signs of tangible progress towards mitigation of climate change.

The young people who attended the conference like my climate activist granddaughter, Durga Sreenivasan, a Robertson Scholar at the Duke University, who conducted policy workshops at the conference, feel optimistic that “the world will make the necessary changes needed for a liveable planet, especially given the long term benefits of action such as phasing out of fossils and operationalising the Loss and Damage Fund.”

COP28 is being characterised as pathbreaking as it considered fossil fuels in the context of global warming for the first time and opened the way for a possible transition to alternate forms of energy. But the realisation that fossil fuels will remain the main source of energy for a long time is also embedded in the decisions. The process of bringing the dreams of Rio (1992) into reality will continue its meandering and hazardous course in the years to come.

(The writer is a former Ambassador with vast experience in multilateral diplomacy. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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