COP28 ends with call to ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels; UN chief Antonio Guterres says phaseout is inevitable

Dubai 2023. Photo Courtesy: COP28/Christopher Pike

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Nations at COP28 in Dubai approved earlier on Wednesday a roadmap for “transitioning away from fossil fuels” – a first for a UN climate conference – but the deal still stopped short of a long-demanded call for a “phaseout” of oil, coal and gas.

Reacting to the adoption of the outcome document, UN chief António Guterres said that mention of the world’s leading contributor to climate change comes after many years in which the discussion of this issue was blocked.

He stressed that the era of fossil fuels must end with justice and equity.

“To those who opposed a clear reference to a phaseout of fossil fuels in the COP28 text, I want to say that a fossil fuel phase out is inevitable whether they like it or not.  Let’s hope it doesn’t come too late”, he added.

The latest edition of the annual UN climate conference has been running in Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates, since 30 November.

COP28 had been scheduled to close on Tuesday, but intense overnight negotiations over whether the outcome would include a call to “phasedown” or “phaseout” planet heating fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal – the main sticking point which pit activists, and climate-vulnerable countries against some larger nations – forced the conference into overtime.

‘The science is clear’

In his statement, Guterres said the science is clear in that limiting global heating to 1.5°C, one of the keystone targets set in the landmark 2015 the Paris Agreement, “will be impossible without the phase out of all fossil fuels”, and this is being recognized by a growing and diverse coalition of countries.

The negotiators at COP28 also agreed on commitments to triple renewables capacity and double energy efficiency by 2030 and made progress in relation to adaptation and finance.

Other progress was also made in relation to adaptation and finance, including – including the operationalization of the Loss and Damage Fund, even though financial commitments are very limited, according to the Secretary-General.

But the UN chief stressed that much more is needed to deliver climate justice to those on the frontlines of the crisis.

“Many vulnerable countries are drowning in debt and at risk of drowning in rising seas. It is time for a surge in finance, including for adaptation, loss and damage and reform of the international financial architecture.”

He said the world cannot afford “delays, indecision, or half measures” and insisted that “multilateralism remains humanity’s best hope.”

“It is essential to come together around real, practical and meaningful climate solutions that match the scale of the climate crisis.”

‘A lifeline, not a finish line’

UN climate chief Simon Stiell said, “genuine strides forward” were made at COP28, but the initiatives announced in Dubai are “a climate action lifeline, not a finish line.”

Stiel said the Global Stocktake – which aims to help nations align their national climate plans with the Paris Agreement – had clearly revealed that progress is not fast enough, but it is “undeniably” gathering pace.

Still, the current trajectory is just under three degrees of global warming equating “mass human suffering”, according to the climate chief, which is why COP28 “needed to move the needle further”.

Speaking to reporters outside the main hall, the Mr. Stiell said COP28 needed to signal a hard stop to humanity’s core climate problem – “fossil fuels and their planet burning pollution”.

“While we didn’t fully turn the page on the fossil fuel here in Dubai, this is clearly the beginning of the end”.

“This agreement is an ambitious floor, not a ceiling. So, the crucial years ahead must keep ramping up ambition and climate action”.

Here are some of the other highlights from COP28 and a snapshot of what happens next:

What else happened at COP28?

The loss and damage fund designed to support climate-vulnerable developing countries was brought to life on the first day of the COP. Countries have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars so far for the fund;

Commitments of worth $3.5 billion to replenish the resources of the Green Climate Fund;

New announcements totaling over $150 million for the Least Developed Countries Fund (LDC) and Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF)

An increase of $9 billion annually by the World Bank to finance climate-related projects (2024 and 2025);

Nearly 120 countries backed COP28 UAE Climate and Health Declaration to accelerate actions to protect people’s health from growing climate impacts;

Over 130 countries have signed up to COP28 UAE Declaration on Agriculture, Food, and Climate to support food security while combatting climate change;

Global Cooling Pledge has been endorsed by 66 countries to reduce cooling related emissions by 68% from today.

What’s next?

The next round of national climate action plans – or Nationally Determined Contributions – is due in 2025, when countries are expected to have seriously boosted their actions and commitments.

Azerbaijan was announced as the official host COP29 – from November 11 to 22 next year – after receiving the backing of Eastern European states following the withdrawal by Armenia of its own bid.

Brazil has offered to host COP30 in the Amazon in 2025.

Mixed reactions

Despite multiple rounds of applause inside the plenary, not all delegations were pleased with the outcome of the climate talks. Civil society representatives and climate activists, as well as delegations from small island developing countries were visibly unhappy with the outcome.

Anne Rasmussen, the Samoan representative and lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), lamented that they cannot “afford to return to their islands with the message that this process has failed us.”

Underlining the importance of the Global Stocktake process, she said, “this first GST is of particular significance. It is the only GST that matters for ensuring that we can still limit global warming to 1.5C.”

Rasmussen bemoaned the lack of “course correction” and expressed disappointment over “incremental advancement over business as usual, when what we really needed was an “exponential step-change in our actions and support.”

Just after the release of the final document, Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International told UN News: “After decades of evasion, COP28 finally cast a glaring spotlight on the real culprits of the climate crisis: fossil fuels. A long-overdue direction to move away from coal, oil, and gas has been set.”

“But the resolution is marred by loopholes that offer the fossil fuel industry numerous escape routes, relying on unproven, unsafe technologies.

Singh also pointed to what he saw as “hypocrisy of wealthy nations… as they continue to expand fossil fuel operations massively while merely paying lip service to the green transition.”

Developing countries still dependent on fossil fuels are, he said, left without robust guarantees for adequate financial support in their “urgent and equitable transition to renewable energy.”

“While this COP recognized the immense financial shortfall in tackling climate impacts, the final outcomes fall disappointingly short of compelling wealthy nations to fulfill their financial responsibilities,” he added.