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Analysis: COP28, a compromised deal reached amidst all-time high fossil fuel influence

Analysis: COP28, a compromised deal reached amidst all-time high fossil fuel influence

The COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber applauds the deal reached after two weeks of climate negotiations. Photo credit: COP28.

By Anders Lorenzen

Whether or not to include the language stating ‘fossil fuels must be phased out’ rather than ‘phased down’ became the key contentious issue at this year’s UN climate talks. 

A draft text released Friday, with just under a week for the summit to conclude included the key fossil fuel language as an option. 

A key and perhaps unsurprising trend identified that the countries supporting the phasing out of fossil fuels language were ones where fossil fuels were not a key economic and industrial player and the ones where it was, the language was vetoed. 

But crucially a significant number of countries starting out with 80 and then growing to nearly 130 countries supported the text including language to phase out fossil fuels.

As the wrangling over that specific text took centre stage, scientists urged that everything should be done to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

But with all the optimism that ended the week, it seems everything had turned around 180 degrees and that fossil fuel lobbyists had taken over the summit as a draft text released on Monday had the phasing out of fossil fuels reference removed with a very conservative and soft text with passive verbs such as ‘could’ and ‘notes’ dominating it. 

The draft text released on Tuesday morning by the time the talks were scheduled to complete was no better and brought the COP climate talks to the brink of collapse for the first time in its 28-year history.

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The deal

But on Wednesday, 24 hours after the summit was scheduled to complete a deal was reached. It was clear the text had been strengthened significantly based on the previous draft which though was very weak. 

However, it was adopted by member states. The language which climate advocates was crucial it must conclude that ‘phasing out fossil fuels’ was not included, instead the much weaker and softer ‘phasing down fossil fuels’ was used which in reality does not mean much and gives a lifeline to the fossil fuel lobby and fossil fuel producing economies giving them a license to keep producing fossil fuels, albeit at a lower level. 

It did though for the first time in those 28 years the COP has been held, signal that the fossil fuel industry is on borrowed time and the future belongs to clean energy, albeit the process to get there has been painful. However, the impacts of climate change have not been happening slowly, in fact, 2023 is more than any other year exemplifying that the impacts are speeding up at a frightening level consistent with the fact that 2023 will be the warmest year ever recorded. 

Not enough

Analysts and advocates would have thought that alone would have been enough to agree on a deal agreeing that fossil fuels must be phased out rather than simply a reduction.

There was some hope that the deal that was eventually struck on Wednesday (13th December) would have sent a powerful signal that the world is united in the desire to end fossil fuels which scientists say is the bare minimum we need to do, to have a chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate catastrophe.

Divisions

On the back of the strong division and the weak draft texts which many would argue was contributed by the record number of fossil fuel lobbyists and climate deniers that attended the two-week summit, one could call it a victory. COP28’s President and CEO of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) national oil company Sultan Al Jaber, had been heavily criticised for not wanting to talk about reducing oil demand but argued the focus should be on reducing emissions and was even criticised for flirting with climate denialism with comments saying the science was not there backing up a fossil fuel phase-out to reach climate targets, was understandable delighted with reaching a deal after the worries that the talks could collapse and COP28 could end as a massive failure. Calling the deal ‘historic’ and further adding: “We are what we do, not what we say. We must take the steps necessary to turn this agreement into tangible actions.”

Fossil fuel interests

Several other countries echoed Al Jaber’s comments, in particular, other oil producers such as Norway were delighted that it gave them a licence to keep drilling and exploring for more of the black gold, but none would be more pleased than the non-western oil cartel, Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and in particular Saudi Arabia who leads the group after it had urged all its members to veto any deal with ‘phasing out fossil fuels’ language. It is believed that the influence of Saudi Arabia was what stood in the way of a more ambitious deal. OPEC controls nearly 80% of the world’s proven oil reserves. 

While significant climate-action progress was made in the final agreement compared to the draft text it does look like the fossil fuel industry lobby and large fossil fuel producers were the winners and according to the Danish Minister for Climate and Energy Dan Jorgensen considering the circumstance standing in oil country this was a significant deal: “We’re standing here in an oil country, surrounded by oil countries, and we made the decision saying let’s move away from oil and gas.”

Climate advocates might argue that Jorgensen overstayed the significance of the deal and was perhaps more interested in upholding good diplomatic relations with the UAE.

But the big losers were poor climate-vulnerable areas and in particular island states with the support of the US, the EU, Canada and Norway had as their number one condition to phase out fossil fuels.

“We have made an incremental advancement over business as usual, when what we really need is an exponential step change in our actions,” The lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, Anne Rasmussen said as she criticised the deal as unambitious.

The core elements of the deal call for:

‘Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner … to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.’ 

‘Tripling of renewable energy capacity globally by 2030, speeding up efforts to reduce coal use, and accelerating technologies such as carbon capture and storage that can clean up hard-to-decarbonize industries’.

Very early on in the summit, a hangover originating back from the COP15 summit, held in 2009 in Copenhagen was agreed, the so-called ‘loss and damage fund’ in which rich countries would compensate poorer developing countries for climate impacts and damage they had contributed very little to. The hosts, UAE said they will commit $100 million to the fund, with other notable contributors Germany, also committing $100million, the UK, which committed £40million for the fund and £20million for other arrangements, Japan, which contributed $ 10 million and the US committed $17.5million.

The 1.5 target is dead

Even with the most ambitious deal, it is clear that the 1.5 target must now be dead. Even if all fossil fuel emissions were stopped tomorrow, likely, the threshold would still be passed with scientists saying it will be crossed next year, but only momentarily. But unless we see a drastic revolution in pulling CO2 from the atmosphere it is inevitable we will hit 1.5 degrees C permanently and the real question should be, can we limit it to 2 degrees C?

While it is true that having for the first time a language that states we must reduce fossil fuels is indeed historic, but only because it has not been in any other COP preceding COP28, rather than saying this is ambitious we should be asking why it took so long?

It has never before been clearer that the lobby of fossil fuel interests is obstructing real and urgent progress which scientists say is so crucial. But the United Nations (UN) must take some of the blame for that. Awarding the UAE, one of the world’s largest fossil fuel producers to host the conference as well as having no limits on who can be invited in itself sets the summit up for failure. Without clear reform, with next year’s COP summit, COP29 being held in Azerbaijan another country where fossil fuels are central to its economy does not offer a great recipe for success. And fundamentally if the UN climate action process is going to have the impact which scientists say is necessary, then it must be reformed as its consecous-based rule form means it is almost impossible to agree on anything. You can have 1-2 countries out of 198 who would block a deal such as Saudi Arabia and Russia until it is so much watered-down that they can adopt and at that point, the deal may be close to ineffective and useless.  


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