The COP28 climate summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, has entered overtime with a real possibility the talks could end in failure, given how far apart countries are on the future of oil, gas and coal. But whatever the outcome, the summit has changed how the world talks about fossil fuels and climate change.
“There has been a reckoning on fossil fuels,” says David Waskow at the World Resources Institute, an environmental non-profit organisation. “That has put the issue at centre stage and changed discourse around it, hopefully from here on out.”
At the summit, and for months leading up to it, a large number of countries and many civil society groups have lobbied for strong language on phasing out fossil fuels in any deal reached in Dubai. Last year’s COP27 summit in Egypt saw some surprise attention on a fossil fuel phase-out near the end, but no previous COP has seen such a sustained focus on fossil fuels’ role in driving climate change as the primary source of our greenhouse gas emissions.
“Even a year ago, the historical conversation on fossil fuel phase-out happening now at COP28 was completely unthinkable,” says Jonas Kuehl at the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Canada. “Joint effort from close to 130 countries and civil society has forced it into the process that has failed to deliver for so many years.”
A draft of the core agreement published on 11 December drew furious condemnation yesterday from many countries and groups for failing to reference the phasing out of fossil fuels. However, the draft did mention the need to reduce the production and use of fossil fuels, and made two other references to these fuels. That alone represents a major shift from past summits that mentioned emissions, but not their main source.
“This is the first COP where the words fossil fuels are actually included in the draft decision,” says Mohamed Adow at Power Shift Africa, an energy think tank in Kenya. “This is the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era.”
Countries at the summit are fundamentally divided on what any agreement should say. Higher-income Western countries, as well as small island countries and some lower-income countries — such as Colombia and Kenya — are united in demanding that stronger language on ending fossil fuel use is part of an agreement. But countries dependent on oil and gas revenues, and those that see the exploitation of fossil fuels as critical to their future development, have opposed unqualified language.
“Even though the US, Canada, Australia are all fossil fuel producers, they’re all completely aligned with the Europeans,” says Andrew Deutz at The Nature Conservancy. “That’s putting a lot more pressure on the fossil fuel-producing countries.”
Countries that oppose language on a phase-out do so for different reasons. The African Group of countries, for instance, doesn’t oppose such an agreement outright, but insists any agreement recognises that different countries have different responsibilities and timelines with respect to a phase-out, and offers support for countries to make the energy transition.
“Asking Africa to phase out fossil fuels is like asking us to stop breathing without life support,” Iziaq Kunle Salako, Nigeria’s environment minister, told a press event at the summit on 12 December, at which African ministers also stressed the need for more support to adapt to climate change that has already happened.
Nigeria is part of the group of oil-exporting countries called OPEC, members of which — most notably Saudi Arabia — have been the most forceful opponents to a phase-out. But the overwhelming attention on fossil fuels means that may not matter in the long run.
“If we don’t agree on fossil fuel phase-out here, because of pressure from oil and gas interests, then I think that’s likely to be a Pyrrhic victory for them,” says Bill Hare at Climate Analytics, a think tank. “They will have held this up, but they won’t have stopped it.”
An outright failure at COP28 might even help build momentum for an unqualified end to the fossil fuel era, says Hare. “Next year, there will probably be more countries who want a fossil fuel phase-out, who will have thought more about it and who will put more pressure on oil and gas producers.”