Fossil fuels find a 'historic' mention in COP 28 text, but experts see red

The text makes real concessions for gas and oil, say experts

COP28 Climate Summit Eye of the storm: A protest demanding the phasing out of fossil fuels, which was one of the contentious issues, at COP 28 in Dubai | AP

IT’S A FIRST! The double F word―fossil fuels―found a distinct mention in the final text adopted by nearly 200 countries at the recently concluded Conference of Parties (COP) in Dubai.

The text, for the first time in the history of COP, called for “transition away from fossil fuels” to restrict the global rise in temperatures within 2°C. The UAE Consensus, as it is being called, came after two weeks of exhausting deliberations at COP 28. Until the very end, the energy security paradigms of powerful nations dominated the discourse, undermining concerns of vulnerable nations at one of the most important global climate summits under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The COP 28 climate talks went into overtime early on December 13 as countries worked tirelessly to bridge the gaps on the issue of fossil fuels. The European Union and island nations kept opposing the drafts for lacking any language on phasing out of fossil fuels, which the Arab countries strongly resisted. Finally, the COP 28 delivered a compromise that called for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly and equitable manner”. The UAE Consensus called for “accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050”. The text also recognised that “transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security”.

Experts welcomed the agreement with a word of caution. “It is the first time that there is recognition of transitioning away from fossil fuels in a COP text, essentially meaning slashing not just coal, but also oil and gas,” said Aarti Khosla, director, Climate Trends. “However, coming alongside an absolute recognition of a warming world and the need to take rapid action within this decade, the outcome text makes real concessions for gas and oil.”

Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International, said that the resolution is “marred by loopholes that offer the fossil fuel industry numerous escape routes, relying on unproven, unsafe technologies”.

Controversy had gripped COP 28 even before it started, with the appointment of Sultan al-Jaber, head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, as the president of the conference. It did not help matters when he said that there was “no science” to justify the phase-out of fossil fuels to restrict global warming to 1.5°C. Matters became worse for the host when a report by Kick Big Polluters Out revealed that 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists were attending the COP 28. The fault lines deepened when a leaked letter from Haitham Al Ghais, secretary general, Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, urged 13 of its members to reject any text targeting fossil fuels. Till the last minute, there was no headway on other contentious issues like climate financing and the inaugural Global Stocktake (GST), which is essentially taking stock of where the world stands on climate action, identifying the gaps and working together on solutions.

While there was some initial success with the clearance of the loss and damage fund, meant to help countries dealing with the impact of climate change, the spirit of collective action was missing in the developments that followed. “Phasing out of fossil fuels” got a mention in the draft text of the GST, but was diluted to “transition away from fossil fuels” in the final text. Moreover, the overemphasis on coal continued to play the spoiler. This was reflected in the statement of India’s Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav, who, while supporting the COP document, urged developed countries to “take the lead based on their historical contributions”.

The coal vs other fossil fuels debate was the most burning issue of the COP 28. India and China abstained from signing the Global Renewables and Energy Efficiency Pledge, as the draft text directly linked tripling of renewable energy with “phasing down of unabated coal power”. While the US draws only about 20 per cent of its energy from coal, meeting the bulk of its requirements from oil and gas, India, despite its aggressive green push, still depends heavily on coal to meet its energy needs. According to the coal ministry, in the last nine years, India’s overall coal production has gone up by 47 per cent to 893.08 million tonnes, highest in the history of the country, and supply has touched 877.74 million tonnes, recording 45.37 per cent growth. China also relies on coal for more than half of its energy consumption. This explains the Global North’s overemphasis on phasing out coal while remaining silent on other fossil fuels.

“Today’s decision is a cause of celebration for the oil and gas sector,” said Vaibhav Chaturvedi, fellow, Council on Energy, Environment and Water. “It gives a long rope to fossil energy use by only advocating for a transition and not phase-out. The invisible hand of oil and gas powers has prevailed. Self interest of the developed world has taken over the global interests.”

Even the final COP document targeted coal-based economies. “In an effort to please major emitters, the decision gives free pass to gas by terming it ‘transitional’ fuel, regardless of emission contributions that are modelled to come from gas, especially from countries like Russia, the US and the Middle East,” said Khosla.

Agreed Ulka Kelkar, executive director, climate, World Resources Institute, India: “From an Indian perspective, this text displays greater parity between coal and other fossil fuels. But it appears to absolve developed countries of the responsibility of phasing out their fossil fuel use. The reference to transitional fuels explicitly gives gas-producing countries the licence to sell more gas rather than invest in renewable energy.”

The efficacy of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology, which the Global North has been trying to push for, was also challenged during COP 28 for its financial and practical viability to abate fossil fuel use. A report by Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment found that “a high CCS pathway is expected to cost at least $30 trillion more than a low CCS pathway, roughly $1 trillion per year” whereas the International Energy Agency estimated that only 15 per cent of cumulative reduction in emissions can be achieved by 2070 through CCS.

With the inclusion of fossil fuels in the text, the focus will now shift to implementation, which will require individual interests making way for collective intentionality and action. The differences prevailing on issues such as adaptation, GST and climate financing will require more perseverance to fulfil the climate targets. As Sultan al-Jaber said, the agreement will not serve any purpose if not “turned into tangible actions”.

That will pretty much decide the fate of our planet.