Perhaps the most pressing aim of COP28 was to phase out all fossil fuels that pump more than 70% of the 50 Gigatonnes of total carbon emissions into the earth’s atmosphere every year. How successful was the meeting at achieving this aim?

Assessing success

To obtain an assessment, let’s begin by seeing how the COP28 drama unfolded over two weeks officially (30 Nov – 12 December) before having to go into overtime to obtain a final agreement:

  • There were doubts about the success from the earliest days, after COP28 President and CEO of UAE’s state oil company, Sultan Al Jaber,  allegedly made the statement on 21 November that “’there is no science out there, that says the phase-out of fossil fuels is what’s going to achieve 1.5C”. On 4 December he held a press conference in which he asserted that his statement, as reported in the Guardian, had been mis-represented. But the seeds of doubt had been sown.
  • On Tuesday 12 Dec, the BBC reported that the UN climate talks “could be in jeopardy”  after it was discovered that a draft of the final deal had removed language in a previous text suggesting that fossil fuels could be “phased out”, (which indeed was what most Parties to the conference wanted).

The final agreement, released on 13 December, struck the middle ground by tweaking the COP27 outcome on fossil fuels, which referred to the “phase-down of unabated coal power” by adding the phrase “ transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems” (see ).

But was this good enough?

As UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell pointed out in his closing remarks,  progress was made on several issues, including the tripling of renewables and doubling of energy efficiency improvements. COP28 also operationalized the loss and damage fund and provided the first down-payment.

But what about fossil fuels?

To assess whether any true progress was made on the crucial issue of phasing out fossil fuels, one must trace the history of this goal. 

  • The objectives of COP26 (UK) included the acceleration of the phasing-out of coal. But this was not achieved as an outcome.
  • COP27 (Egypt) included the objective of phasing-out of all fossil fuels. But the meeting only agreed to “ accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and the phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.”
  • COP28 (Dubai) objectives this year included the phasing-out of all fossil fuels (as part of the Global Stocktake). As noted above, in the outcomes, this was replaced by a watered-down “transitioning away from fossil fuels.”

Not enough progress

It is clear that, while some progress seems to have been made, it is barely enough. This is clearly acknowledged in the final statement of COP28, where it notes that “Parties are off track when it comes to meeting their Paris Agreement goals (the NDCs).”  As noted by others at the meeting, at the current rate of GHG emissions, the world is headed for a 2.9oC warming by 2050, which is far in excess of the 1.5 oC maximum that is allowed.

The recent extreme weather events felt globally are strong indications that at the present rate, we are already heading for a climate catastrophe, even before emissions have reached their peak. The conventional wisdom tells us that the only way to avoid climate calamity is to start reducing our annual emissions now, and to do so at a hastened rate that is drastic enough to produce net zero by 2050. It should be obvious even to the most uninitiated that, given the precarious stage the emissions have reached,  a polite “transitioning away” from fossil fuels will not satisfy this drastic requirement.

The observed reluctance by stakeholders in the fossil fuel industry to phase out fossil fuels is due (understandably) to the anticipated loss of revenues they will suffer. As a general rule, it can be said that people and institutions always place their economic priorities over and above all other priorities. We should have learnt this from two recent global events – the COVID19 pandemic and the outbreak of the Ukrainian war. In both instances, the world ultimately chose to accord the global economy priority over the crisis at hand.

In the case of the pandemic, lockdowns and border closures had to yield to the necessity of keeping economic supply chains open. In the case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the expected unanimous economic isolation of Russia by all nations did not occur, as some nations realized they had economic dependencies on Russia that they could not overlook.  

In short, it can be stated with good confidence that if one tried to determine the relative importance of fighting climate change and looking after one’s economic needs, the latter will easily win most of the time. The lesson to be learnt therefore is that when one tries to deal with climate change, the chances of success are increased if the chosen methodology does not pose a threat to the economic priorities of stakeholders in the global economy.

Are there other ways?

Do other methods exist for tackling climate change? I argue that they do. But they need further thought and research, and a lot of work. The first issue, however is winning the support of the decision-makers (the UNFCCC in this case). This may actually be easier than it seems at first, if one notes the success the Pacific Island Countries had in voicing their opinions through the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). This group, led by Anne Rasmussen,  had an outstanding performance at the COP28 meeting. Samoa’s contribution was especially notable.

Can AOSIS go further and introduce new thinking to the climate change debate?