COP28 deal: a starting gun fired for the end of fossil fuels?

Article by Adam Duckett

COP28 / Christopher Pike
Sultan Al Jaber, president of COP28, claps during the closing of the climate summit. He has warned that steps must now be take to turn the agreement into tangible action.

COUNTRIES have agreed at the COP28 climate conference to transition away from fossil fuels and triple renewable energy capacity. However, there are concerns about loopholes in the text, and a lack of finance for the massive scale-up of technology and adaptation required.

After almost two weeks of negotiations in Dubai, some 200 countries have agreed the UAE Consensus, a 21-page document with close to 200 clauses, centred on limiting global heating to 1.5°C. The agreement falls short of agreeing to “phase out” fossil fuels, which UN secretary general Antonion Guterres said would be the summit’s key measure of success.

Actions agreed at COP28

Countries failed to agree an explicit phaseout and have instead settled for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.”

Questions are now being raised about loopholes in the text, including whether transport will be covered by the phrase “energy systems”. The way COP agreements work is that they are passed by consensus but then it’s up to the individual counties to implement them through their own policies.

The text repeats the call to “phase-down” unabated coal power, which was a sticking point at COP26 in Glasgow two years earlier. At that conference an earlier draft agreement included a “phase out” of coal but it couldn’t be agreed by all and was eventually watered down in the final agreement.

This year, countries have agreed to “phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that do not address energy poverty or just transitions, as soon as possible”. There are also pledges to ramp up the use of green and lower carbon alternatives. Countries have agreed to “triple renewable energy capacity globally and double the global average rate of energy improvements by 2030,” and “accelerate zero- and low-emission technologies, including…renewables, nuclear, abatement and removal technologies such as carbon capture and utilisation and storage, particularly in hard-to-abate sectors, and low-carbon hydrogen production.”

Peter Childs, co-director of the Energy Futures Lab at Imperial College London, said: “This COP needed to signal a pragmatic roadmap for the end of the fossil fuel era. There are some positives to take away; it was encouraging to see over 100 countries pledging to triple renewable capacity by 2030. We now need to see affordable and inclusive plans to make that vision a reality. If the pledge is to have any credibility, national governments need to act quickly to remove the regulatory and planning barriers to sustainability, and address the supply chain issues that are currently hampering renewable energy developments around the world.”

Myles Allen, professor of geosystem sciences at the University of Oxford and director of Oxford Net Zero, outlined the massive scale up challenges needed to deal with emissions from continued fossil fuel use: “The 1.5°C scenarios indicate around 10-30% of current [fossil fuel] usage at the date of net zero: coal almost entirely phased out, and roughly half current oil and gas consumption, all compensated for, or “fully abated”, with CCS at source or CO2 recapture from the atmosphere. That is a vast and global CO2 disposal industry, 100 to 300 times larger than the 40m t of CO2 that we currently dispose of every year…Claims that we can solve the problem without CCS risk discouraging this essential investment.”

In terms of adapting to climate change, the text calls for countries to take action to enhance climate resilient water supply, and sanitation. Countries have given themselves until 2030 to conduct up-to-date assessments of climate hazards, and use them to create adaptation plans.

Sultan Al Jaber, president of COP28, said: “An agreement is only as good as its implementation. We are what we do, not what we say. We must take the steps necessary to turn this agreement into tangible action. If we unite in action, we can have a profoundly positive effect on all our futures.”

Mismatches: what are the scales of the challenges faced?

While 87% of the global economy is covered by targets for net zero, implementation by countries is seriously lagging, and the text warns that emissions are projected to rise while we’ve already experienced 1.1°C of warming.

“[The] carbon budget consistent with achieving the Paris Agreement temperature goal is now small and being rapidly depleted,” it warns.

A key criticism of COP28 has been the failure to find funding to support a clean transition, especially support for developing countries to adapt and invest in low carbon technologies. While there have been pledges of US$174m for the Least Developed Countries Fund and US$12.8bn for the Green Climate Fund, the disparity with what is required is recorded in the final agreement text: “[The] adaptation finance of developing countries are estimated at US$215-387bn up until 2030, and that about US$4.3trn per year needs to be invested in clean energy up until 2030.”

To reach net zero, recent analysis by McKinsey outlined the huge increases in installed capacity of existing climate technologies that are needed by 2030. Installed wind power capacity needs to be scaled by a factor of six, solar power by 14, and green hydrogen electrolysers by 200.

Many are saying that meaningful action on funding the transition must be the key priority for next year’s COP29 in Azerbaijan.

Madeleine Diouf Sarr, chair of the Least Developed Countries Group, said: “There is recognition in this text of the trillions of dollars needed to address climate change in our countries. Yet it fails to deliver a credible response to this challenge. Next year will be critical in deciding the new climate finance goal.”

Reactions: starting guns, weak language, and systems approaches

The pace of progress is slower than many wanted, and their reactions echo concerns from COP26 two years ago that the necessary agreements have been overly compromised.

Stephanie Baxter, head of policy at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, said: “We are pleased that COP28 has agreed a new deal to move away from fossil fuels. But there still needs to be a clear timescale for phasing out fossil fuels completely.”

Martin Siegert, professor of geosciences and deputy vice chancellor at the University of Exeter, said: “While it’s good that COP28 has stated that fossil fuels need to reduce, the agreement on doing so is very weak. The COP28 agreement encourages countries to move away from using fossil fuels, but not to ‘phase out’ or even ‘phase down’ their use. Clearly the wording is all that could be agreed at this stage, which is itself a disappointment. The world is heating faster and more powerfully than the COP response to deal with it.”

Alix Dietzel, senior lecturer in global ethics at the University of Bristol, struck a somewhat hopeful note: “For me, this is the biggest moment since the Paris Agreement – even if it is weaker language than I’d hoped. Of course, it would have been ideal to have finance in place for those countries who need help with the transition. And, as we all know these outcome documents are not legally binding. So, it remains to be seen if the world takes the necessary action.”

David Whitehouse, CEO of the trade group Offshore Energies UK (formerly Oil and Gas UK), said: “This is an important global agreement. While each country will reflect on its own journey, through the North Sea Transition deal agreed with the UK Government in 2021, the UK offshore energy sector is already committed to and delivering on detailed plans to reach net zero by 2050.”

The group said earlier this year that the UK needed to produce more oil and gas if it is “serious about delivering a homegrown energy future” following the government’s controversial approval of the Rosebank oil field.

The oil and gas industry had a large presence at COP28. Companies representing 40% of global oil production, including BP, ExxonMobil, Shell and Petronas, signed the Oil & Gas Decarbonization Charter. They committed to eliminate emissions from their operations by 2050, and end routine flaring by 2030 but did not agree to reduce production of oil and gas.

Ghiwa Nakat, executive director of Greenpeace Middle East and North Africa, said: “COP28 has sent an unprecedented signal to the world that the starting gun has been fired for the end of the fossil fuel era…But communities on the frontline of the climate catastrophe need more than this. They need to see an unwavering and resolute commitment to a rapid, equitable, and well-funded phaseout of all fossil fuels – together with a comprehensive finance package for developing countries to transition to renewables and cope with escalating climate impacts.”

Chris Hilson, director of the Centre for Climate and Justice at the University of Reading, said: “Language matters. So a transition away from fossil fuels is not a phasing out. But actions speak louder than words. What is really important now is that governments around the world take immediate policy action to implement a transition away from coal, oil and gas. That involves practical things like ruling out new fossil fuel developments, redirecting fossil fuel subsidies to renewables, improving EV infrastructure, insulating homes and much else besides.”

Stuart Haszeldine, professor of carbon capture and storage at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Relying on vast rollout of carbon capture and storage plus greenhouse gas removal technologies is not enough. Supply of carbon fuels and feedstock needs to decrease rapidly – as proposed by COP28. But also demand and consumption of unabated carbon fuels by rich nations needs to decrease rapidly… Future COP29 and COP30 must toughen and continue this phase out momentum, and consider progressing with majority coalitions if some states choose not to participate in rapid phase down and out.”

Jim McDonald, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “As engineers we have a solemn responsibility to future generations to create a sustainable society in which our own economic development does not compromise their ability to meet their own needs. Transitioning to net zero, in both high- and lower- income countries, is in fact an opportunity to create new markets, innovative technologies and opportunities from which everyone can benefit. For example, offshore floating wind has enormous potential and could provide a practical route for oil and gas workers to transfer their skills to renewable energy. Engineering will be at the heart of the net zero transition and the commitments made today can only be achieved using a systems approach that considers this as a holistic environmental, social, policy, and technological challenge.”

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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