Cop28 keeps 1.5°C goal within reach

20 December 2023


The 28th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (Cop28), helmed by the UAE’s Sultan al-Jaber, stopped short of recommending the phasing down of fossil fuels, which was on the wish list of half of the countries that ratified the Paris Agreement eight years earlier, and which were present at the 2023 climate summit in Dubai.

However, the conference scored a major victory by referencing, for the first time since Cop started, the need to transition away from fossil fuels to keep the 1.5-degree-Celsius temperature goal alive.

With few exceptions, the Cop28 UAE climate agreement – or the UAE Consensus, as Al-Jaber prefers to call it – has been described by world leaders as historic.

The UN Framework Convention for Climate Change said the agreement signals the “beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era by laying the ground for a swift, just and equitable transition, underpinned by deep emissions cuts and scaled-up finance”.

“We are standing here in an oil country, surrounded by oil countries, and we made the decision saying let’s move away from oil and gas,” Denmark’s Climate & Energy Minister, Dan Jorgensen, said after the final climate text was adopted on 13 December.

Phasing down or out

After campaigning for the final text of the agreement to exclude the phasing down or phasing out of fossil fuels, reports say that Opec member Saudi Arabia appears satisfied with the outcome.

According to a report by Reuters, Saudi Arabia views the agreement as akin to a menu that allows every country to follow its own pathway to the energy transition.

Opec members account for close to 80 per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves, along with about a third of global oil output. Phasing fossil fuels out threatens the members that have not yet diversified their economies away from oil revenues.

As expected, the least-developed countries and islands that are most vulnerable to climate change wanted more from the Cop28 agreement. 

“It reflects the very lowest possible ambition that we could accept, rather than what we know, according to the best available science, is necessary to urgently address the climate crisis,” said Senegal’s Climate Minister, Madeleine Diouf.

“The agreement highlights the vast gap between developing-country needs and the finance available, as well as underscoring rapidly dwindling fiscal space due to the debt crisis,” she explained. “Yet it fails to deliver a credible response to this challenge.”

Despite opposing views, various research and studies, including those conducted by the International Panel for Climate Change, confirm that human activities – with burning fossil fuels at the top of that list – contribute to global warming to a huge extent.

Taking the carbon from the environment, or replacing fossil fuels with non-carbon emitting alternatives, are seen as a key solution to keep the ocean levels from rising as icebergs dissolve, or to avoid extreme weather events such as droughts or flooding.

Some experts say that even the 1.5-degree-Celsius target will not entirely rule out the more frequent occurrences of catastrophic events, based on today’s environmental scenario, when the temperature is estimated to be at 1.06 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

In September, for example, thousands of lives were lost in Derna, Libya, when a storm swept through the region. Experts said Storm Daniel drew energy from extremely warm seawater in the Mediterranean, causing unexpected heavy rainfall that overwhelmed two dams in the area.

Phasing fossil fuels out threatens Opec members that have not yet diversified their economies away from oil revenues

Next steps

Beyond the initial reactions and responses, many agree that the Cop28 text will provide momentum for a global energy transition, and will have a fair impact on hydrocarbons-producing countries in the Gulf.

A Dubai-based consultant focusing on energy projects and investments tells MEED: “It is a step in the right direction, and if the implementation leads to positive gains, it will allow confidence to deepen.

“There is a lot of talk about how it is watered down with regards to fossil fuel use, but we need to give the Middle Eastern countries the time to transition to new revenue sources, otherwise we only bring economic fragility to an already politically fragile region,” the consultant adds. “That is in nobody’s interest.”

The consultant warns against using the text as an excuse to put new money into polluting projects, however. “We need a more robust methodology for new capital commitment to ensure that it goes into clean projects,” she notes.

Karen Young, a senior research scholar at the Centre on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University in the US, agrees. “I think the final language was obviously a concession to oil and gas producers, but also a push to make them more accountable,” she says.

The language implies a shift in demand. “Gulf producers reason that they will be able to meet the tail-end of that demand curve more efficiently and with fewer emissions than their competitors,” adds Young. 

“That logic has not changed, and the timeline is, of course, totally dependent on technology, finance and how quickly and in what geographies that demand curve moves.”

Over the short term, the Cop28 agreement is not expected to result in any real change to the Gulf economies, except in terms of domestic infrastructure, where momentum will likely grow for more renewables deployment; more carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS); and new investment in – and export of – liquefied natural gas, ammonia and hydrogen.

There will also be continued competition for market share and market management of oil, according to Young. 

Loss and damage

The call to transition away from fossil fuels was not the only accomplishment at Cop28.

The agreement called on the parties to contribute to tripling renewable energy globally and doubling the global annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030, as well as accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power.

It also rallied the parties to reduce methane emissions and accelerate zero- and low-emission technologies, including renewables, nuclear and abatement and removal technologies such as CCUS, particularly in hard-to-abate sectors, as well
as in the production of low-carbon hydrogen.

Equally important, Cop28 managed to secure $89bn in pledges covering climate finance, local climate action and the Loss and Damage Fund.

Lisa Jacobson, president of the US-based Business Council for Sustainable Energy, tells MEED that the agreement on the Loss and Damage Fund early in Cop28 demonstrated a commitment by governments to assist the most vulnerable countries as they cope with the impacts of climate change.

Jacobson, like many others, expects the pledges – which some analysts say equate to only about 0.2 per cent of the necessary funding – to grow in time.

Unlike the funds that focus on climate mitigation and adaptation projects, the Loss and Damage Fund addresses the needs of communities or countries that have already sustained economic losses due to extreme weather events like floods, droughts or wildfires.

“The Loss and Damage Fund operationalisation has been critical … other financing pledges have also been important,” says Jessica Obeid, a partner at New Energy Consult. “Yet the critical factors are the processes [for] eligibility, among others, which remain to be seen, along with moving from pledges to commitments and disbursements. 

“In all cases, the commitments still fall short of the required financing for climate change mitigation and adaptation measures.”

The next step for Cop will have to include developing transparent eligibility and allocation criteria and simplified application processes, as well as building domestic capacity, says Obeid. “Leveraging further financing is also key, and may require institutional and technical assistance.”

Cop28 secured $89bn in pledges covering climate finance, local climate action and the Loss and Damage Fund

Coalition of the willing 

Despite Cop28’s historic substance and intent, a healthy dose of cynicism remains. “Cop has been around for nearly 30 years, yet emissions have continued to increase year after year,” a UAE-based business leader tells MEED.

From this vantage point, the forging of a coalition of the willing – or several coalitions of the willing – could be the best way to deliver the energy transition without exceeding the 1.5-degree-Celsius temperature goal.

An example of this is the more than 125 countries that have signed on to the pledge to triple renewable energy capacity globally and double the energy efficiency improvement rates by 2030. While such agreements are non-binding, a willing coalition will help encourage others to pursue those pledges. 

“That is an example of a coalition having a strong impact and working effectively to elevate the issue they are advocating for, and creating a platform for countries and stakeholders to identify emission reduction and adaptation strategies,” concludes Jacobson.
Jennifer Aguinaldo
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