For the first time in nearly three decades of climate change negotiations, countries have agreed to signal the end of the fossil fuel era. But the coal, oil and gas industries are making it clear they won’t go without a fight.

On Wednesday morning, after two weeks of intense negotiations, COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber swung the gavel to formally adopt the “UAE Consensus” on climate change. That 10,000 word text entails a wide range of things countries agreed to, touching on issues of finance, adaptation, nature and slashing global greenhouse gas emissions.

Arguably the most important part of the agreement is a section that says countries should transition away from fossil fuels “in our energy systems, beginning in this decade, in a just, orderly and equitable manner,” to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

To date, it’s the clearest sign to come out of a UN climate summit to signal the end of the fossil fuel era, although some countries and climate advocates were quick to criticize the agreement for referring to some fossil fuels as a “transitional fuel” and supporting carbon capture technology, which could be used to increase overall fossil fuel production.

Wednesday’s decision was celebrated as a major improvement from an earlier draft that suggested countries “could” reduce the consumption and production of fossil fuels “by, before, or around 2050.” Responding to that draft, former U.S. vice president Al Gore said the entire negotiations were “on the verge of complete failure” under the United Arab Emirates’ leadership.

At this year’s summit, called COP28 and hosted by the UAE, the battle was plain to see. In the lead up to the conference it was revealed the COP28 president, and CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company Sultan Al Jaber, intended to use the conference to strike new oil deals, and falsely argued there’s no science that says fossil fuels must be phased out to address climate change.

Throughout the negotiations, more than 2,400 fossil fuel lobbyists were on the ground, including at least 65 individuals from Canada advocating for fossil fuels – an unprecedented number – pushing for gas as a transition fuel and using carbon capture technologies to justify increased oil and gas production; two things climate science is unequivocally clear are not climate solutions.

The public conversation around the negotiations also revealed an intensifying fight over the future of coal, oil and gas. The International Energy Agency (IEA) said oil and gas companies face a “moment of truth” to decide whether to continue fuelling the climate crisis or invest in clean energy. OPEC fired back, saying it was “undiplomatic” of the IEA, and implied it was infringing on the sovereignty of other countries. Later it was revealed, OPEC sent letters to its members urging them to tank any negotiation that tried to highlight the role of fossil fuels driving the climate crisis.

Between the high-profile institutional spats, record number of fossil fuel lobbyists, and civil society groups who effectively made the litmus test for success a question of whether fossil fuels would finally be addressed head on is an undeniable sign the battle lines between fossil fuel interests and those advocating for a climate safe future are actively being drawn.

For the first time in nearly 30 years, U.N. climate change negotiations have finally signaled the fossil fuel era is beginning to end. But the decision to come out of #COP28 Wednesday reveals the long fight ahead.

Canadian reaction

Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault called the decision a “historic agreement.” He described “breakthrough commitments” on renewable energy, transitioning away from fossil fuels, and energy efficiency, noting it creates opportunities for near term action to prevent the Paris Agreement’s goal of holding global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures from dying.

“The package is not perfect, no UN text is,” he conceded. “But, as someone who has been in this space for more than 20 years, I see a vision we can rally around to keep 1.5C within reach and protect people and ecosystems.”

The UAE Consensus, calls on countries to triple renewable energy and double energy efficiency by 2030; rapidly phase down “unabated” coal; accelerate the uptick of “low carbon fuels,”; scale up renewables, nuclear, carbon capture technologies and “low carbon” hydrogen; transition away from fossil fuels; substantially reduce methane emissions by 2030; advance zero emission vehicles and infrastructure; and phase out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies “that do not address energy poverty or just transitions.”

[Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault during COP28. Photo by UN Climate Change/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Deed)]

Canada is part way there, having recently announced new proposed methane regulations that would require a 75 per cent cut by 2030, and earlier this year made significant progress to phase out some fossil fuel subsidies. On the downside, however, Canada is also betting big on carbon capture technology, despite a track-record of it consistently underperforming, and is looking to use carbon capture to produce blue hydrogen from natural gas – a significantly dirtier way to make hydrogen compared to renewable energy.

“The COP28 outcome brings important wins, with the operationalization of the loss and damage fund and the first-ever global recognition that fossil fuels must be relegated to history – and it gives us another day to fight,” said Caroline Brouillette, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, in a statement. “And fight we must, for the Global North to finally deliver the financial and technical support needed to make this energy transition unstoppable.”

Global Industry Campaign Manager with Oil Change International David Tong, told Canada’s National Observer civil society groups around the world called for a full, fast, fair and funded phaseout of fossil fuels.

“It’s a big win to get a reference to the transition away from fossil fuels, but this deal isn’t full, it’s not fast, it’s not fair and it’s not funded,” he said. Specifically, there’s nothing in the agreement that would require wealthy countries to phase out their fossil fuel production first and fastest, in order to create space in the world’s carbon budget to allow developing countries to pull off a more manageable transition.

“This isn’t a fair deal, and it doesn’t call out the five big planet wreckers responsible for more than 51% of the oil and gas production predicted between now and 2050: the USA, Australia, Canada, Norway and the United Kingdom,” he said.

'Humanity’s core climate problem'

In a speech at the closing plenary, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell said COP28 has made some genuine strides to increase renewable energy, loss and damage funding, and work to adapt to the impacts of climate change; but it also needed a strong signal to address “humanity’s core climate problem: fossil fuels and their planet-burning pollution.”

“Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end,” he said.

Already, the planet has reached at least 1.1 C warming above pre-industrial averages, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the gold standard for climate science. That means more than three billion people live in areas “highly vulnerable” to climate change, with roughly half the world’s population suffering from “severe water scarcity” for at least part of the year, according to the IPCC’s findings. Almost all regions of the planet are baking under extreme heat, leading to higher mortality rates. Food, water, and vector-borne diseases are on the rise, as are mental health issues associated with trauma from extreme weather events and loss of culture. Climate change is already causing economic damage across the agriculture, forestry, fishery, energy and tourism sectors, with those losses and damages concentrated in more vulnerable countries.

[Simon Stiell, UNFCCC Executive Secretary speaks to the media at the UN Climate Change Conference COP28 at Expo City Dubai on December 13, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by UN Climate Change/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Deed)]

And as Stiell noted, while climate change negotiations have pulled the world off a path of 5C warming that would be an “open and shut death sentence for our species,” the world government’s have still not aligned with the Paris Agreement, and are currently rocketing towards just under 3C warming which still represents immense human suffering.

In a statement, Gore called the decision a historic milestone, but noted “the influence of petrostates is still evident in the half measures and loopholes included in the final agreement.”

“Whether this is a turning point that truly marks the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era depends on the actions that come next and the mobilization of finance required to achieve them,” he said. “We must ask ourselves how much longer will the world have [to] wait before all nations summon the political will to overcome these narrow special interests and act on behalf of the future of humanity.”

Ending on a sour note

Moments after Al Jaber officially declared the agreement had passed with consensus, Anne Rasmussen, an official from Samoa, and lead negotiator with the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) expressed disappointment, saying the decision was passed while they and other small island nations were out of the room. The Samoan representative went on to describe “a litany of loopholes” in the agreement.

“We are a little confused about what just happened,” said Rasmussen. “We were working hard to coordinate the 39 small island developing states that are disproportionately affected by climate change, and so were delayed in coming here.”

The island nations concluded the agreement fell short, she went on to say. “We have made an incremental advancement over business as usual when what we really needed is an exponential step-change in our actions and support.

“It is not enough for us to reference the science and then make agreements that ignore what the science is telling us we need to do. This is not an approach that we should be asked to defend.”

[Lead negotiator with the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and representative of Samoa Anne Rasmussen speaks during the COP28 closing plenary. Photo by UN Climate Change/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Deed)]

Marshall Islands Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Silk called the decision to agree to the text without the island states in the room “unacceptable.” But, he said because the climate impacts on his country are destroying its shores and filling their drinking wells with saltwater, putting families at risk, there isn’t much choice but to press ahead.

“I came from my home in the islands to work with you all to solve the greatest challenge of our generation. I came here to build a canoe together for my country,” he said. “Instead we have built a canoe with a weak and leaky hull, full of holes. Yet, we have to put it into the water because we have no other option.”

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I swear I saw it go by on my phone this AM, but can't find it on the Post now; they probably changed the headline. No kidding, it was "Leader at COP28 Made Deal that Eluded COP 27 Times"...something like that.

Even looking at the headline, my sleepy brain went "That's a tautology; if they'd managed the deal before, it wouldn't have come up". By that calculation every deal made at every conference is a historic triumph over past failures. Maybe the 27 previous meetings made this one an easy slam-dunk.

Just mentioning it, because you can so often SEE when a newspaper is sucking up for access. The paper's job is to tell the truth, but they don't suck up to truth, they suck up to power.

The self-congratulatory, always "historic" flatulence that is invariably expelled from the rear end of these confabs is as amusing as it is exasperating.

"Historic" would be, oh, the banning of lobbyists.

A comment and a correction to the author.

Comment: "...have agreed to signal the end of the fossil fuel era".

I’m quite sure there have been similar agreements, over the decades, to signal the end of poverty. The end of biosphere degradation. The end of useless conference utterings. The end of naked emperors.

Correction: Noting that we have a new club on the block, "the five big planet wreckers" [maybe THIS new name will shame them into action?], the author misquoted from the referenced text.

As written:

" doesn’t call out the five big planet wreckers responsible for more than 51% of the oil and gas production predicted between now and 2050"

Should read:

"it doesn’t call out the five big planet wreckers responsible for a majority (51 percent) of planned expansion from new oil and gas fields through 2050."

Sometimes "copy & paste" works best.

"For the first time in nearly three decades of climate change negotiations, countries have agreed to signal the end of the fossil fuel era". --N.O. headline

Yes, the key word here is "signal."

Signalling on paper isn't action. It's a gesture, like scratching your nose or furrowing your brow before the hurricane strikes. Words are cheap. Promises are too often designed to be broken or at least to minimize progress. Putting a few comparative cents into a piggy bank isn't genuinely helping small, island nations from drowning under rising seas, or actively helping saving their resident's lives by offering them citizenship in the wealthy nations that caused the problem. That is, if Samoans et al will accept it after the harsh, articulate and deserving judgement by Ms. Rasmussen, their COP28 delegate.

Good for the National Observer for sending one or two high caliber journos like John Woodside to COP28 in Dubai, if anything to report in detail on the failures of the process and the overtly cynical invasion of fossil fuel interests. We subscribers can afford this honed down effort to uncover the dark spectre behind the curtain (compared to the huge entourage sent to COP26 in the middle of a pandemic).

But the agreement from COP28 is not defensible.

Dave Borlace, author and presenter of the YouTube site 'Just Have a Think,' has a cynical and sarcastic take on COP28. His satire, though delivered with a keen intelligence and British tongue-in-cheek humour, is based entirely on facts and science. This is great investigative journalism run primarily by one person with a part time researcher, a small home video editing studio and an online Patreon account for financial support

Borlace lives in the UK and had a similar opinion about COP26 in Scotland, which he purposely did not attend, although getting there was just a couple or three hours away from his home on the UK's fast electric train network. Something to do with emissions, propaganda and a nasty virus.

Here is his entertaining and very acute opinion on COP28, which will be followed after the holidays with two more videos critically examining carbon capture.

I don't believe in techno utopia or prognosticators who predict the future without having deep insight into economics, physics and history. However, Tony Seba nailed it a decade ago on the rise of renewable energy, primarily through competitive prices and dependability. He called it disruptive, and that's now coming to pass as fossil interests are starting to panic. We have seen a 90% drop in solar energy costs over that decade making it now the most affordable energy in history (so says the IEA), including a stunning 40% in the last year alone, mainly through innovation and mass production in China where most solar panels are built (not to mention computer components, batteries, EVs...). The US under Biden is quickly catching up.

This effort is also transferring to early policies on recycling renewable energy components and materials before they become a big waste problem, like the unfunded environmental liabilities of the oil sands, and to limit the demand for new mines. This work is a great well of optimism, and I wish the N.O. would explore more of this kind of evidence-based research on climate solutions to counter the heavy focus on politics. Politics will not give us what society needs, just propaganda, anger and disappointment. An economic revolution will.

This truly is revolutionary, but most COP28 delegates and protestors seem unaware of the revolution in the background that doesn't need UN conferences and mass protests to materialize and disrupt the "oil production at all costs" apple cart of fossil interests. The evidence is now mounting that the quiet, insidious displacement of fossil fuel demand in the domestic and export markets of petro states is probably our greatest hope.

Seba's Rethink X organization produced many reports on this issue. Here's is one from 2021:

Another YouTuber nails the trend. Here's Sam Evans' take on Tony Seba's latest comments, and on skyrocketing progress in renewables. Evans is seeing the revolution first hand in Australia with the rapid build out of solar and mass battery storage to the point coal is going kaput at a record pace. Adelaide is now 70% permanently powered by renewables. Why aren't we reading about this progress in the N.O.?