In early December, diplomats from around the world gathered for the 28th time to negotiate global policies to address climate change. And, for the first time ever, they reached a global consensus to “transition away from fossil fuels” in a “just, orderly and equitable manner.”
Tenuous as these words may sound, they mark the first time that “fossil fuels” have been called out by name in a policy declaration from the annual Conference of Parties convened by the United Nations. Even this time around, the operative term appears only once in the 11,000-word closing statement.
Whether this latest U.N. policy declaration will go down as a watershed moment or just another feint by oil, gas and coal companies hoping to put off their day of reckoning remains to be seen. Scientists have known that fossil fuels are the main source of human-induced global warming long before the first of these climate meetings took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992.
COP28 Meeting Convenes in the Oil Patch
Sultan Al Jabar, who heads the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, hosted the 28th U.N. Climate Change Conference of Parties held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in December 2023.
Now, 31 years into these climate negotiations, the COP28 meeting that just took place in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, was the first to be held in a petrostate. Presiding over 30,000 conference attendees was Sultan Al Jabar, who head’s the UAE’s state-owned oil company. It made for an odd setting to discuss the impending demise of fossil fuels.
In an ironic twist, it was Sultan Al Jabar himself who insisted that the COP28 declaration include language calling for a “transition” away from fossil fuels. Tougher language recommending a complete “phaseout” of fossil fuels had been rejected earlier, reflecting the influence of 1,200 fossil energy company representatives working the halls of the COP28 meeting – and dwarfing the size of any country delegation, except Brazil and the U.A.E.
Flexing their muscle, these fossil industry delegates made sure that the final declaration included lots of carve-outs for so-called “transitional fuels” like natural gas and commercially unproven technologies like carbon capture and storage. Under “net zero” accounting methods, these activities can still get credit toward achieving carbon emission reductions, even though they expand the limits of fossil fuel production instead of keeping these assets burned underground.
Such fossil-friendly provisions in the COP28 agreement not only benefit petrostates in the Middle East and Latin America. Oil and gas production is also surging here in the United States. With domestic oil production approaching 14 million barrels per day, the U.S. is now the world’s largest oil producer and second largest exporter behind Saudia Arabia. Now, the Biden administration is facing a pivotal decision whether to expand the nation’s liquefied natural gas exports – taking the domestic “Drill, Baby, Drill” debate to a whole new level.
What’s At Stake for the Earth’s Climate
Scientists say that nations need to slash greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 43 percent by 2030 if they hope to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to pre-industrial levels. Beyond that threshold, scientists say, the climate could reach a tipping point of fast-forming hurricanes, uncontrollable wildfires, extreme rainstorms, persistent drought and heat waves – all of which were much in evidence in 2023.
As the hottest year on record, 2023 reflects more than 1.2°C of global warming to date, with some months actually exceeding the 1.5°C limit. Meanwhile, fossil-fuel emissions continue to reach record levels. Nations currently are on track to cut those emissions by only less than 10 percent by 2030. As a result, many scientists now believe it is highly unlikely that humanity can hold global warming to a 1.5°C limit or achieve emissions reductions fast enough to avoid unfolding climate catastrophes.
While the COP28 agreement stresses the importance of new financing mechanisms to address climate change, delegates put off the financing issue until the next round of climate talks are held in Baku, Azerbaijan, later this year.
Back in 2009, developed countries pledged $100 billion in support of developing countries’ efforts at climate mitigation and adaptation by 2020. That funding target has not yet been reached. As of 2023, pledges by developed countries like the United States, Japan, Germany and France amounted to only $83 billion, and most of that funding has been in the form of market-rate loans. Actual contributions of aid and grant support to developing countries amount to less than $25 billion.
U.S. climate advisor John Kerry thinks COP28 made important progress toward holding climate change to 1.5°C of global warming.
Looking on the Bright Side
Even so, the deal struck by more than 170 nations at COP28 meeting in Dubai is “the most important decision since the Paris agreement,” in 2015, according to John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy for climate change. After two weeks of hard-fought negotiations, the final deal in Dubai not only calls for a transition away from fossil fuels beginning this decade, but also for tripling of renewable energy production from wind and solar power by 2030.
What happens next in the boardrooms of multilateral development banks, in particular, will be key, with the World Bank and other regional lending agencies facing mounting pressure to change how and whether they make loans for new coal-burning power plants and expanding oil & gas production.
In 2022, President Biden signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act, which pledged to invest $370 billion in clean energy sources over 10 years. (With the size of matching tax credits left uncapped, the federal funding contribution eventually could top $1 trillion.) Combined with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, passed by Congress in 2021, consumers now have access to many thousands of dollars of federal tax credits and other financial incentives that they can use to buy electric vehicles, install solar panels, add home battery charging systems, and convert home heating systems from fossil fuels to electric heat pumps.
Such a transition to clean energy “isn’t going to happen magically because everybody sits there and does business as usual,” Kerry remarked at the conclusion of the COP28 meeting in Dubai. Pointing to the landmark U.S. legislation, Kerry said, “The business as usual has to change.”
What’s Next in Climate Talks
While clean energy proponents may be tempted to take a victory lap now that fossil fuels have been called out for global emission reductions, this celebration may be short-lived. A key test for national governments will come in 2025, when every country is expected to set its next round of greenhouse gas reduction targets, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Without sweeping changes to the global financial system to provide more capital to developing nations, many of these NDCs may fall short of the mark.
Serious challenges also remain to reform agricultural systems and meat-based diets in a global population now topping 8 billion people, along with programs to protect nature and spur climate-friendly technological advances. If countries are to become less reliant on fossil fuels for revenue and economic growth, they will need to scale up investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency to levels reaching $4.5 trillion a year, according to the latest outlook from the International Energy Administration.
When all is said and done, actions still speak louder than words – or any proclamations made at a U.N. climate summit. Your clean energy investment can start right at home and in your community – with a Solaflect Tracker in your backyard, or a Solar EV Charger at your place of work!
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