Climate talks end on a first-ever call for the world to move away from fossil fuels
Updated December 13, 2023 at 12:40 PM ET
DUBAI - In the final weeks of the hottest year in recorded history, the international body responsible for limiting global warming and its disastrous effects called on countries to transition away from the chief cause of climate change – fossil fuels – for the first time.
"It's embarrassing that it took 28 years but now we're finally there. Now it finally seems like the world has acknowledged that we need to move away from fossil [fuels]," said Dan Jørgensen, Denmark's climate minister.
The agreement at the United Nations climate conference, known as COP28, comes after more than two weeks of contentious negotiations.
But not all of the nearly 200 countries present – particularly those at the greatest risk from the rapidly warming world – were satisfied with the decision, which ended more than 24 hours after the summit's scheduled close. Amidst the congratulations and speeches, some countries expressed their outrage at not being allowed to comment on a final text they felt did not go far enough to address the threats from global warming, especially to developing nations.
The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which represents countries that have contributed little to global climate change but are already being overrun by sea-level rise, said it saw a "litany of loopholes," in the final text.
Members of the alliance and climate activists at COP28 had called for a clear path towards phasing out fossil fuels, which are responsible for 75% of global warming.
"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," Anne Rasmussen of Samoa told world leaders as the meeting ended. Speaking on behalf of the AOSIS coalition, she pointed out that the final deal does not require countries to stop using fossil fuels by any particular date. "This is not an approach that we should be asked to defend," she said.
The science on climate change is clear. To limit the worst effects of planetary warming – runaway sea level rise, mass extinction of plants and animals, and damaging and deadly wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, heatwaves and floods – the world needs to reduce its emissions of climate-warming fossil fuels rapidly and steeply.
In 2015, world leaders agreed to limit warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), compared to pre-industrial times. Scientists say that warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius would put global food systems at risk, spell the end of most of the world's coral reefs and potentially trigger climate tipping points like the melting of permafrost, which could accelerate warming regardless of other human actions.
The world has already warmed roughly 1.2 degrees Celsius, said Jim Skea, chair of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in an interview at COP28.
Keeping 1.5 alive, the oft-quoted goal of these climate summits is "still possible – just," Skea said. But, he added, "We continue to emit. So it's becoming harder and harder to imagine that we're going to limit warming at 1.5 degrees and at some point, if we carry on as we are, we'll run out of rope."
One of the biggest breakthroughs of COP28 is that, for the first time, millions of dollars will be directed to developing countries that are already suffering damage from climate change.
For years, developing countries have argued they're paying for devastating impacts that richer nations are largely responsible for. Wealthier countries like the U.S. and those in Europe have historically contributed the biggest share of emissions from fossil fuel use that are causing the planet to heat up. As weather extremes get worse and sea levels rise, developing countries are shouldering the cost of what's known as "loss and damage."
At climate talks a year ago, nations agreed to establish a new loss and damage fund. Now, more than $700 million has been announced for it, most from European countries and $100 million coming from the United Arab Emirates.
Here's what else is – and isn't – in the final deal, and what that means for humanity.
A transition away from fossil fuels
Burning fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal is the largest driver of global warming. A central debate at COP28 hinged on whether the final agreement would call for a "phase out" of fossil fuels, or doing away with them, or a tapering, known as a "phase down."
The fossil fuel industry strenuously opposed a "phase out". The secretary general of the oil cartel OPEC sent a letter urging members to reject proposals targeting fossil fuels, and people involved with the COP28 negotiations said OPEC's largest member, Saudi Arabia, held firmly to that position.
Negotiators ultimately agreed to reduce "both consumption and production of fossil fuels, in a just, orderly and equitable manner" in order to zero out climate pollution by 2050.
Countries also pledged to collectively "double the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements from around 2% to over 4% every year until 2030." More than 120 nations at COP28 committed to tripling renewable energy capacity by 2030. The world's two largest greenhouse gas emitters, the U.S. and China, had agreed to this even before the COP28 started.
The Climate Envoy of the Republic of the Marshall Islands Tina Stege called the renewables pledge only "half the solution," and reducing fossil fuel use the other half. Her nation is among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and she urged countries to do more to phase out fossil fuels and limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Some progress on reducing planet-heating methane, and coal use
Negotiators committed to "[a]ccelerating and substantially reducing non-CO2 emissions, including, in particular, methane emissions globally by 2030." Methane is the second most common greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, but it is much more potent.
More countries joined the U.S. and European Union-led Global Methane Pledge to cut emissions at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. There are now 155 governments participating.
A group of oil companies pledged to reduce methane leaks from their operations and aim for "near zero" emissions by 2050. While those companies were quick to tout that progress, others were less impressed.
"The fossil fuel industry – the giant behind the climate crisis — is finally starting to wake up. But the promises made clearly fall short of what is required," said UN Secretary General António Guterres, who has called for phasing out fossil fuels.
Millions announced for developing countries dealing with climate loss and damage
Millions of dollars will be directed to developing countries that are already suffering "loss and damage" from climate change. So far, the special fund that world leaders created for that purpose has more than $700 million in pledges, including $17.5 million from the U.S.
Over the next year, countries will set up the fund, including establishing guidelines about what kinds of damages will be eligible. The new loss and damage fund will be housed at the World Bank for at least four years
The initial pledges are only a drop in the bucket. A United Nations report finds that developing countries could need almost $400 billion per year to deal with impacts like worsening storms, rising sea levels and water shortages.
It's why many developing countries say relying on richer nations alone for loss and damage funding won't be enough. Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley, who has been a strong advocate for loss and damage, suggests taxing oil and gas companies, whose profits add up to hundreds of billions every year.
"We really have to have, in my view, an urgent convening of the entities that can bridge that gap," Mottley said. "If people got accustomed to treating 95% as 100%, they wouldn't lose anything or feel that they lost anything. They would still be able to function and to invest and expand."
Aside from loss and damage, little progress on money for developing countries
Fourteen years ago at the climate talks in Copenhagen, industrialized nations like the U.S. pledged to give 100 billion each year by 2020to help developing countries adapt to the effects of climate change and transition away from fossil fuels. A recent assessment by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said that goal was only – maybe – reached last year.
Adaptation funding at COP28 and long before has been, "the ghost at the banquet table," said Zahra Hdidou, senior climate and resilience adviser at ActionAid UK. "That's why we're in the current situation we're in, with severe losses and damages worsening every year."
Experts and advocates say $100 billion is still far short of the climate finance that's really needed. For example last year's catastrophic flooding in Pakistan is believed to have caused $40 billion in damages alone. (Climate finance is distinct from the loss and damage fund.)
While developing countries have seen progress on loss and damage, "climate finance has continued to be the biggest stumbling block on negotiations ever since," said Laura Kuhl, assistant professor of public policy and international affairs at Northeastern University.
Oil companies had a big platform, but there were wins in the move away from fossil fuels
The oil and gas industry had an unprecedented presence at this year's climate talks in Dubai. OPEC - the oil cartel - had a pavilion where it handed out goody bags to visitors. It was the first U.N. climate talks that an ExxonMobil Chief Executive attended.
The industry's large presence at COP28, which climate activists and some delegates there called a sign of the industry's anxiety, came with controversy. Even before the start of COP28, reporting from the BBC and the Centre for Climate Reporting found the UAE planned to use the climate summit to make oil and gas deals. During the conference, The Guardian reported on a November video of the COP28 president Sultan al-Jaber saying that there was no science to support ending fossil fuels. That's incorrect.
Colombia, one of the world's biggest exporters of coal and home to large oil and gas reserves, announced during the conference it was signing the "Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty". That's an agreement between countries to stop expanding fossil fuel production. So far, most of the dozen countries that have signed are small island states.
Given the importance of fossil fuels in causing global warming, the spotlight on the oil industry at the talks was a good thing, said Tzeporah Berman, Chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. "As crazy as it may sound, this is the first time in the global climate negotiations that fossil fuels have been dragged center stage in 28 COPs," she said, "It's almost like we have pulled back the curtain."
New focus on health isn't enough to save lives
This was the first time human health got significant attention at the annual U.N. climate talks. More than 140 countries signed on to a declaration asserting that climate change is costing people their lives and health—and stressing that climate action will improve health worldwide. Medical and public health experts celebrated the unprecedented focus on human health.
But health advocates came into the meeting asking for a swift and complete phase out of fossil fuel burning. That, they said, was the only way to address health risks from both climate impacts, like more intense and dangerous heat waves, as well as from fossil fuel's air pollution, which kills millions every year.
Many developing countries also point out that they need significant, consistent financial support to flesh out sustainable health efforts. Some, like the low-lying Philippines or Fiji, need to move hospitals away from the coasts to protect them from sea level rise and climate-intensified storms. Others need money to expand their disease early-warning systems.
Nonprofits, some countries like the United Kingdom, and development banks pledged at least $1 billion to climate and health-related projects during the conference. But countries need more, and more consistent, financial support, said Desta Lakew, a development specialist with Amref, a major medical nongovernmental organization working across Africa.
Negotiators from developing countries had hoped for an agreement to at least double the amount of financing flowing to their countries to help them adapt, including their health systems. But even that would be far from enough, she said. "There is an urgent, urgent need for funding," Lakew said, "and access to the money that exists is challenging. It's accessible only here or there."
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