The world came tantalizingly close to a deal to phase out fossil fuels

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – DECEMBER 11: Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber (C), President of the COP28 UNFCCC Climate Conference, emerges from negotiations over the wording of the Presidential draft on day eleven of the UNFCCC COP28 Climate Conference. | Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

What would have been a historic deal to tackle a planetary crisis slipped out of reach at the eleventh hour. Even so, climate-vulnerable countries and environmental advocates scored some key wins with clean energy after heated climate negotiations wrapped up in the United Arab Emirates, a top oil- and gas-producing country.

This was the closest yet that countries have gotten to striking a global deal to phase out the use of coal, oil, and gas. But the summit was arguably still a home game for fossil fuel interests who threw their weight around the United Nations climate conference, called the 28th Conference of the Parties or COP28, where tens of thousands of delegates and activists from nearly every nation on Earth have gathered over the past two weeks to wrangle over the future of fossil fuels.

Now that the dust has settled, these are some of the biggest decisions made in Dubai that could determine how we power our world in the future.

The beginning of the end for fossil fuels?

More than 100 countries came to the table pushing for an official agreement to “phase out fossil fuels.” Doing so would address a glaring omission in the 2015 Paris accord, which never actually mentions coal, oil, or natural gas despite being an international agreement to stop global warming. Alas, countries still aren’t facing the root of the problem.

Bringing the deal to the finish line required nearly 200 countries to agree on the same language. Ultimately, draft language explicitly calling for the phaseout of fossil fuels was stricken from the final text of agreements brokered at this year’s climate talks. What the world got instead is a weaker call for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade.” A landmark United Nations-backed climate report in 2018 found that countries need to cut their emissions nearly in half by 2030 to meet goals set in the Paris climate accord.

The final text also calls on countries to work toward “accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power.” To be clear, every word in that phrase is pretty dirty. Coal of course is the most polluting fossil fuel, one reason why it’s hard to ignore in a climate agreement. But a commitment to phase down its use is decidedly weaker than one to phase it out. It mirrors language in a recent letter addressed to participating governments from COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber — who also happens to be the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

The UN’s decision to hold the summit in the United Arab Emirates, a major oil and gas producer, wound up giving the fossil fuel industry unprecedented access. There were more fossil fuel lobbyists in Dubai than at any climate conference in the 28 years the United Nations has convened it. Industry representatives for fossil fuels outnumbered delegations from every country present at the talks except the United Arab Emirates and Brazil. Al Jaber even used his position as COP28 president to lobby for oil and gas deals with other governments, according to an investigation by the BBC and the Centre for Climate Reporting.

Even so, there were hopeful signs last week when draft documents coming out of the conference included options to incorporate language that called on countries to phase out fossil fuel use (there was also an option not to include such a clause). Then the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) sent a letter to its member states pressuring them to “proactively reject any text or formula that targets energy i.e. fossil fuels rather than emissions.”

Following the letter, language that had previously called on countries to phase out fossil fuels vanished from subsequent draft texts. Backlash was swift. “This obsequious draft reads as if OPEC dictated it word for word,” former US vice president Al Gore posted on X on Monday. “COP28 is now on the verge of complete failure.”

That brings us back to the language coming out of COP28 to phase down unabated coal. Using the word “unabated” — whether for coal, oil, or gas — carves out a huge loophole for fossil fuels. It means that polluters can continue burning fossil fuels as long as they pair it with emerging technologies that capture greenhouse gas emissions (though typically not 100 percent of those emissions) that are still unproven at scale.

“This text is a step forward on our path towards phasing out fossil fuels, but is not the historic decision we hoped for … given the overwhelming momentum among countries in support of a renewable energy package and a long overdue fossil fuel phase out, we needed a far more ambitious result.” Andreas Sieber, associate director of policy and campaigns for environmental group, said in a statement before the draft agreement was finalized at the conference’s closing plenary.

Clean energy on the rise

Even though the lack of a clear plan to phase out fossil fuels is a blow to climate action, this isn’t exactly a zero sum game. Solar and wind power are already cheaper alternatives to coal, oil, and gas in most of the world when it comes to meeting new electricity demand. Nearly all of the world’s new electricity supply over the next few years is expected to come from renewable and nuclear energy, according to the International Energy Agency. The agency, which was initially founded to safeguard the world’s fuel supply after the 1970s oil crisis, called a global transition to clean energy “unstoppable” earlier this year and forecast that demand for coal, oil, and gas would peak this decade.

When it comes down to it, getting cleaner sources of energy online looks inevitable at this point. There were some notable new commitments on the clean energy front in the final texts coming out of COP28, too. It calls for the tripling of renewable energy capacity globally by 2030, something that more than 100 countries had already pledged to do while negotiations were taking place last week. Leading up to the conference, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas polluters — the US and China — committed to working toward that goal together when each country’s climate envoys met in California in November.

The science is clear

There’s a lot of science underpinning these kinds of negotiations. The world, on average, is about 1.2 degrees Celsius hotter than it was before the industrial revolution. That might not sound like much, but it’s enough to drive more devastating hurricane and wildfire seasons, and suck drought-vulnerable places dry while displacing other communities faced with rising tides.

The mountain of climate research we have today describes much higher risks for life on Earth if warming reaches two degrees. We’re talking about the potential annihilation of the world’s coral reefs. Twice as many of the world’s megacities could face heat stress, exposing some 350 million people to dangerously high temperatures by 2050, even in places that used to be known for cool weather. The longer the world runs on fossil fuels, the bigger those risks grow.

It’s why the Paris Agreement commits countries to working together to avoid two degrees of warming, ideally stopping temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius. Staying below that lower threshold requires slashing greenhouse gas emissions down to net zero as soon as possible. And you can’t get rid of all those greenhouse gas emissions without also saying goodbye to fossil fuels.

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