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December 13, 2023

COP28 Round-up: World agrees on ‘transitioning away from fossil fuels’

COP28 panel
(Photo: Fadel Dawod/Getty Images)

Final ‘global stocktake’ document released on December 13, setting the course for future climate action

Just 24 hours after its scheduled end, COP28 negotiators agreed on the world’s next climate commitments, with the final “global stocktake” document continuing to split responses between those who wanted a more strongly worded text, and those viewing the call for the “transitioning away from fossil fuels” as a groundbreaking success.

The final text, which has been formally approved today, calls on countries for the “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science”, replacing the earlier draft’s call for a reduction in consumption and production of fossil fuels and using more specific language about when this should be achieved (“by 2050”, as opposed to the previous “by, before, or around 2050”).

Some, however, consider the new wording as a narrowing in scope of transition activities, which, according to the new text, would only refer to energy systems.

The text also specifically mentions the need to align with the 1.5C Paris Agreement goal as part of the transition, and makes a stronger call for action for governments to “contribute” to the now-strengthened global efforts listed in the document, rather than calling on them “to take actions that could include” those actions.

Nicholas Stern, co-chair of the Independent High-Level Expert Group on Climate Finance, praised the global stocktake, which “explicitly recognises, for the first time in the outcome of a UN climate change summit, that the world needs to transition away from all fossil fuels”. He added: “While the text of the decision may not be as strong as some have hoped, it is clear that this transition must be powerful and urgent to achieve net zero emissions of greenhouse gases globally by 2050.”

Some environmental groups agreed. Mark Campanale, founder and director of non-profit Carbon Tracker, said: “The hundreds of billions invested in fossil fuel expansion is looking considerably more risky. Stranded fossil assets are now more, not less, likely following this COP and the momentum it will generate.”

Further, the target of tripling renewable energy and doubling energy efficiency rates by 2030 was maintained from the earlier draft, as well as the goal of reaching net zero emissions energy systems by around 2050. The language around the reduction of methane emissions and those from road transport also stayed identical to the previous draft.

Points of contention, however, include the weakening of language around coal, as the final text calls for “accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power” but has removed the previous mention of “limitations on permitting new and unabated coal power generation”.

The mention of carbon capture and storage remains problematic, as the technology favoured by oil producers still presents a number of challenges, and is seen by some as an escamotage to continue producing fossil fuels. However, the language in this clause was adjusted from enhancing efforts “towards substitution of unabated fossil fuels in energy systems” to emphasise its importance, “particularly in hard-to-abate sectors”.

On this point, EU commissioner for climate action Wopke Hoekstra said previously during COP28: “We cannot CCS ourselves out of the problem. The reality we need to face is that we have to phase out fossil fuels, period.”

The inclusion of “transitional fuels” in the document is also problematic as these may include natural gas. A new line in the final document says the conference of the parties “recognizes that transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security”.

Tanya Steele, chief executive of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s UK office, said: “The agreement to transition away from fossil fuels is a watershed moment and vital if we are to keep the Paris Agreement target of 1.5C within reach. But we are hanging on to the edge of a cliff and dangerous distractions such as ‘transitional fuels’ and large-scale carbon capture and storage should not be part of a future where people and nature thrive.”

On fossil fuel subsidies, the use of “phasing out” was maintained, as well as the contentious wording of “inefficient” subsidies. However, a reference to subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption was deleted in the final agreement.

Among the strongest voices of dissent about the final document is Samoa lead negotiator Anne Rasmussen, who said that “this process has failed us”. Rasmussen is also chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, whose members were not in the room when the agreement on the global stocktake was reached. The bloc of 39 countries described the document as presenting a “litany of loopholes”, such as references to “abatement”, which could justify fossil fuel expansion, the introduction of “transitional fuels”, and the inclusion of CCS technology.

Others continued to denounce the influence of Big Oil during COP meetings. Former US vice-president Al Gore said: “The decision at COP28 to finally recognise that the climate crisis is, at its heart, a fossil fuel crisis is an important milestone. But it is also the bare minimum we need and is long overdue. The influence of petrostates is still evident in the half measures and loopholes included in the final agreement.”

Big questions remain also on how the stocktake agreement will eventually be implemented and funded. Despite significant contributions made to the loss and damage fund over the course of COP’s two weeks, no new global funding targets were agreed on climate finance for adaptation. Though seeking “to close the adaptation finance gap”, which negotiators found to be “widening”, the text only “encourages” countries to consider the stocktake and global adaptation goals as they deliberate climate finance in 2024.

There is, however, a vague mention to funding elsewhere in the text, as the stocktake “reiterates the call urging developed country Parties to at least double their collective provision of climate finance for adaptation to developing country Parties from 2019 levels by 2025”.

Implementation is an issue that COP28 president Sultan al-Jaber himself admitted after the deal was signed. “We have delivered a paradigm shift that has the potential to redefine our economies,” he said, but also noted “an agreement is only as good as its implementation”. He said: “We are what we do, not what we say.”

During today’s plenary session discussing the document, China’s representative said: “It is China’s view that climate action must feature both ambition and pragmatism … The means of implementation must match the ambitions,” as reported by The Guardian. “Developed countries have an unshakable historical responsibility for climate change and must take the lead to materialise net zero as soon as possible,” they said.

Meanwhile, while the global stocktake was the headline document, a number of technical agreements have yet to materialise, including Article 6 carbon markets talks, which failed to come to a conclusion.

There was regret at the inability of countries to come to agreement over carbon markets at COP28. Within Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, Article 6.2 provides the foundations for countries to trade greenhouse gas emissions reductions, while Article 6.4 establishes the mechanism for emissions trades.

Negotiators failed to agree on texts for either Article, although countries can implement carbon markets under Article 6.2 despite the lack of an agreement at this COP.

“While the lack of agreement on carbon markets is a missed opportunity to add further clarity to the operationalisation of Article 6, the key thing is that bilateral trading under Article 6.2 is happening anyway, with the first trade due to complete this week,” said Ben Rattenbury, vice-president of policy at carbon data provider Sylvera. “There is enough clarity and detail from previous COP decisions for this market to ramp up and drive funding to real climate solutions that would otherwise go unfunded.”

There was more disappointment at the failure to adopt text for Article 6.4.

“We missed an opportunity to expedite the operationalisation of a crediting mechanism that would have set a high bar on environmental integrity, safeguards and human rights,” said IETA international policy director Andrea Bonzanni. “The delay of the Article 6.4 mechanism is not a victory for environmental integrity, it is a victory for the anti-market agenda.”

This article was amended after publication to include additional information about adaptation finance.

A service from the Financial Times