The era of fossil fuels is coming to an end. Coal, oil, and gas, which have been humanity’s energy mainstays since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, are set to be fully replaced by clean energy sources like wind, solar, and nuclear, according to the final decision text approved by all the whole world meeting at COP28 in Dubai.
The question is whether the global transition to clean energy can happen quickly enough to meet the Paris Agreement goal of keeping temperatures from rising past 1.5°C above pre-industrial. This year, scientists say, will be the hottest ever, and it is perilously close to 1.3°C.
This seems vanishingly unlikely. The COP draft outcome document notes that even if all government pledges are fully implemented, emissions are set to be just 5.3 percent lower in 2030 than in 2019, instead of the 43 percent reduction required to meet the 1.5-degree target. Emissions must fall by 60 percent by 2035 and reach global net zero by 2050.
‘Transitioning away from fossil fuels’
In addition, the COP decision is not legally binding and merely “calls on Parties” to “contribute to” efforts such as “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science”.
Seasoned COP observers noted that any language around fossil fuels phaseout and even global net zero targets was unprecedented until relatively recently. The original Kyoto Protocol only sought to cut emissions by five percent, and only for industrialized countries. Since the Paris Agreement in 2015, all nations have been voluntarily included in mitigation efforts.
This long-term improvement is noted in the COP decision text, which “Acknowledges that significant collective progress towards the Paris Agreement temperature goal has been made, from an expected global temperature increase of 4°C according to some projections before the adoption of the Agreement to an increase in the range of 2.1–2.8°C with the full implementation of the latest nationally determined contributions.”
‘We leave Dubai with our heads held high’
The historic nature of the fossil fuel transition commitment is particularly striking given that COP28 was hosted in the United Arab Emirates, a major oil and gas producer and that the COP president, Dr Sultan Al Jaber, was criticized for conflicts of interest given his role as CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Al Jaber was jubilant at the concluding plenary, heralding the final agreement as the ‘UAE Consensus’. “We leave Dubai with our heads held high,” he told applauding delegates.
The agreement also contains language seeking to achieve the tripling of global renewable energy capacity by 2030, an important part of the clean energy transition. And for the first time in a COP decision, a role for nuclear – the only zero-carbon energy source not constrained by geography or the weather – is explicitly referenced. Indeed, in the first days of the COP, more than twenty countries signed an agreement to triple nuclear capacity by 2050.
The COP agreement also invites countries to update their ‘nationally determined contributions’ (COP-speak for emissions targets) by the end of 2024, with ambition increased “as necessary to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal.” Countries are also urged to submit “their long-term low greenhouse gas emissions development strategies,” which will take them to net zero by around mid-century.
Progress was made in the two weeks of deliberations
While some activists criticized the COP decision as ‘merely words,’ this is far from the case, as veteran environmental reporter Fiona Harvey notes in the Guardian. She notes that “this deal, imperfect as it is, faced colossal opposition from the world’s oil-producing countries,” especially Saudi Arabia and Russia. “They worked so hard to scupper the deal because they realize that it is not merely words, as some critics insist. The deal will impact the real world, in the decisions made by investors, banks, financial institutions, governments and private companies.”
As delegates from more than 200 countries fly home from Dubai and begin to catch up on missed sleep, they can take some comfort that progress was made in the two weeks of deliberations and that an important political and economic signal was sent out that the age of fossil fuels is coming to an end. Now, the hard work begins of building the clean energy infrastructure to deliver this critical transition before global temperatures rise too far out of control.
Mark Lynas is a climate change author and campaigner. He is an advisor to the former President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed. He is the research and climate lead with the Alliance for Science, where he has co-authored peer-reviewed papers on vaccines, climate, and GMOs focusing on scientific consensus and misinformation.