COP28: Let’s call it a failure AND a triumph

It's the first UNFCCC climate agreement that includes the words "fossil fuels." Wrap your head around THAT for a hot second.

COP28: Let’s call it a failure AND a triumph
Photo by Ondrej Bocek / Unsplash

COP28 has concluded in Dubai with a historic agreement between 200 nations to “transition away from fossil fuels” and take "just, orderly, and equitable" action to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

Depending on who you ask, this outcome was either a colossal failure for climate progress or a death knell signalling the inevitable end for fossil fuels.

My guess is, the truth lies between those extremes. Has it set us unequivocally on the path to success? Nope, definitely not. Does it mark a serious shift from what we’ve seen before now – and does it give us a better foundation to keep building on? 

I would venture to say… yes? Probably? Maybe? 😅 

Here are a few helpful articles on what the conference (which was chaired by COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company AND an aspiring eco-visionary spearheading the development of “the world’s most sustainable eco-city”) both did and didn't manage to accomplish: 

TIME: Was COP28 A Success or Flop? Depends Who You Ask “The document is noteworthy for finally acknowledging that countries need to ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels. Nonetheless, it is riddled with loopholes and lacks clear goals and fixed timelines. Boiled down into three words, it says, essentially, ‘We will try.’”

Gernot Wagner: How to Assess the Outcome of COP28“Yet the summit did deliver some new commitments, and there is good reason to think that they are more than just empty words.” 

The Guardian: Indigenous people and climate justice groups say Cop28 was ‘business as usual’“Developing countries call agreement to transition away from fossil fuels ‘unfair’ and ‘inequitable.’”

The Verge: The world came tantalizingly close to a deal to phase out fossil fuels“Against all odds, climate-vulnerable countries still managed to score some key wins at the United Nations summit in Dubai.”

Euronews: COP28 strikes ‘historic’ deal to transition away from fossil fuels: What are the key takeaways? “It does send a strong signal to industries and investors that time is running out for oil and gas - as well as coal, which was targeted for a “phase down” at COP26 in Glasgow.”

What I keep returning to is the mind-boggling fact that the "UAE Consensus," as it's now being called, is the FIRST agreement in 28 years of UNFCCC climate talks that has even mentioned fossil fuels. 🤯

It shows you how steep this hill is and how hard the climb has been up until now. Before this year, the nations of the world couldn’t even agree to say the words “fossil fuels” in relation to climate change – let alone collectively commit to start moving away from oil and gas. 

So it’s not surprising that the agreement doesn’t do what we WISH it would, such as call for a complete phase out of fossil fuels and a rapid end to the TRILLIONS of dollars in subsidies that flow to the oil and gas industry every year. It’s hard to go from zero to 100 mph when the car hasn’t been built or even designed yet. 

But that doesn't mean no meaningful progress was made.

Here’s a short list of some of the things nations DID agree to do in their efforts to transition away from fossil fuels: 

  • 120 governments committed to tripling global renewable-energy capacity and doubling the annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030.
  • 22 governments pledged to triple global nuclear-energy capacity by 2050.
  • The US committed to cutting methane  emissions from the fossil fuel sector by around 80% over 15 years – and announced $1 billion in funding to help smaller countries reduce methane emissions as well.
  • 50 of the world's largest oil and gas firms pledged to almost entirely eliminate their own methane emissions.
  • More than two-thirds of the world’s nations agreed to overhaul food production systems to decrease emissions (important because the food industry currently accounts for up to 30% of all emissions)
  • A climate disaster “loss and damage fund” that was introduced at COP27 last year in Egypt was approved, with 31 countries committing a total of US $12.8 billion to the fund, and more contributions expected. 

Is it anywhere near enough? Not even remotely. There is SO much more that needs to happen if we have any chance of achieving net zero in time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. And right now our pace of change isn’t close to fast enough to get us there. 

BUT we have to stagger through our first lurching baby steps if we ever hope to run. And as progress in renewables and EVs has shown us just in the past couple of years, the rate of change is accelerating. Unevenly, of course, and in different measures of fits and starts all over the world. But it IS happening. 

“Just because they say it, doesn’t mean they’ll DO it.” 

If you're inclined to be skeptical of non-binding international agreements like this one because of the wiggle room built into their watered-down language – and because governments have shown over and OVER again that they will renege on promises at the drop of a hat – I totally get it. Goodness knows there’s a mountain-load of historical evidence to support your suspicions.  

Yet I can’t help but feeling that COP28, for all its shortcomings, is yet more evidence that nations, states, provinces, and communities around the world have seen the writing on the wall for fossil fuels and are taking steps to move away from oil and gas and set themselves up for economic and political resilience in a post-fossil fuels world. 

Will those steps be big enough and fast enough? Only time will tell. 

But one thing’s for sure – it’s better to get 200 countries of the world down on paper publicly stating their commitment to transition away from fossil fuels than for them still to be squabbling over the obvious and undeniable need to do so. ✌️🌎

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