We did not get an agreement to phaseout fossil fuels at COP28, but we did get a deal that calls for a phasedown this decade. It was a hard-fought battle that saw two competing perspectives go head-to-head. On one side there was a large and powerful fossil fuel contingent that rejected phasing out hydrocarbons and on the other a growing civil society movement that demanded a science-based timetable to rapidly end our reliance on coal, oil, and gas.
COP28 started with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pledges to the Green Climate Fund (Loss and Damage). Shortly thereafter, it looked as though COP28 was careening into a ditch. Early drafts excluded any mention of fossil fuels, and subsequent drafts provided no timeline for the phasedown beyond achieving net zero around 2050. The language of the final draft was adjusted to include a fossil fuel phasedown this decade and net-zero by mid-century. The agreement also includes commitments to triple renewables, double energy efficiency, and slash methane emissions.
Given the fact that fossil fuels are the primary driver of climate change, a phasedown is welcome news. The deal may be long overdue, but it is nonetheless historic. After 30 years of conspicuously avoiding the elephant in the room, almost 200 countries agreed to transition away from coal, oil, and gas.
This is the first time that a UN climate accord explicitly calls on states to move away from hydrocarbons and as such the agreement is a groundbreaking turning point. While it is premature to herald the end of fossil fuels, it is fair to say that the beginning of the end may be coming into view.
“This sends a clear signal that the world is moving decisively to phaseout fossil fuels,” Jake Schmidt, the senior strategic director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), wrote on X, adding, “It puts the fossil fuel industry formally on notice that its old business model is expiring.”
The fossil fuel industry was in control
The results are remarkable when you consider how much control the fossil fuel industry has assumed over the COP process. COP28 was their crowning achievement. They brought almost 2,500 industry lobbyists to the event which was hosted by a petrostate and presided over by an oil industry CEO.
Oil exporting countries like Saudi Arabia and a legion of some of the best-hired guns in the business resisted the phasedown and scuttled calls for a phaseout. According to multiple sources and leaked reports, the fossil fuel industry put their big guns to work by giving them a central role at COP28. This includes McKinsey & Company, the world’s largest management consultancy. McKinsey not only works for oil majors they were also the senior advisor at the climate conference.
Keeping a fossil fuel phaseout out of the final draft was an achievement given the size of the collective allied against them. At last year’s conference of the parties (COP27) 80 countries called for a phaseout, at COP28 that number grew to 106. More than 200 global businesses, 670 scientists, 100 cities, and 46 million health professionals, also called for a phaseout. So, while calling for a phasedown is an important step, it falls far short of the phaseout that many were fighting for.
Concerns about the language
There are concerns about the language of the final draft. It is vague, and it leaves lots of loopholes and wiggle room. The text allows individual national governments to decide whether and how quickly they will cut their reliance on oil, natural gas, and coal. Each nation is asked to submit a plan for how they intend to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through 2035.
While the draft asks countries to develop science-aligned plans for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems … in this critical decade,” it also says this shift should occur in a “just, orderly and equitable manner” and in a way that accounts for “different national circumstances.” This can be opportunistically interpreted in ways that preclude meaningful reductions.
The draft also mentions “ensuring energy security” as we transition, which seems like an invitation to keep extracting hydrocarbons. Finally, the deal calls for an accelerated effort to phasedown “unabated coal”, but it does not limit new coal power plants.
The disconnect between words and deeds
We have reason to be skeptical, and not just because of the ambiguous language in the final draft. Global agreements have a woeful compliance record. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol failed to reduce emissions and wealthy nations did not deliver on their $100 million climate finance pledge at COP15 in 2009. We have failed to live up to the science-based emissions reductions agreed to at COP21 in 2015 and we did not phasedown coal as agreed at COP25 in 2019. We also failed to phasedown methane as they had promised at COP26 in 2022.
While countries have accepted a non-binding agreement to phase down fossil fuels, the irreconcilable gulf between word and deed is exemplified by nations that are planning to increase the production of oil and gas. Many oil exporting countries are ramping up production, this includes the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the host country of COP 28.
The fossil fuel industry can’t be trusted
The track record of the fossil fuel industry makes it clear that trust is not warranted. For decades they have proven themselves to be egregiously disingenuous. For more than half a century they hid the truth about their role as the primary driver of climate change, and they launched wave after wave of disinformation designed to delay action.
The fossil fuel industry spent millions to undermine science and seize control of academic research. Their deceitful pedagogical reach extends to children’s curriculums. They have also curated networks of researchers who conduct pseudo-science with the intent of maligning and casting aspersions on research they see as a threat to their business model.
The winner of the COP28 fossil fuel war is…
Although the accord represents movement in the right direction, optimism is being tempered by mistrust and the urgency of our emissions predicament. So, while the EU called the final agreement, “the beginning of the end of fossil fuels,” Small Island states accused the COP process of failing them.
“This text is a step forward on our path towards phasing out fossil fuels, but is not the historic decision we hoped for,” said 350.org’s Andreas Sieber. Others were far less sanguine, calling this year’s climate conference a “disaster”. Prof Mike Berners-Lee, a carbon expert at Lancaster University called COP28 “the fossil fuel industry’s dream outcome because it looks like progress but it isn’t”.
What is clear is that there is an urgent need for action. To keep the Paris targets within reach (1.5C or 2.7F above preindustrial norms) we need to see rapid and sustained emissions cuts. A plethora of reports indicate that we are moving in the wrong direction. To keep temperatures from exceeding upper threshold limits we must slash emissions by 43 percent this decade. It is exceedingly difficult to imagine a pathway to emissions cuts of this magnitude without phasing out fossil fuels. The science is clear, ending our addiction to hydrocarbons is the only way we can keep temperatures from surpassing critical thresholds. Failing to do so will trigger tipping points that could augur the collapse of civilization.
COP28 was only the first battle, but the war against fossil fuels will continue. The winner will be determined by what comes next. Moving away from fossil fuels is a victory but plans to ramp up production of oil and gas threaten to make the agreement meaningless. Whether this is a starting point of a fossil-free world, or just another round of bullshit that delays a phaseout, depends on us. To succeed we will need to see broad swaths of civil society working together to increase ambition and demand that words are met by actions.