Climate Summit Agreement: Fossil Fuel Transition

Published on
December 13, 2023
Climate Summit Agreement: Fossil Fuel Transition Climate Summit Agreement: Fossil Fuel Transition


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Original article published on December 13th, 2023 at by Brad Plumer and Max Bearak

Lisa Friedman, Somini Sengupta, Jenny Gross and Vivian Nereim contributed reporting.

Nearly 200 countries convened by the United Nations approved a milestone plan to ramp up renewable energy and transition away from coal, oil and gas.

For the first time since nations began meeting three decades ago to confront climate change, diplomats from nearly 200 countries approved a global pact that explicitly calls for “transitioning away from fossil fuels” like oil, gas and coal that are dangerously heating the planet.

The sweeping agreement, which comes during the hottest year in recorded history, was reached on Wednesday after two weeks of furious debate at the United Nations climate summit in Dubai. European leaders and many of the nations most vulnerable to climate-fueled disasters were urging language that called for a complete “phaseout” of fossil fuels. But that proposal faced intense pushback from major oil exporters like Saudi Arabia and Iraq, as well as fast-growing countries like India and Nigeria.

In the end, negotiators struck a compromise: The new deal calls on countries to accelerate a global shift away from fossil fuels this decade in a “just, orderly and equitable manner,” and to quit adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere entirely by midcentury. It also calls on nations to triple the amount of renewable energy, like wind and solar power, installed around the world by 2030 and to slash emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that is more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term.

While past U.N. climate deals have urged countries to reduce emissions, they have shied away from explicitly mentioning the words “fossil fuels,” even though the burning of oil, gas and coal is the primary cause of global warming.

“Humanity has finally done what is long, long, long overdue,” said Wopke Hoekstra, the European commissioner for climate action. “Thirty years — 30 years! — we spent to arrive at the beginning of the end of fossil fuels.”

The new deal is not legally binding and can’t, on its own, force any country to act. Yet many of the politicians, environmentalists and business leaders gathered in Dubai hoped it would send a message to investors and policymakers that the shift away from fossil fuels was unstoppable. Over the next two years, each nation is supposed to submit a detailed, formal plan for how it intends to curb greenhouse gas emissions through 2035. Wednesday’s agreement is meant to guide those plans.

“This is not a transition that will happen from one day to the other,” Susana Muhamad, Colombia’s environmental minister, said this week. “Whole economies and societies are dependent on fossil fuels. Fossil capital will not disappear just because we made a decision here.” But, she added, an agreement sends “a strong political message that this is the pathway.”

Three tall wind turbines, each with a bright yellow base and a white tower, on a calm, deep blue sea. The sky above is clear.
Wind turbines off Block Island, R.I. The deal calls on nations to triple the amount of renewable energy installed around the world by 2030.Credit...Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

The deal represents a diplomatic victory for the United Arab Emirates, the oil-rich nation that hosted these talks at a glittering, sprawling expo center in Dubai under smoggy skies just 11 miles away from the largest natural gas power plant in the world.

Sultan Al Jaber, the Emirati official and oil executive presiding over the talks, faced complaints about conflicts of interest and weathered early calls for his removal. A record number of fossil fuel lobbyists flooded the summit. Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, the company run by Mr. Al Jaber, is investing at least $150 billion over the next five years to increase drilling.

But Mr. Al Jaber has also called a phaseout of fossil fuels “inevitable” and staked his reputation on being able to persuade other oil-producing nations to sign on to a major new climate agreement.

“Through the night and the early hours of the morning we worked collectively for consensus,” Mr. Al Jaber said on Wednesday morning before a room full of applauding negotiators. “I promised I would roll up my sleeves. We have the basis to make transformational change happen.”

It remains to be seen if countries will follow through on the agreement. Scientists say that nations would need to slash their greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 43 percent this decade if they hope to limit total global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to preindustrial levels. Beyond that level, scientists say, humans could struggle to adapt to rising seas, wildfires, extreme storms and drought.

Yet global fossil-fuel emissions soared to record highs this year, nations are currently on track to cut that pollution by less than 10 percent this decade and the world has already heated by more than 1.2 degrees Celsius. Many scientists say it is now highly unlikely that humanity can limit warming to 1.5 degrees, though they add that countries should still do everything they can to keep warming as low as possible.

Representatives from small islands, whose coasts are disappearing under rising seas and whose wells are filling with saltwater, said that the new climate agreement had a “litany of loopholes” and was not enough to avert catastrophe.

“This process has failed us,” said Anne Rasmussen, the lead negotiator for Samoa, who complained that the deal had been approved while a group of 39 small island nations was not in the room. “The course correction that is needed has not been secured.”

Past climate agreements have often failed to encourage meaningful action. In 2021, nations struck a deal in Glasgow to “phase down” coal-fired power plants. But Britain approved a new coal mine just one year later and global coal use has since soared to record highs.

About two dozen protesters standing outside a conference center with banners. Six of the banners, lined up side-by-side on tall poles and referring to the global energy transition, read “fair, funded, feminist, full, fast, forever.”
A protest at the climate summit in Dubai on Wednesday.Credit...Rula Rouhana/Reuters

Even as negotiators from the United States and Europe pressed forcefully for a deal to reduce fossil fuel use, environmentalists pointed out that oil production in the United States was surging, while European countries were spending billions on new terminals to import liquefied natural gas amid the war in Ukraine.

American officials talked up the fact that Congress had recently approved hundreds of billions of dollars to adopt and manufacture clean energy technologies like solar panels, electric vehicles and heat pumps that would help curb the world’s appetite for oil, coal and natural gas.

As bleary-eyed diplomats in Dubai argued in all-night sessions over language in the text, they were forced to wrestle with the realities and stark challenges of a global transition away from fossil fuels in greater detail than ever before.

Saudi Arabia and oil and gas companies argued that the talks should focus on emissions, instead of fossil fuels themselves, saying that technologies such as carbon capture and storage could trap and bury greenhouse gases from oil and gas and allow their continued use. To date, nations have struggled to deploy that technology on a broad scale.

Other world leaders countered that the best way to cut emissions was to switch to cleaner forms of energy like solar, wind, or nuclear, reserving carbon capture for rare situations where alternatives are unavailable.

The final text calls on nations to accelerate carbon capture “particularly in hard-to-abate sectors.” But some negotiators expressed concern that fossil-fuel companies could seize on that language to continue emitting at high rates while promising to capture the emissions later.

Some oil producers already see wiggle room in the deal. In a television interview after the summit, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the Saudi energy minister, said that the agreement “buried the issue of immediately phasing out or phasing down” fossil fuels and instead “left space for countries to choose their own way.” He also insisted that Saudi Arabia’s oil exports would not be affected.

The final agreement also has language recognizing that so-called transitional fuels can play a role in the transition to clean energy and ensuring energy security. “Transitional fuels” is widely seen as code for natural gas, something that gas-producing countries like Russia and Iran had called for. Some nations seeking an end to fossil fuels lamented the inclusion of that language.

An oil rig by the side of a two-lane road. The grass around the rig is yellow and the sky is gray.
A drilling site in New Mexico. Some see the inclusion of language on so-called transitional fuels, often used to mean natural gas, as a shortcoming of the deal.Credit...Nick Oxford/Reuters

An earlier draft of the agreement had urged nations to stop issuing permits for new coal-fired power plants unless they could capture and bury their carbon dioxide emissions. But countries like China and India, which are still building large new coal plants to satisfy growing energy demand, opposed overly tight restrictions. The language on new coal plants was removed from the final version.

Many African countries sharply criticized the idea that all countries should reduce their fossil fuel use at the same pace. Without outside financial help, they argued, African nations would need to exploit their own oil and gas reserves in order to grow rich enough to fund the clean energy transition.

“Asking Nigeria, or indeed, asking Africa, to phase out fossil fuels is like asking us to stop breathing without life support,” said Ishaq Salako, Nigeria’s environmental minister. “It is not acceptable and it is not possible.”

Some world leaders criticized wealthy emitters like the United States, Europe and Japan for failing to provide enough financial support to low-income countries to help them transition away from fossil fuels. In places like Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, developing nations are facing soaring interest rates that have made it difficult to finance new renewable energy projects.

The new agreement nods to the importance of finance, but countries agreed to tackle the issue at the next round of climate talks in Baku, Azerbaijan, next year.

“The text calls for a transition away from fossil fuels in this critical decade, but the transition is not funded or fair,” said Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, an environmental group. “We’re still missing enough finance to help developing countries decarbonize and there needs to be greater expectation on rich fossil fuel producers to phase out first.”

At the same time, war and turmoil elsewhere in the world cast a shadow over the climate talks, which were already marked by sharp disagreements between nations. By tradition, U.N. rules require every agreement at the climate summit to be unanimously endorsed, and any one country can scuttle a consensus.

A view of the main conference hall in Dubai, taken from the back of the room. All the seats are filled. At the front of the room, a long, beige table for the people presiding over the meeting and a green backdrop with the COP28 logo.
The agreement was reached after two weeks of furious debate at the United Nations climate summit in Dubai.Credit...Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

For weeks, diplomats struggled to agree even on a location for next year’s summit, because Russia kept vetoing Eastern European nations that had criticized the invasion of Ukraine. Developing countries in the conference halls were furious when the United States vetoed a U.N. resolution for a cease-fire in Gaza.

After the agreement was reached Wednesday, John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, said that it showed countries could still work together despite their sharp differences.

“In a world of Ukraine and Middle East war and all the other challenges of a planet that is foundering, this is a moment where multilateralism has come together and people have taken individual interests and attempted to define the common good,” Mr. Kerry said. “That is hard, it’s the hardest thing in diplomacy, it’s the hardest thing in politics.”

But there were still signs that bitterness and distrust lingered. “Developed countries say a great deal about ambition in tackling the climate crisis when standing before the media,” said Diego Pacheco, the lead negotiator for Bolivia. “But in the negotiation rooms of this conference they are blocking and creating distortions and confusion and adding complexity to all the issues that are priorities for developing countries.”

As workers dismantled the coffee stands at the Dubai climate conference to make way for “Winter City,” a Santa-heavy extravaganza set to open at the venue on Friday, many were already eyeing the next big climate meetings. Governments still need to start taking concrete steps to increase funding for clean energy, including a major overhaul of the World Bank and other international financial institutions.

“Champions for a rapid phaseout of fossil fuels, both small island states and major economies, have pushed the rest of the world to realize this transition cannot be stopped,” said Tom Evans, a climate policy adviser at E3G, a research organization. “But this is only a small first step.”