Dec 11, 2023 - Energy & Environment

COP28 climate summit teeters between historic agreement and failure

Photo illustration of two people standing in water, a field of oil rigs and abstract shapes.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Luis Tato/AFP via Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The newest draft of the COP28 agreement that emerged Monday evening local time significantly dials back the scale of actions to reduce fossil fuels, specifically by erasing the terms "phase out" or "phase down" from the options.

Yes, but: This is not the final text, and many countries are expected to vigorously oppose this draft during what is expected to be a long night in Dubai and a contentious day on Tuesday.

  • Specifically, the U.S., European Union, Alliance of Small Island States and others have expressed opposition to the new draft, calling it far too weak on cutting fossil fuels.
  • "The word 'phaseout' has been phased out," said Li Shuo, director of China Climate Hub at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Why it matters: Depending on its exact language, a pact calling for a phase down or phase out of fossil fuels, as earlier drafts had done with the support of a vast majority of countries, would send a clear signal to markets and policymakers about the direction to head in.

  • But even if the text doesn't include the "phase out" or "phase down" language, just a mention of the term "fossil fuels" this year would be unprecedented.
  • "On fossil fuels this text lays the ground for transformational change. It's good to recognize this is the first COP where the word[s] fossil fuels are actually included in the draft decision," Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, said in a statement.

State of play: The new draft text refers to reducing fossil fuel emissions reductions to net zero in 2050, but leaves out cuts prior to 2030, which studies show would be necessary to meet the Paris targets and avert the most damaging consequences of climate change.

  • It also makes most actions on fossil fuels more of a menu of options than a clear set of steps.
  • COP President Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber in a statement Monday evening said that his presidency "has been clear from the beginning about our ambitions. This text reflects those ambitions and is a huge step forward."
  • The mood among advocates for more ambitious actions on climate change was alarmed, determined to try and amend the current draft.

Zoom in: With the EU and other countries expected to continue to push for a fossil fuel "phase out" or "phase down," the summit is still within reach of a result that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.  

  • At COP26 at Glasgow, for example, countries would only go so far as to include a "phase down of unabated coal power" — with no mention of "fossil fuels" overall — due to opposition from major energy-producing countries and large coal consumers.

A lot can change in a short period of time, however, as evidenced here in Dubai with the approval of a loss and damage fund on the first day of COP28.

  • That issue, which concerns directing funds to developing nations bearing the brunt of climate change impacts, had long been too contentious to even be discussed at length in a COP setting.
  • In the case of fossil fuel reductions, the increasing impacts of climate change have helped to alter the conversation, along with the growing cost competitiveness of renewables like solar and wind.
  • 2023 will be the hottest year on record globally, with unprecedented heat and extreme precipitation events affecting every corner of the globe.

Between the lines: The COP text itself, even if it is strengthened after Monday, won't be binding given the voluntary approach countries have taken under the Paris Agreement.

  • Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told Axios that what happens at COP, including the specific language in decision texts, "is important," though actions to date have fallen short of what is needed.
  • Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) added that there is a persistent disconnect between what happens at COPs and in the real world, where emissions keep increasing.
  • "We tend to devolve into COP-land in which we worry about what text is going to get into the document that has no direct effect on emissions, and who's going to make what pledge that they then don't follow through on," Whitehouse told Axios.

Still, strong fossil fuel reduction language would set high expectations for the next round of national emissions reduction commitments countries are due to submit to the UN. These would cover the 2025 to 2035 period.

  • Headed into COP28, the UN's own research showed the current commitments, known as Nationally Determined Contributions, fall well short of what is needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
  • Warming above that level, which many climate scientists believe is already virtually certain, could bring far more disastrous consequences, including the melting of polar ice sheets.

What they're saying: "One-point-five degrees is not a goal, it is an environmental safety limit," Susana Muhamad, Colombia's environment minister and a key player at this summit, told Axios.

  • For some here at COP, the urgency of action is a life-or-death matter, John M. Silk, minister of natural resources and commerce of the Marshall Islands, told delegates on Saturday.
  • "We will not go silently to our watery graves," he said, referencing the imperative of keeping warming at or below 1.5 degrees.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details throughout.

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