Dec 13, 2023 - Energy & Environment

COP28 ends with legacy potential after breakthrough fossil fuel pact

Photo illustration of a meeting table over a photo of the Dubai skyline, with circles and lines around them

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The historic outcome of COP28 means the United Nations climate process passed a big test — yet now faces an even larger one.

Driving the news: The Dubai summit ended with a pact that calls on nations to transition away from fossil fuels toward net-zero emissions in 2050.

Why it matters: It's the first time the UN climate talks, which span three decades, have explicitly pressed for such a transition.

  • There's usually high drama at these summits, but this year's petro-state location — and COP28 head Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber's oil industry job — amplified the intrigue.

Yes, but: The non-binding deal lacks what many countries and activists wanted — an even stronger agreement to "phase out" these fuels — and comes with what they say are loopholes aplenty.

  • Large oil producers and consumers including Saudi Arabia balked, and many African nations with oil and gas resources objected.

What happens next will test whether the largely voluntary Paris Agreement architecture can bring aggressive action.

  • In particular, this year's text is meant to lay the groundwork for the next round of emissions-cutting pledges that cover 2025-2035.
  • More broadly, the "phase out" fight spurred fresh debate about whether COP texts exert much influence over on-the-ground policy and investment decisions.
  • Certainly skeptics abound within climate circles.

Yes, but: Many countries already hit hard by climate change, with greater harms looming, say it fell short.

  • The Alliance of Small Island States — whose members face existential climate threats — called it "incremental and not transformational."
  • They and others point to data showing that holding warming to 1.5°C, or even a more dangerous 2°C, above pre-industrial levels demands steep emissions cuts that are nowhere in evidence.

Another important test of these summits is how much capital they help mobilize for energy transition.

  • This year produced fresh plans, including a new $30 billion fund led by host country United Arab Emirates. But more capital is needed, especially in emerging markets.
  • "Finance is where the whole energy transition plan will stand or fall. This process might deliver an agreement to move away from fossil fuels, but it's failing to deliver a plan to fund it," Mohamed Adow, who heads the group Power Shift Africa, said on X.

Catch up fast: The deal also calls for a tripling of renewable energy generating capacity by 2030 and doubling the annual rate of efficiency improvements by then.

The bottom line: At the closing plenary, al-Jaber called the outcome "historic" but later warned "an agreement is only as good as its implementation."

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