Dec 14, 2023 - Energy & Environment

COP28: The sentence that will "hang over every discussion" on fossil fuels

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The historic climate agreement reached at COP28 in Dubai will have ripple effects throughout the global economy, but they are unlikely to play out quickly, or be immediately obvious.

The big picture: The non-binding climate deal is part of the broader 2015 Paris Agreement. It exists in a zone of international law where its obligations are enforced via peer pressure, national laws and political and social movements.

The agreement, which the COP28 leadership referred to as the "UAE Consensus," will not force countries to immediately abandon their fossil fuel-based economies, or even halt oil and gas expansion.

Yes, but: It provides a significant opening for opponents in countries like the U.S. to push even harder against new fossil fuel projects.

  • It also sends a signal to the markets and lawmakers to work harder and faster to expand renewables like wind and solar power and meet the new global goal of tripling such energy capacity by 2030.

Details: It was clear early in the talks that this COP would largely be judged by one paragraph. Diplomats worked on that crucial text dealing with fossil fuels during multiple all-night sessions.

  • In the end, the crucial sentence wound up calling upon countries to transition "away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science."

What they're saying: Environmental activist and journalist Bill McKibben wrote Wednesday on his Substack, "The world's nations have now publicly agreed that they need to transition off fossil fuels, and that sentence will hang over every discussion from now on — especially the discussions about any further expansion of the fossil fuel energy."

The intrigue: Despite semantic loopholes in the text, including a reference to the value of "transitional fuels" (a clear reference to natural gas), the first test case for the agreement's power may be in debates over further facilities to export liquified natural gas (LNG).

Reality check: This agreement may be historic for containing the first-ever reference to moving away from fossil fuels in a final COP text. Yet it contains too few specifics to ensure the chance to limit global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.

  • That was the main goal of small island nations, which are sinking beneath the rising sea. Their fate is far more grim if warming climbs above that threshold, as now appears inevitable.

Between the lines: The text also contains another provision that has received less attention but is significant nevertheless.

  • It recognizes the need to scale up "zero and low emission technologies," including "abatement and removal" solutions like carbon capture (CCUS), and..."low-carbon hydrogen production."
  • The CCUS reference is concerning for countries seeking to limit its use to specific cases, rather than the industry preference for more widespread use, to keep coal and natural gas plants operating longer.
  • Specific language referencing "hard to abate sectors" was sought by Western officials to try to avoid an overreliance on CCUS, which is not yet proven to work at scale.
  • The carbon removal reference could spur more momentum for technology that is in its early days but is seeing clean tech investment flooding the sector.

The bottom line: The Dubai accord may appear to just be empty promises that are not binding. But if history is any guide, its influence over energy policy is likely to be far-reaching and unfold over time.

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