Final COP28 deal riddled with 'cavernous loopholes' for fossil fuel industry

December 14, 2023
people holding signs and banners
A climate justice protest at COP28 in Dubai on December 9. Photo: midianinja/Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

The COP28 climate summit in Dubai ended on December 13 with an agreement that, for the first time, explicitly endorsed a move away from fossil fuels — a weak but historic signal that the oil and gas era may be coming to an end.

But the deal, dubbed the UAE Consensus, is also chock full of escape hatches that will allow the fossil fuel industry to persist and thrive in ways that are incompatible with efforts to keep warming below critical targets set out by the Paris climate agreement.

The final text "calls on" nations to "contribute" to a number of global efforts, including tripling renewable energy capacity by 2030, accelerating the "phase-down" of "unabated coal power," and "transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly, and equitable manner ... so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science."

In the eyes of climate campaigners who pushed for an endorsement of an ambitious fossil fuel phaseout, the agreement falls well short of what's plainly necessary, as global greenhouse gas concentrations continue to shatter records and climate-driven extreme weather wreaks devastating havoc across the globe.

"At long last the loud calls to end fossil fuels have landed on paper in black and white at this COP, but cavernous loopholes threaten to undermine this breakthrough moment," said Jean Su, energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "While this agreement offers faint guidelines toward a clean energy transition, it falls far short of the transformational action we need."

The Alliance of Small Island States, a coalition of nations particularly vulnerable to the climate emergency, vocally criticised the deal. The alliance said that its members — who have called for a fossil fuel phaseout and an end to fossil fuel subsidies — were "not in the room" when the final text was adopted.

"We were working hard to coordinate the 39 small island developing states that are disproportionally affected by climate change, and so were delayed in coming here," said Anne Rasmussen, lead negotiator for the alliance. She called the agreement an "incremental advancement over business as usual when what we really needed is an exponential step-change in our actions and support".

"It is not enough for us to reference the science and then make agreements that ignore what the science is telling us we need to do. This is not an approach that we should be asked to defend." Rasmussen criticised the "litany of loopholes" in the deal's language on the transition away from fossil fuels and subsidies for the polluting industry.

"The paragraph on abatement can be perceived in a way that underwrites further [fossil fuel] expansion," she warned, citing the section of the text that urges countries to accelerate "zero- and low-emission technologies" such as carbon capture. Critics have called the unproven technology a "lifeline for the fossil fuel industry".

The deal also "recognises that transition fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security" — a thinly veiled endorsement of the liquefied natural gas expansion underway in the United Sates and elsewhere that is imperiling climate progress.

"This is not the historical deal that the world needed: It has many loopholes and shortcomings," said Kaisa Kosonen, senior political adviser at Greenpeace International. "But history will be made if all those nearly 130 countries, businesses, local leaders, and civil society voices, who came together to form an unprecedented force for change, now take this determination and make the fossil fuel phaseout happen. Most urgently that means stopping all those expansion plans that are pushing us over the 1.5°C limit right now."

That the final COP28 text bears the fingerprints of the fossil fuel industry is hardly surprising, given that the summit was hosted by a petrostate and a record number of oil and gas lobbyists were in attendance.

Nikki Reisch, director of the climate and energy program at the Center for International Environmental Law, said that "despite the unstoppable momentum and unequivocal science behind the need for a clear signal on the phaseout of oil, gas, and coal — free of loopholes or limitations — the text failed to deliver one."

"This failure was 30 years in the making, borne of a process that allows a select few countries to hold progress hostage and the fossil fuel industry not just to sit at the table, but to play host," said Reisch. "Survival cannot depend on lowest-common-denominator outcomes. We need alternative forums to manage the decline of fossil fuels, free from the influence of those who profit from them."

"So long as the biggest polluters, the United States chief among them, continue recklessly expanding oil and gas and staunchly refusing to provide climate finance on anything approaching the scale needed, the world will remain on a death course," Reisch added.

Others similarly criticised the inadequate climate finance pledges made at COP28, where the US — the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gas — committed just US$17.5 million to a global loss and damage fund.

"COP28 was doubly disappointing because it put no money on the table to help developing countries transition to renewable energies," said Nafkote Dabi, Oxfam International's climate policy lead. "And rich countries again reneged on their obligations to help people being hit by the worst impacts of climate breakdown, like those in the Horn of Africa who have recently lost everything from flooding after a historic five-season drought and years of hunger."

"Developing countries, and the poorest communities, are left facing more debt, worsening inequality, with less help, and more danger and hunger and deprivation," Dabi continued.

"COP28 was miles away from the historic and ambitious outcome that was promised."

[Abridged from Common Dreams.]

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