At the end of humanity’s hottest year, a crucial climate conference does ‘the bare minimum’

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said Wednesday that the era of fossil fuels “must end,” adding that science indicates it will be impossible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) without eliminating their use.

“Whether you like it or not, fossil fuel phase out is inevitable,” he wrote on X. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come too late.”

The COP28 climate summit was controversial from the start. The host country, the UAE, is an oil-rich nation, and the meeting’s president, Sultan al-Jaber, is chief executive of the UAE’s state oil company, ADNOC.

Early in the conference, Al-Jaber came under fire for claiming in an online event in late November that there was “no science” to support the need to phase out fossil fuels  to limit global warming, as first reported by The Guardian.

The event came as faith that oil companies are committed to reducing fossil fuel emissions has dwindled. While major oil and gas companies previously signaled they would transition to clean energy and do their part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they have walked back many of those claims over the past year. Critics have accused the industry of “greenwashing,” all while companies have increased exploration and hundreds of new oil and gas projects have been approved around the world.

Throughout the meeting, which ran into overtime talks, critics questioned how much could be accomplished on fossil fuels when it was being held in Dubai and led by Al-Jaber. Those fears came to the forefront when it became clear that the final agreement would not commit to a fossil fuel phaseout. 

While the phrases “transition away” and “phase out” sound similar, there are key distinctions between them. Phasing out means their use in energy systems will ultimately be eliminated, while “transition away” represents a compromise, implying their use will be cut but will still continue. 

Nate Hultman, a former State Department official and the founder and director of the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland, said it was an open question going into the conference as to whether world leaders would seriously debate the future of fossil fuels.

“There was a risk this could have been an exercise in avoiding an issue,” he said.

But Hultman said the final agreement — which calls for countries to “transition away” from fossil fuels in an equitable way, to triple the amount of renewable energy installed by 2030, and to shore up leaks of the potent greenhouse gas methane — makes clear that world leaders did reckon with a future without fossil fuels.

“The outcome indicates, this issue not only was substantially discussed, but highlighted in the text. There are good, strong elements,” said Hultman, who attended his 21st COP this year. “It will be important having this kind of signal sent about transitioning away from fossil fuels.”

Still, the agreement is nonbinding and its critics — in particular, leaders from poor, developing countries and island nations that are disproportionately affected by climate change — said it does not go far enough to eliminate fossil fuels and keep the world below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.

Many climate scientists and activists have expressed frustration that calls to “phase out” fossil fuels were significantly watered down.

“The agreement emerging from COP28 rightly emphasizes nature as a solution, but the failure to acknowledge the need to phase out the use of fossil fuels is dispiriting,” Mustafa Santiago Ali, executive vice president of conservation and justice at the nonprofit National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement Wednesday.

Earlier in the week, as drafts of the agreement emerged, emotions ran even higher. Gore wrote Monday on X that “COP28 is now on the verge of complete failure.”

In the end, nations agreed for the first time in nearly 30 years of these U.N. summits that a shift away from fossil fuels was needed to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by or around 2050 and to avert the worst consequences of climate change.

Merely mentioning what has been the elephant in the room at previous COP meetings was hailed as a major milestone.

“The very fact that the phasing out of fossil fuels has become center stage in an international arena would have been hard to imagine five years ago and is a significant advance,” said Michael Lazarus, a senior scientist and director of the Stockholm Environment Institute U.S., which is based in Seattle. “It means there is a shelf life, a due date, on fossil fuels now. We’re at a point where we can envision transitioning away from fossil fuels.” 

Lazarus said the consensus nature of the international process — every country participating in deliberations effectively has veto power — makes global progress a grind. 

“People talk about how it’s just words and not action, but the discourse that comes out of these international meetings have a remarkable resonance and ability to change the conversation,” Lazarus said. “Unless we have a sense of global action to phase out fossil fuels, to reduce emissions across the board, countries will not have the same incentives to act in the ways they need to.”

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