In September, during the northern hemisphere’s hottest summer on record, the United Nations secretary-general António Guterres told the world that “climate breakdown has begun”. Through June to August, heat records were broken across the world – from China to the US and Europe, North Africa to the Middle East.
Three months later, nearly 200 countries with the power to accelerate the action needed to slow and reverse this trend are gathered in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. It is no surprise that the context of this year’s Cop28 climate summit has thrown up controversies: UAE is among the world’s ten largest producers of oil – one of the fossil fuels at the root cause of the climate emergency – and the Cop28 president Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber is CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc).
These seeming contradictions cannot be ignored, but there was a positive early start to negotiations with the establishment of a Loss and Damage Fund. Finance immediately started to flow in. A raft of additional announcements followed, including more than 130 countries signing a declaration to include emissions from agriculture and farming in their national plans to tackle climate change. Some 50 oil and gas companies also pledged to reach near zero-methane emissions by 2030, and submit a plan to meet those targets by 2025. A $30bn fund for global climate solutions that aims to attract $250bn of investment by the end of the decade was announced, too.
The UAE’s desire to crank up ambition and create momentum is palpable. On the critical theme of fossil fuel phase-out, Al-Jaber has said that phase down (which is of course the route to phase out) “is inevitable”.
We’re at the 28th Cop, and yet this is the first time the phase-out of fossil fuels is squarely on the negotiating table. More than 100 countries have already said they want to see this happen. Although neither attended the leaders’ summit, China’s Xi Jinping talked for the first time about targets for emissions reduction from electricity generation during a meeting with the US president Joe Biden in November.
[See also: Sadiq Khan: Time for a new approach on climate]
Absent, so far, from this clarion call, however, is the UK. Once such a far-sighted leader on climate change, a series of recent wrong turns – including the granting of licences for North Sea oil and gas extraction, permitting a new coal mine in Cumbria, paring back net zero targets for electric vehicles and domestic heating, and scrapping tighter rules on energy efficiency of rented homes – have all reduced the UK’s credibility on climate action.
The UK government’s insistence that it still leads the climate pack is based on gains made decades ago, when the country shifted from coal to gas in the 1990s. That stood us in good stead for a long time, but new analysis indicates that the UK is now significantly off track to meet its 2030 targets to cut emissions by 68 per cent, based on 1990 levels. It is evident that the next shift is needed, and that is from fossil fuels to clean energy.
More than 200 businesses, with annual revenue of more than £1.2trn, have signed a letter calling on Cop28 leaders to start the work on the phasing down and out of unabated fossil fuels by the 2040s, alongside the tripling of renewables and doubling of energy efficiency by 2030. Of those signatory companies, more than 85 are UK-based, including household names like BT, Vodafone, WHSmith, Currys, AstraZeneca, Unilever and Virgin.
Progressive businesses know they need to do everything in their power to limit global warming to 1.5°C and avoid dangerous climatic tipping points, on the understanding that every fraction of a degree of global heating matters. Without a stable climate and environment in which to operate, business and economies will struggle to function. And we cannot achieve the net zero plans that can keep 1.5°C and stability in view without a managed phase-out of fossil fuels.
This letter, from both multinationals and small businesses, is a very strong signal to the UK government that companies stand ready to back the policies needed to get the economy on track to meet net zero goals, and help prepare the UK for the changes, challenges and opportunities ahead. It is increasingly evident, and evidence-based, which path the UK now needs to take. Businesses, health professionals, cities, communities and families are crying out for the better opportunities and future that is within our grasp. It is the moment for the UK to choose: the past, or our future.