Would you invite a group of arms dealers to a peace conference, put the tobacco industry in charge of ending smoking, or let a swarm of mosquitoes into the room you are trying to cure malaria in? These were just a handful of metaphors used by campaigners at Cop28 to express their dismay at the more than 2,400 oil lobbyists attending the conference, which was hosted in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the world’s seventh-largest producer of oil.
But Dubai, unlike its neighbouring emirate, Abu Dhabi, never had much oil. And what little oil wealth it did have was directed towards an enterprising economic agenda, which has seen the country’s property, tech and international trade capabilities soar above other Gulf states.
Nonetheless, much of the conference was clouded by the sense that talks were unable to escape the shadow of Emirati hydrocarbons. Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, Cop28 president and head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, was embroiled in controversy early in the proceedings when he said there was “no science” behind calls for a fossil fuel phase-down. Days later, leaked documents revealed that the Opec cartel (of which UAE is a member) had warned member countries with the “utmost urgency” to “proactively reject” any final Cop agreement that “targets energy, ie fossil fuels, rather than emissions”.
But the UAE presidency managed to channel something of Dubai’s radical economic spirit by getting countries to agree to something that climate science has long told us will have the greatest impact on climate change: “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems” (as the final decision text says). This is is the first time “fossil fuels” have been mentioned in a Cop cover text.
Few other countries would likely have been able to secure such a conclusion, but the UAE had the moral authority – as a petrostate, and newly developed country – as well as the close ties with countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia to reach the full-party consensus required to adopt a decision at Cop.
The outcome, according to Wopke Hoekstra, the European commissioner for climate action, is a “truly consequential” text that signals “the beginning of the end of fossil fuels”.
“It is a clear call for governments, business and investors to commit to a cleaner future,” added Anusha Mata, senior policy adviser at the climate think tank E3G. “All eyes are now on parties to turn this into faster, real-world action.”
[See also: Net zero’s dirty secret]
The path to the final outcome on Wednesday (13 December) was far from smooth. Tensions were high on Monday night after a draft text was released that watered down the language on a “fossil fuel phase-out” that had appeared in previous drafts. Environmentalists decried this text as “incoherent and dangerous”, noting that it appeared to be a bid to appease a small number of fossil fuel-producing countries.
Arriving at Expo City Dubai on Tuesday morning, delegates were met with an eerie quiet. Suspense mounted over how Al-Jaber would respond to the previous night’s controversy. Side events and pavilions had all shut; the only thing to do was wait for a new announcement from the presidency. Then, a press conference revealed that it had all been a negotiating tactic. “We expected it,” Ambassador Majid al-Suwaidi, Al-Jaber’s right-hand man, told gathered reporters. “In fact, we wanted the text to spark conversations. And that’s what happened… We knew opinions were polarised, but what we didn’t know was where each country’s red lines were. By releasing our first draft of the text, we got parties to come to us quickly with those red lines.”
Rather than building incremental improvements via steady negotiations with parties, which is normally what occurs at Cop, the oil executive appeared to be employing tactics more familiar to a boardroom than a diplomatic negotiating table. More than 30 hours after Monday evening’s draft, an updated one – and which was ultimately adopted – was released on Wednesday morning at 4am.
As well as the landmark language on fossil fuels, the text includes calls to triple renewable energy capacity globally and double the rate of energy efficiency. This target was labelled “by far the most important potential outcome from the meeting” by Lauri Myllyvirta from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, due to its ability to “open up space to massively increase financing for renewables in developing countries”.
Other language has been criticised by green groups, such as on rolling out nuclear, carbon capture and storage technology, and a recognition that “transitional fuels” – meaning natural gas – “can play a role in facilitating the energy transition”. Such language is a “dangerous distraction”, said Fernanda Carvalho, global climate and energy policy lead at WWF. “For a liveable planet we need a full phase out of all fossil fuels and the transition to a renewable energy future,” she added.
Parties agreed to the text almost immediately, tired as they were from 24 hours of negotiations. But there remain significant divisions. While EU, US and UK diplomats roundly celebrated the final outcome, many developing nations expressed deep disappointment. Madeleine Diouf, Senegal’s climate minister and chair of the Least Developed Countries Group at Cop28, highlighted the failure to properly address the “vast gap between developing country needs and the finance available”.
Meanwhile, there were tears from small-island representatives, after Anne Rasmussen, the representative from Samoa who was speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, was not in the room when Al-Jaber adopted the decision text. “We didn’t want to interrupt the standing ovation, but we are confused,” she said. “It seems you just gavelled the decision and the small-island states were not in the room.” She added: “It is not enough to reference the science and then ignore what the science is telling us we should do.”
Disappointment was also visible on the faces of youth climate activists pictured huddling in tears at the conclusion of the talks. The past 48 hours had seen young activists hold anti-fossil fuel protests around the negotiating rooms. Some described the final outcome of Cop28 as a betrayal. “It’s as if we are signing our own death certificates,” the activist Mitzi Jonelle Tan posted on X/Twitter.
But the conclusion of Cop28 remains historic: it will no longer be possible to ignore the role of fossil fuels in climate discussions.
For Rishi Sunak, who was otherwise distracted by his Rwanda bill back home, the new international consensus on transitioning away from fossil fuels poses an awkward problem. His government has pledged to “max out” the country’s oil and gas. As Ed Miliband told New Statesman Spotlight in last week’s Cop28 dispatch, the inclusion of strong fossil fuel language makes “a mockery of the current government’s position”, which is to “extract every last drop” of UK oil and gas.
Now Sunak, and the 197 other leaders of parties at Cop28, will receive copies of the text, and decide how their national policy should respond. As the UN climate change executive secretary Simon Stiell noted in his closing speech, it is now on governments, and business, “to turn these pledges into real-economy outcomes, without delay”.
This article first appeared on the Green Transition newsletter. Subscribe for free weekly analysis on the shift to net zero.
[See also: Why the UK needs a major energy grid upgrade now]