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COP28 strikes ‘historic’ deal to transition away from fossil fuels: What are the key takeaways?

From left, UN Climate Chief Simon Stiell, COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber and Hana Al-Hashimi, chief COP28 negotiator for the United Arab Emirates, pose for photos at the end.
From left, UN Climate Chief Simon Stiell, COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber and Hana Al-Hashimi, chief COP28 negotiator for the United Arab Emirates, pose for photos at the end. Copyright AP Photo/Peter Dejong
Copyright AP Photo/Peter Dejong
By Lottie Limb
Published on Updated
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Potholes, loopholes and the end of the road for COP28: Campaigners and experts react to the UN climate summit in Dubai agreement.

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A deal which signals the “beginning of the end” for fossil fuels has been agreed at COP28.

Remarkably, it is the first time that a UN climate summit has concluded with a call to address the main cause of the climate crisis.

The COP28 Presidency in Dubai is calling it “historic” for that reason. In a sense, it can’t help but be, given the critical juncture at which the world finds itself with 1.2C of global heating and rising climate disasters.

But COP and climate experts are very much divided about what direction the agreement takes us in - and how fast. Here we unpack some of the most informed reactions to the key issues.

1. What does the COP28 deal say about fossil fuels?

It looked like it might not get there at one point, but COP28 reached the destination that COPs are meant to: a set of legal decisions, agreed by all parties under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

With one crucial text - the loss and damage fund - agreed right at the start of the summit, the event has been dominated by discussions around fossil fuels.

In particular, there’s been a laser focus on how the global stocktake text will describe the future of fossil fuels. This first global stocktake is a response to the Paris Agreement - the truly historic deal struck in 2015 to limit global heating to 1.5C - and sets out how countries will reach that goal which they are currently falling far short of.

The text agreed today in Dubai: “recognizes the need for deep, rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in line with 1.5 °C pathways and calls on Parties to contribute to the following global efforts, in a nationally determined manner, taking into account the Paris Agreement and their different national circumstances, pathways and approaches…”

Regarding fossil fuels, it calls on 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”.

COP experts are picking over every word of this. From the weak language of “calls on” to “transitioning away” - a far cry from the initial phase out option campaigners wanted - and the recommended time frame.

Ministers speak during the final plenary session at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 13 December.
Ministers speak during the final plenary session at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 13 December.AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili

2. What does the COP28 deal mean for fossil fuels?

It does send a strong signal to industries and investors that time is running out for oil and gas - as well as coal, which was targeted for a “phase down” at COP26 in Glasgow.

Big oil producers, like Saudi Arabia, battled to get rid of the phase out options that appeared in earlier drafts of the text. While emerging economies resisted a phase out that might have been asked of them without adequate financial support to transition away from fossil fuels.

Headlines around the world today will read that we are moving away from fossil fuels. “We are finally naming the elephant in the room. The genie is never going back into the bottle. Future COPs will only turn the screw even more on dirty energy,” says Mohamed Adow, Director of Power Shift Africa.

“Financial institutions and investors should be under no illusion,” says Mark Campanale, Founder and Director of Carbon Tracker.

The hundreds of billions invested in fossil fuel expansion is looking considerably more risky.

“The hundreds of billions invested in fossil fuel expansion is looking considerably more risky. Stranded fossil assets are now more, not less likely, following this COP and the momentum it will generate.”

However, campaigners point to “loopholes” left in for the industry - such as unproven carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology which are mentioned in the text - and “potholes” on the road ahead.

3. How about renewables?

In the same section, the global stocktake text calls for “Tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030.”

That’s a big win according to energy experts. “For the first time, the world has recognised the scale of ambition required this decade to build the new clean energy system,” says Dave Jones from clean energy think tank Ember.

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Renewables and efficiency must now be at the top of every energy and climate plan.

“Renewables and efficiency must now be at the top of every energy and climate plan. Together they are the single largest actions that can deliver rapid fossil fuel cuts this decade.”

Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) Francesco La Camera calls the outcome “monumental” and “most realistic course-correction to urgently accelerate the global energy transition”.

4. What has COP28 done for climate finance?

Underlying climate action is the need to properly fund it - with finance to help developing countries transition; to help vulnerable countries adapt to climate change; and to help them recover when it strikes in lethal ways.

Adaptation finance has one of the most glaring gaps between what is needed and delivered. Established under the Paris Agreement, the global goal on adaptation (GGA) is meant to help change that. COP28 has now agreed on the text to put that into action, but the language has also been watered down.

Where a draft text “requests developed country parties" to provide developing countries with finance, the final version reads that “continuous and enhanced international support" for developing countries is "urgently required".

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But some experts are finding the positives here, too. 

“While parties did not achieve as strong a Global Goal on Adaptation framework as vulnerable countries wanted, there is now a pathway forward to improve adaptation actions, marking the beginning of a formal coordinated global effort for adaptation and resilience,” says E3G Researcher Ana Mulio Alvarez.

“Parties must engage in this pathway with the highest ambition and solidarity.”

Summing up the breakthroughs from COP28 today, summit president Al Jaber included the mobilisation of more than $85 billion (€78.8 billion) in new financial commitments across all climate areas.

But, as he also acknowledged to countries at the closing plenary, "an agreement is only as good as its implementation".

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5. What does COP28 mean for future COPs?

Having just lived through the hottest year on record, people across the world are increasingly looking for real action - and many are sceptical about the UN summit’s ability to deliver that.

As we’ve covered before, the UNFCCC’s multilateral process - meaning everyone must agree - is both its biggest strength and weakness.

This result would have been unheard of two years ago.
Mohamed Adow
Director of Power Shift Africa

“Some people may have had their expectations for this meeting raised too high, but this result would have been unheard of two years ago, especially at a COP meeting in a petrostate,” adds Adow. “It shows that even oil and gas producers can see we’re heading for a fossil free world.”

While a lot of high profile commentators are welcoming the strides made at COP28, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) has branded it a “fossil-fuelled failure”. “We need alternative forums to manage the decline of fossil fuels, free from the influence of those who profit from them,” says Nikki Reisch, CIEL’s Director of Climate & Energy Program.

Other campaigners have suggested replacing consensus decision-making with voting. That’s a discussion for another day, perhaps. For now, we’ll leave you with an important reminder from Greta Thunberg - pinned to the top of her Twitter/X feed for two years:

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“The people in power don’t need conferences, treaties or agreements to start taking real climate action. They can start today. When enough people come together then change will come and we can achieve almost anything. So instead of looking for hope - start creating it.”

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