The outcomes of the now concluded global climate conference in Dubai, the annual Conference of the Parties (or ‘COP 28’) have received considerable praise as well as some bitter criticism. Judging by the progress made on two critical fronts – ending fossil fuels and taking a just and equitable approach in climate action – the COP 28 outcome is lukewarm at best and the commitments made there are far from enough to head off catastrophic climate change.
If governments of the world’s nations are to deliver on their human rights obligations, they need to take urgent and bold action to phase out fossil fuel production, and this needs to be accompanied by financial and technical support to developing countries, whose populations contributed least to the problem but face the most severe impacts.
Ending fossil fuels
The COP negotiations over nearly three decades have focused on national-level actions to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions which are driving global warming and, in particular, on promoting a global transition to clean energy sources. There has been no mention of fossil fuels (by far the main drivers of global warming) nor of the urgent need to reduce their production and use globally. So, it is indeed significant that COP 28's 'First Global Stocktake Decision', agreed to by nearly 200 countries this week, finally mentions fossil fuels and contains a call on Parties to the Paris Agreement to consider action in this sphere. In paragraph 28, the Conference:
… 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:
28 (b) Accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power;
(d) Transitioning 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.
Para. 28(d) is probably the strongest statement on the subject of fossil fuels and is a very welcome and long overdue development, given the urgency of the climate crisis. Recognising the need for the transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems ‘in a just, orderly and equitable manner’ is particularly important for coal and gas dependent communities. But there are also major ‘get out of jail’ problems with these paragraphs, including:
the Parties are only being called upon to ‘accelerate efforts’: this is not a commitment to take any action and sets no actual goals or implementation pathways;
the term ‘phase-down’ has been adopted, instead of ‘phase-out’;
the use of the qualifying word ‘unabated’ was vigorously pushed for by the fossil fuel lobby and fossil fuel producing countries, as it leaves room for them to continue producing fossil fuels while they explore abatement technologies (eg carbon capture and storage, which does not currently exist an any scale and may never) and utilise carbon offsets which are, for the most part, of dubious benefit to emissions reduction;
In paragraph 29, the COP recognises that 'transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security’. In a testament to the power of the gas lobby, this paragraph falsely represents gas as a climate-safe ‘transition fuel’.
But a huge change is that Australia played a positive role in pushing for higher ambition in the negotiations. Climate Minister Chris Bowen made some significant statements in a speech he gave at COP on 11 December, saying:
"The science tells us that, to keep 1.5 alive, we must peak emissions by 2025, reduce emissions by 43% by 2030 and 60% by 2035… If we are going to keep 1.5 alive, fossil fuels have no ongoing role in our energy systems. We need to make clear that we want to reduce fossil fuel use, and 'abatement' is simply… the goal keeper, it is not a reason for inaction… it is not a solution."
These statements are very welcome and the minister is to be commended for steps taken by Australia at COP 28, including a commitment to tripling renewables by 2030. That said, being the world’s third-largest fossil fuel exporter (including the very polluting thermal coal), Australia is a major driver of global warming. We export nearly three times the fossil fuels that COP host the UAE does – and we have dozens of new coal, oil and gas projects in the approvals pipeline. Australia needs to take much greater responsibility and leadership in international cooperation to phase out fossil fuel production.
But COP statements are consensus documents and there is a limit to what any individual country can do to influence their content. As Climate Analytics’ CEO Dr Bill Hare said, ‘the move away from fossil fuels is explicitly stated in a COP outcome – a first nail in the coffin for the fossil fuel industry. Yet oil and gas producers squeezed in unhelpful language, pretending gas can be a transition fuel, or that carbon capture can clean up after them’.
While the statement is a ‘mixed bag’, it ‘delivers well on the roadmap for governments having to ratchet up their climate targets to 2025, with strong references to science and noting that feasible, effective and low-cost mitigation options are already available in all sectors to keep 1.5 within reach'.
A just and equitable approach in climate action
An important ‘justice and equity’ breakthrough early in the COP was the agreement to establish a Loss and Damage Fund, with initial pledges being made by countries. Loss and damage (‘L&D’) refers to the negative consequences that arise from the unavoidable risks of climate change, like rising sea levels, prolonged heatwaves, desertification, the acidification of the sea and extreme events, such as bushfires, species extinction and crop failures. L&D was one of the major issues to be addressed at this COP. The countries facing the most damaging impacts of climate change are the developing countries, which have contributed least to the climate problem.
The Loss and Damage Collaboration (a global North/South collaboration to ensure that vulnerable developing countries, and the vulnerable people and communities within them, have the support they need to address climate change related loss and damage) commented that, while the L&D Fund is a critical step towards climate justice and will play a vital role in supporting developing countries and communities on the front line of climate impacts, the pledges made are, at best, an initial down payment, making up only 0.2% of the loss and damage needs of developing countries.
Ultimately, as the collaboration also pointed out, loss and damage is about human rights:
All countries have long-standing human rights obligations and have reaffirmed to respect, promote and consider these in the context of climate action in the Paris Agreement, and the IPCC has confirmed that human rights-based climate action is more effective. It is highly problematic that the governing instrument of the Loss and Damage Fund does not explicitly recognize the need for its operations to be in line with human rights obligations, and that it does not have Indigenous Peoples and frontline groups on its Board... It is now up to the [Fund] Board and all Parties to develop clear policies and safeguards to ensure that the Fund’s activities do not cause environmental or human rights harm, are inclusive and participatory, enhance substantive equality, and directly reach communities, meeting the needs and priorities of those most marginalized.
Gillian Moon is the project lead of the Australian Climate Accountability Project.
PHOTO: His Excellency Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, COP28 President (L5), and participants applaud at the UNFCCC Formal Opening of COP28 during the UN Climate Change Conference COP28 at Expo City Dubai on November 30, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by COP28 / Christopher Pike)