Two weeks of talks aimed at securing an international consensus on a phase-out of fossil fuels have ended with a statement that critics say does little to advance the urgent work of averting a climate catastrophe. By Royce Kurmelovs.

How COP28 fell short

A protester on stage with a sign in their hand.
An activist protests at COP28 in Dubai this week.
Credit: AFPTV / AFP

The hurdles to a global agreement on ending the use of fossil fuels may be summed up by a letter the head of OPEC wrote “with a sense of utmost urgency” to the organisation’s member states partway through this month’s critical COP28 negotiations.

“It seems that the undue and disproportionate pressure against fossil fuels may reach a tipping point with irreversible consequences, as the draft decision still contains options on fossil fuels phase out,” the leaked letter reads. “It would be unacceptable that politically motivated campaigns put our people’s prosperity and future at risk.”

The prosperity and future of global communities – particularly of the island nations most threatened by rising sea levels – still hangs in the balance as the climate summit in Dubai wraps up. This meeting has been widely considered to be critical. It’s the first to focus on fossil fuels in the global effort to avoid breaching the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold cited in the Paris Agreement as necessary to contain the existential threat of climate change.

The final text of the Global Stocktake, unanimously agreed upon by almost 200 countries, did not include an explicit requirement for a managed “phase-out” of fossil fuels, as many scientists, activists and nations on the frontlines of climate change had demanded.

Instead, the text adopted late Wednesday morning local time in Dubai “calls on” governments 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”.

The statement is a result of tense talks among negotiators on Monday and Tuesday to salvage the 13-day international climate summit after a deadlock over the future of oil, gas and coal. The final agreement includes several avenues for countries to pursue lower emissions and an additional clause that “recognises that transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security” – a common fossil fuel industry talking point.

The result, says Australian climate scientist Bill Hare, represents the “first nail in the coffin for the fossil fuel industry” but still contains “unhelpful language” with loopholes for companies and countries looking to expand production.

“These small wins for the industry are bitter and hollow, and ultimately won’t stop the slide away from fossil fuels,” Hare says.

In his address following the release of the agreement, Australian Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen acknowledged the agreed text was imperfect but said it sent a clear signal the transition was under way.

“The outcome does not go as far as many of us have asked for, starting with some of the most vulnerable countries,” Bowen said. “But the message it sends is clear – that all nations of the world have acknowledged the reality that our future is in clean energy, and the age of fossil fuels will end.”

The statement represents incremental progress in that it is the first to explicitly reference fossil fuels.

Even this achievement was always going to be a battle at a conference hosted in a shimmering city built with petrodollars and presided over by the head of the Abu Dhabi national oil company.

The summit began on a high, with early announcements to reboot a loss and damage fund and to triple global renewable generation by 2030. Australia did not contribute to the fund, instead pledging $150 million in climate finance specifically for Pacific countries.

These announcements were among a raft of measures by countries aimed at choking off demand for fossil fuels and a promise by 50 oil and gas producers – representing a third of worldwide production – to stop routine flaring of excess gas and plug methane leaks by 2030.

During a weekend appearance at a Majlis – a form of traditional elders’ council meeting in the United Arab Emirates, in which leaders are encouraged to speak freely – Bowen acknowledged the need to plan for the end of fossil fuel production in frank comments that signalled a significant shift from previous Australian governments.

“We also must face this fact head on: if we are to keep 1.5C alive, fossil fuels have no ongoing role to play in our energy systems – and I speak as the climate and energy minister of one of the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters,” he said.

However, as figures such as United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called on COP28 to “end the fossil fuel age”, an early sticking point arose on whether governments would call for a phase-out of “unabated” fossil fuels, to secure support from major oil producing nations such as Saudi Arabia and Russia.

“Abatement” has become a shorthand for the role of offsets, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and direct air capture (DAC) in energy systems to “clean up” industrial processes by removing carbon dioxide and storing it before the pollution is released into the atmosphere. Since there is no clear definition of the word “unabated’, critics said it would create “an oil tanker-sized loophole” for continued fossil fuel extraction by major exporters such as Australia.

Many were surprised when an early proposed text offered even less. Former United States presidential candidate Al Gore attacked this early version on social media, saying “this obsequious draft reads as if OPEC dictated it word for word” and calling it “deeply offensive to all who have taken this process seriously”.

Gore’s comments highlighted a growing sense of unease about industry influence at COP28.

In presenting what he dubbed “the UAE consensus”, COP28 president Sultan al-Jaber said it represented a “historic” moment and a “paradigm shift” on climate action. “An agreement is only as good as implementation. We are what we do, not what we say,” al-Jaber said.

His word was already in doubt. Early investigative reporting by the BBC and the Centre for Climate Reporting revealed the COP28 president planned to use his unique access to negotiate oil deals on behalf of his oil company. Al-Jaber denied the allegations, and accused reporters of undermining his presidency. However, the company does have plans to continue expanding its production.

Questions over the role and influence of fossil fuel producers at COP28 also extended beyond the presidency.

A count by the Kick Big Polluters Out coalition found more than 2400 representatives from fossil fuel producers attended COP28, four times more than last year in Egypt. This meant fossil fuel company personnel outnumbered vulnerable Pacific Island nation delegates 12 to one.

A separate analysis by transparency watchdog Corporate Accountability found at least 166 climate deniers in attendance.

ExxonMobil chief executive Darren Woods was among several fossil fuel executives to attend COP for the first time in their own right, and a representative from BP was also counted among Australia’s party overflow delegation.

Fossil fuel companies and their lobbyists have always had a shadowy presence at international climate conferences. Representatives of the world’s biggest petroleum producers have secured passes on government delegations or through International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association (IPIECA), an official branch of the UN that grants them observer status.

But this year’s climate conference marked the first time the global oil industry also had a physical presence at the summit, with OPEC given its own booth in a building dedicated to “Urbanisation & Indigenous Peoples”. OPEC’s investment fund also had its own pavilion.

This presence was matched by OPEC’s apparent lobbying effort. In the letter that was leaked this week, Secretary General Haitham al-Gais also urged “all esteemed OPEC Member Countries and Non-OPEC Countries participating … in the COP 28 negotiations to proactively reject any text or formula that targets energy i.e. fossil fuels rather than emissions.”

With the hottest November on record coming on the heels of the hottest October, September, August, July and June, the stakes are clearly higher than ever.

Speaking during a panel in the Australian Pavilion hosted by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, former COP26 president and British conservative MP Alok Sharma framed the question of a fossil fuel phase-out in existential terms. “I think we have to accept that, given that 75 per cent of all emissions globally are engine related, if you want to cut emissions by over 40 per cent, by 2030, to keep on track for [the 1.5 degrees target], you’re going to have to address the issue of fossil fuel usage, and production.”

Sharma, who gave a tearful address in 2021 as he was forced to water down language on a coal phase-out, warned COP28 was the last chance to head off the catastrophic effects of climate change, saying governments had to address the issue in language that was “unequivocal”.

There is no shortage of critics arguing that this conference has not achieved enough.

In a statement to the closing plenary, Anne Rasmussen from Samoa and lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States – who was not in the room when the gavel fell and the text was officially adopted – said the agreement failed to deliver the action Pacific countries had been demanding.

“We have come to the conclusion that the course correction that is needed has not been secured,” Rasmussen said. “We have made incremental advancements over business as usual, when what we really needed is an exponential step change in our actions.”

An International Energy Agency analysis released during the summit found current emissions reductions pledges announced at COP28 would only get the world a third of the way to meeting its 2030 targets.

Rachel Cleetus, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the final text represents a “starting point” and that it will be a “grave mistake” for fossil fuel companies and producer nations to interpret language about transition fuels as justifying an expansion of fossil gas. “It is true that the language of obfuscation and delay has infected the discourse here at COP,” she says. “Fossil fuel companies have been working to obstruct progress all over the world and it is no different here.

“Anyone who would seek to misuse [these provisions to expand production] is contradicting the spirit of the text – though this is not to say they won’t try.”

Speaking to reporters after the adoption of the agreement, Bowen acknowledged that though the text did not capture everything he wanted, the outcome was a “big step forward”. Asked whether he had any message for Australian fossil fuel producers, he had one suggestion: “Read the text.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2023 as "COP dust-up".

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