The United Nations COP28 climate summit in Dubai ended Wednesday without a deal that explicitly calls for phasing out the fossil fuels that scientists say are rapidly destabilizing the planet’s life-support systems.
Desperate pleas from negotiators representing island nations whose homes may disappear under rising seas were not enough to overcome oil and gas producers’ influence at the 28th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
In the end, more than 200 countries settled on compromise language that world leaders described as both “historic” and “incremental” — and ultimately, not nearly enough to confront the threat the world faces.
The agreement, called the global stocktake, calls not for ”phasing out” fossil fuels, as dozens of nations had lobbied for, but rather “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.”
It also calls on parties to triple global renewable energy capacity by 2030, rein in the use of coal and accelerate nuclear and carbon capture and storage technologies.
It was the first of the annual confab, ongoing for the past three decades, to be held in the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s largest producers of oil. The event was plagued by accusations of fossil fuel industry influence. It opened with a scandal as documents published by the Centre for Climate Reporting and the BBC showed that Sultan Al Jaber, the UAE official in charge of COP28 and the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, was looking to make deals to sell more oil at a summit ostensibly geared toward reducing how much oil is used in the future.
“The decision at #COP28 to finally recognize that the climate crisis is, at its heart, a fossil fuel crisis is an important milestone,” former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said in a statement. “But it is also the bare minimum we need and is long overdue. The influence of petrostates is still evident in the half measures and loopholes included in the final agreement.”
John Kerry, the U.S. special climate envoy, said at a press conference Wednesday that the agreement “sends very strong messages to the world.”
On the first day, the conference delivered a deal nearly 30 years in the making, a fund financed by rich nations to compensate for “loss and damage” in poorer countries. But the combined contributions to the fund came out to less than $800 million, with the U.S. — the world’s largest cumulative source of emissions — pledging less than $18 million.
For context, the World Bank estimated that Pakistan alone needed upward of $16.3 billion — with a B — to rebuild after last year’s devastating floods. The cyclone that struck the eastern Mediterranean in September killed thousands and caused more than $19 billion in damage just in Libya. Among the countries hit was Greece, one of the European Union’s poorest members, which was already suffering more than one quarter of the more than $4 billion in damages wildfires caused across the continent this summer.
A UAE eager to show off its first nuclear power plant — a station big enough to provide a quarter of the electricity needs in one of the world’s top five energy users per capita — served as the venue for the clearest signs yet that the world is headed toward a renaissance of reactor construction. With uranium prices ticking upward, the U.S. co-led a pledge with the United Kingdom and the UAE to triple nuclear energy production by 2050. Among the signatories were newcomers to atomic energy, including Poland, Ghana and Morocco.
Notably absent from the pledge, however, was Saudi Arabia. While the world’s No. 2 oil producer after the United States is negotiating to build its debut nuclear plant, Riyadh fought back hard against any fossil phase-out language.
But the central fight, which drew the summit into overtime, was over the future of fossil fuels in a rapidly warming world. World leaders and climate advocates had mixed views on whether the final agreement rises to the moment.
Al Jaber called it “an enhanced, balanced, but make no mistake, a historic package to accelerate climate action.”
Simon Stiell, the United Nations climate chief, called the agreement an “ambitious floor, not a ceiling,” and called for nations to aggressively ramp up climate action in the coming years.
“COP28 needed to signal a hard stop to humanity’s core climate problem: fossil fuels and their planet burning pollution,” he said. “Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end.”
When the deal was finally adopted on Wednesday, the Alliance of Small Island States — a group of 38 vulnerable island nations — had not yet joined other delegates in the room. In an impassioned speech after the agreement was finalized, Anne Rasmussen, the lead negotiator for the Pacific island nation of Samoa, said that while the deal “has many strong elements,” the alliance had “come to the conclusion that the course correction we have needed has not been secured.”
“We have made an incremental advancement over business as usual when what we needed is an exponential step change in our actions,” she said. “It is not enough for us to reference the science and then make agreements that ignore what the science is telling us we need to do. This is not an approach that we should be asked to defend.”
In posts to X, Mohamed Adow, the director of climate think tank Power Shift Africa, emphasized that for the first time in three decades, the agreement names and acknowledges “the elephant in the room.”
“The genie is never going back into the bottle & future COPs will only turn the screws even more on dirty energy,” he wrote. “Although we’re sending a signal with one hand, there’s still too many loopholes on unproven & expensive technologies like carbon capture & storage which fossil fuel interests will try and use to keep dirty energy on life support.”