The End of Fossil Fuels?

Delegates from the recent COP23 meetings in Dubai are celebrating an unlikely breakthrough.

After two weeks of intense climate talks, heated negotiations, angry protests, bold announcements, and plenty of skepticism and uncertainty, global leaders representing nearly 200 nations approved an agreement that explicitly calls for the “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly, and equitable manner.”

The End of Fossil Fuels

While the agreement stops short of calling for the total phaseout of fossil fuels, the compromise language does mobilize countries to accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels and quit adding carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050.

Supporters avow that—after nearly 30 years of climate negotiations— this phrasing represents a major breakthrough, indicating consensus that the burning of oil, gas, and coal has contributed to climate change and needs to be eliminated. Advocates believe that this signifies the end of the era of fossil fuels.

Critics—including many delegates from small island nations—assert that the wording of the agreement remains unclear and nonbinding, with a litany of loopholes that allow for reneging and renegotiation. 

Some opponents claim that the agreement is simply a flaccid, incremental advancement over business as usual—a bare minimum, rather than a bold proclamation that would lead to the exponential behavioral and policy changes that are required to appropriately deal with the climate emergency at hand.

Many people had all but written off the COP28 meetings, given that they were hosted in the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s largest oil producers, with Sultan Al Jaber, head of UAE’s state oil company presiding over the meetings. However, it was Al Jaber himself who brokered the compromise deal—an irony that was not lost on participants, leaving them with a strange, unexpected feeling of optimism. 

In fact, some delegates have called the Dubai meetings the most significant COP since the Paris Agreement in 2015, pointing to the fact that the final agreement includes a specific reference to fossil fuels, as well as a call to triple global renewable energy adoption by 2030, dramatically reduce methane emissions, and set up a loss and damage fund.

Nonetheless, don’t expect the use of fossil fuels to cease immediately—fossil fuel companies have decades of increased production still underway, and countries across the globe remain dependent on fossil fuels.

I can’t help but wonder: Does the inclusion of fossil fuel interests in the COP agreement hold their feet to the fire, or does the allowance for countries to follow their own pathways to net zero carbon offer too much leeway for the agreement to be meaningful and legitimate?

While the COP28 agreement calls for countries across the globe to submit detailed, formal plans in the next two years about how they will drawdown greenhouse gas emissions through 2035, the verdict is out about whether or not nations will follow through to slash emissions by the 43% threshold that scientists have identified will keep us under the critical 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise.