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Dubai climate talks: What did they achieve?

December 13, 2023

After a year of record-high temperatures and increasing greenhouse gas emissions, global leaders at the COP28 climate have agreed to transition away from fossil fuels.

COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber, left, and COP28 Director-General Ambassador Majid Al Suwaidi talk at the climate summit in Dubai
COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber, left, and COP28 Director-General Majid Al Suwaidi talk at the climate summit in Dubai Image: Peter Dejong/AP/picture alliance

When delegates and leaders from around the world first gathered in Dubai at the end of November, the focus was on how the controversial issue of climate finance would play out at this year's UN climate talks. But as the two weeks of negotiations progressed, it was fossil fuels and the wording around their continued usage that claimed center stage. Would there be a commitment to phasing them out or a more diluted pledge to phase them down?

Ultimately, it was neither, but instead an agreement on "transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade."
Within minutes of the opening of a plenary session to present the new Global Stocktake text, COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber struck the gavel without objections. And history, he said, had been made.

"We have language on fossil fuels in our final agreement for the first time ever," he said. "We should be proud of our historic achievement."

Though the text does not mention a phaseout of fossil fuels — the burning of which is largely responsible for planetary heating — the wording is widely considered an improvement on language from a strongly criticised earlier iteration published on Monday.

"After decades of evasion, COP28 finally cast a glaring spotlight on the real culprits of the climate crisis: fossil fuels," said Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International. "A long-overdue direction to move away from coal, oil and gas has been set,"

But he also said the resolution is "marred by loopholes that offer the fossil fuel industry numerous escape routes, relying on unproven, unsafe technologies."

Pacific Climate Campaigner Joseph Sikulu said the text was "still a death sentence for the Pacific," and that while there were small incremental changes to be celebrated, it did not do enough
to address the phaseout of fossil fuels. "We cannot continually come here and celebrate just the peanuts that is given to our region." 

A coalition of more than 100 countries, including climate-vulnerable states, the US, Canada and the EU, had been pushing for agreement on phasing out fossil fuels throughout the conference, while major oil-producing nations, such as Saudi Arabia, insisted that the path forward was in phasing out fuel emissions. Though this would rely on carbon capture and storage technology that has not been tested at scale.

Activists pretend to resuscitate the Earth during a demonstration at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit
Scientists, activists and many countries called for a rapid fossil fuel phaseout to limit dangerous planetary heating Image: Peter Dejong/AP

Loss and damage fund: An early surprise

Despite the controversial choice of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as host — the Gulf state is among the world's top 10 oil producers — this year's climate conference started off on a high.

Delegates from more than 190 countries officially launched a loss and damage fund on the first day of the talks. Germany and the UAE both contributed $100 million (about €93 million) to help countries most affected by the increasingly extreme effects of climate change, like flooding, drought and rising sea levels. The United Kingdom, the United States and Japan also made smaller pledges, bringing the total thus far to $700 million.

Observers hailed the progress, though pointed out that far more is needed. According to estimates by climate experts, loss and damage funding will need to reach between $150-400 billion per year by 2030.

Activists lift placards and chant slogans calling on the world's biggest CO2 emitters to contribute to the loss and damage fund
Activists lift placards and chant slogans calling on the world's biggest CO2 emitters to contribute to the loss and damage fund Image: Karim Sahib/AFP

Singh said countries hit by disaster need sustained help, not just a couple of days or weeks of attention. "We don't provide them enough support to recover from these impacts to rebuild their homes and livelihoods," he said.

What else did COP28 deliver?

Several other initiatives were also announced or advanced during the Dubai talks.

Some 130 countries pledged to double energy efficiency and triple the world's installed renewable energy capacity by 2030.

More nations also signed onto the 2021 Global Methane Pledge, backing efforts to reduce emissions of the highly potent greenhouse gas by 30% within this decade. And 50 oil and gas companies, who together produce about 40% of the world's oil and 35% of the combined oil and gas, also promised to eliminate methane emissions and routine flaring by 2030.

Methane, primarily generated by fossil fuel production and animal agriculture, is roughly 20 times more powerful when it comes to trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere. It's responsible for about a third of global warming, second only to carbon dioxide, but is comparatively short-lived. The plan to limit methane emissions is also easier to implement, with many methods ready to go.

Countries pledged to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030
Countries pledged to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030 Image: Holger Weitzel/imageBROKER/picture alliance

These initiatives, if fulfilled, would help to slow global temperature change, but they are nowhere close to curbing warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since preindustrial times.

An analysis released by the intergovernmental International Energy Agency (IEA) on December 10 showed that pledges on renewables, efficiency and methane would only reduce energy-related emissions by 30% of what's needed by 2030.

'Brazil is willing to lead by example'

After years of increasing deforestation under former president and climate skeptic Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil used COP28 as an opportunity to assume the role of global leader on climate change and conservation.

Speaking to delegates, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said: "No country will solve its problems alone. We are all obliged to act together beyond our borders." 

"Brazil is willing to lead by example," added Lula. 

Lula said Brazil had adopted new climate targets that were "more ambitious than those of many developed countries." 

Brazil also proposed a new global fund that would pay countries to keep their tropical forests intact. The country pledged to eliminate deforestation in the Amazon rainforest by 2030. According to figures from the Lula administration, the Amazon has already seen a 22% drop in forest clearance this year.

Protecting Brazil's Amazon rainforest, one tree at a time

But Brazil also announced during COP that it was seeking to become an observer nation at OPEC+, a group of big petrostates. When asked about the contradiction, Lula said Brazil — among the top 10 oil-producing countries in the world — would aim to push other oil-producing countries to transition to green energy.

In December, Brazil's National Agency of Petroleum, Natural Gas and Biofuels plans to allocate more than 900 new areas for oil and gas exploration, including some in the Amazon. Speaking with DW, Energy Minister Alexandre Silveira defended the move, saying the exploration would be "another source of wealth to combat inequality in Brazil, in an appropriate manner and in compliance with environmental laws."

Additional reporting by Nadia Pontes in Dubai, Louise Osborne and Alistair Walsh.