The UN Climate Conference Finally Names the Culprit, Fossil Fuels—but Is It Enough?

The UN Climate Conference Finally Names the Culprit, Fossil Fuels—but Is It Enough?

The UN Climate Conference Finally Names the Culprit, Fossil Fuels—but Is It Enough?

Not demanding a “phase out” of fossil fuels—which over 140 nations at COP 28 pushed for—and or detailing how to transition—leaves the agreement without teeth.


When COP 28 President Sultan Al Jaber banged the gavel on December 13 to end this year’s UN climate negotiations in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the results of the conference and the response were decidedly mixed.

This year’s UN climate negotiations called on nations, for the first time ever, to transition “away from fossil fuels in energy systems.” After nearly three decades of climate conferences, member states have finally named the culprit of the climate crisis—fossil fuels—and committed to a transition away from them. “For the first time in three decades of climate negotiations the words fossil fuels have made it into a COP outcome,” said Mohamed Adow, of Power Shift Africa. “The genie is never going back into the bottle and future COPs will only turn the screws even more on dirty energy.” UN Secretary General António Guterres said, “Whether you like it or not, [a] fossil fuel phase out is inevitable. Let’s hope it doesn’t come too late.”

But there is much more beneath the sound bite. While the inclusion of “fossil fuels” is historic, not demanding a “phase out” of fossil fuels—which over 140 nations at COP 28 pushed for—and or detailing how to transition, and by what year—leaves the agreement without teeth. A “phase out of fossil fuels” was in an original draft, then watered down to a “phase-down” and then further diluted to the “transitioning away.”

This mention of fossil fuels marks a significant turn from previous years’ conferences, when the attempt to include fossil fuels was thwarted. And this year, too, there was stiff opposition to naming fossil fuels. Saudi Arabia was adamant about keeping the focus on emissions rather than the source of them. Early in the negotiations, OPEC Secretary General Haitham Al Ghais sent a letter to OPE’s 13 members and the 10 Russian-led allies urging them to reject inclusion of language that mentioned fossil fuels rather than emissions. So in this sense, its inclusion marks a victory.

“This result would have been unheard of two years ago, especially at a COP meeting in a petrostate,” Adow added. “It shows that even oil and gas producers can see we’re heading for a fossil free world.” Roman Ioualalen, of Global Policy Lead at Oil Change International, said, “This progress is in large part due to the momentum built by tremendous people power.”

Yet problems with the negotiation and decision-making process abounded at this year’s COP 28. Anne Rasmussen, chair of the Alliance of Small Islands States (AOSIS), pointed out that 39 small-island developing states (SIDS) were not even in the room when the document coming out of COP 28, called the “Global Stocktake” (GST), was approved by President Al Jaber. Low-lying island nations are frontline communities who are intensely at risk, are already experiencing the impacts of the climate crisis, have contributed the least to it in terms of emissions and have been most vocal about insisting on preserving policies and actions are taken to ensure that the UN negotiations keep global warming from exceeding 1.5 Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The 1.5 limit was enshrined in the 2015 Paris Agreement and has since been the guiding or North Star for the talks and action. “1.5 to Stay Alive!,” as Tony de Brum, the late Climate Envoy of the Republic of the Marshall Islands put it, is the mantra of low-lying island nations. That said, according to NASA, the average global temperature has already increased by 1.11º C since 1880, with most of the increase since 1975. And we are currently on a path to 3.3º C according to a 2023 UNEP report, unless we drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels.

Rasmussen called attention to the fact that, in order to avert irreversible climate collapse, emissions must peak by 2025—but that the COP 28 text did not mention this fact. “Mr. President,” she said, “we do not see any commitment or even an invitation for Parties to peak emissions by 2025. We reference the science throughout the text and even in this paragraph but then we refrain from an agreement to take the relevant action in order to act in line with what the science says we have to do.” Rasmussen received a standing ovation for her call for change.

The Global Stocktake does reference some of what the science calls for, or, as the UNFCCC closing statement spelled out: “The stocktake recognizes the science that indicates global greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut 43% by 2030, compared to 2019 levels, to limit global warming to 1.5°C.” So this is the decade when emissions needs to be radically reduced. But the COP 28 outcome did not outline enough action steps to account for necessary emissions cuts. As Rasmussen put it, “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.” As a result, some referred to the GST as a “get out of jail free” card.

The annual UN climate negotiations are, of course, not legally binding. But they send strong signals for what actions national governments should take, what policies they should implement, to ensure reductions in emissions and to avert a worsening of the climate crisis.

Going into this year’s COP 28, many activists and attendees raised concerns about the role of the fossil fuel lobby. The UAE, the host country, is an OPEC member and among the world’s 10 largest oil producers. And COP 28 President Sultan Al Jaber is chief executive of Adnoc, the UAE’s state oil company. Then, in the week leading up to COP 28, leaked documents obtained and published by the Centre for Climate Reporting and first reported by the BBC revealed that the UAE planned to promote and expand oil deals with 15 nations during and via COP 28.

Adding fuel to fire, the largest number of fossil fuel lobbyists in the history of the UN climate negotiations was in attendance this year. COP 28 was the largest UN climate conference ever, with over 100,000 people registered, of which 70,000 attended. According to an analysis from Kick Big Polluters Out, at least 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists attended this year’s COP 28. That number is more than the number of most nation’s number of lobbyists. “Fossil fuel lobbyists,” Kick Big Polluters Out point out, “are only outnumbered by the 3,081 people brought by Brazil (which is expected to host COP30), and the UAE, which as COP28 host brought 4,409 people.” In fact, the number of fossil fuel lobbyists dwarfs the number of the 10 most climate vulnerable nations, Kick Out Big Polluters argues, which total 1,509, highlighting how industry interests are outnumbering the voices of frontline communities.

And the impacts of the fossil fuel industry and fossil fuel producing nations and host on COP 28’s outcome were clear. The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty⎯whose signatories includes 12 mostly low-lying island nations, the European Parliament, the World Health Organization, and hundreds of elected officials, as well as almost 100 cities and subnational governments⎯has called for a fossil fuel phase-out and a just and equitable transition to renewable energy. But a “phase-out of fossil fuels,” for which nations in the Global South were pushing, lobbying, negotiating and protesting, is not mentioned in the final Global Stocktake. Unlike the language that was adopted, that would have sounded a death knell for the fossil fuel industry.

There were other important advances, including that COP 28 called for a tripling of renewable energy globally by 2030. As Simon Stiell, executive secretary of the UNFCCC put it: “COP28 delivered some genuine strides forward. Tripling renewables and doubling energy efficiency.”

But only “a phase-down of unabated coal power” was included in the final agreement coming out of COP 28. Already at COP 26 in Glasgow two years ago, negotiators agreed to the inclusion of this very phrase. The word unabated is important. A call for the “phase-down of unabated coal power” leaves the door open for the use of abated coal power or fossil fuels. What does abated coal power mean? Abated refers to the use of carbon, capture and storage (CCS) or its storage underground. The technique is expensive, unproven, and cannot easily (affordably) be scaled up as quickly as is needed to avert a climate catastrophe. And, most importantly, since CCS does not exist yet at the scale needed to mitigate, this language leaves the door open to continued fossil fuel usage, while the science, as mentioned above, demands emissions peak by 2025 and that they are reduced by 43 percent by 2030. The surest way to reach that goal is to reduce (not increase) the use of fossil fuels.

Another limitation of the final agreement is that it “recognizes that transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition.” “Transitional fuels” are typically viewed as a reference to gas, which is of course a fossil fuel that, in addition to coal, needs to be phased out. Jean Su, acting co-executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said the Global Stocktake “contains major industry escape hatches for disastrous gas expansion…and dangerous climate scams like carbon capture and storage.”

In the first 24 hours after COP 28 ended, headlines announced positive news for fossil fuel expansion: Barron’s reported that “OPEC sees healthy growth for oil demand in 2024”; Reuters reported that the International Energy Agency (IEA) said “world oil demand will rise faster than expected next year”; Germany sought approval for an liquified natural gas project; the British-French oil and gas company Perenco discovered “more gas at Ravenspurn South Field in the North Sea”; “Norway oil and gas investments are set to soar in 2024”; “Petrobras, Shell and Chevron bet big on Brazil,” winning exploration rights in the deep-water portion of the Pelotas basin off the coast of Brazil in the South Atlantic; “Shell assumed 100 perecent working interest in Gulf of Mexico Kaikias Field; and in Nigeria “the largest refinery in the world started producing.” Apparently, fossil fuel producers and nations who depend on them do not worry that COP 28 is disrupting business as usual, perhaps even quite the contrary: Party like it’s 1999!

Finally, without adequte funding, the energy transition will fail. And here the results from COP 28 were bleak. COP 27 made major strides on funding, with member nations agreeing to fund a “loss and damages” program that would compensate nations already dealing with the climate crisis. It has been “operationalized,” but details about it still need to be worked out. How will the fund be structured? How will the contributions work and be dispersed? What amounts? There was little progress on moving funds from the Global North to the Global South for mitigation and adaptation efforts or to compensate for loss and damages. “We hoped this COP would bring international governments to the same building site, and for wealthy nations like Australia, Canada, the EU, the UK and the US to pay their fair share and support the most vulnerable countries to transition to a 100 percent renewable future,” said May Boeve, executive director of But the Global North is unwilling to take responsibility for its historic emissions and for their impacts and unwilling to allocate the necessary funds for the energy transition.

Roman Ioualalen, of Oil Change International, added, “Rich countries must pay their fair share to enable the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy in the Global South.” It was not to be. Instead, developed nations managed to continue to shirk their responsibility for creating the climate crisis and for helping frontline communities addressing its impacts. The lacking finance detailed in the document and lacking contributions made at COP 24 means it will become a focus of the discussion in 2024. Again.

Given the inadequate contributions from the Global North and no mention of a phase-out of fossil fuels, much-needed this decade, many envoys and activists were nonplussed by the “historic” results of COP 28. Meena Raman, with Third World Network in Malaysia, said, “Developed countries basically got everything they wanted without giving up much. There is no equity here.” As a result, the focus at COP 29 will be on securing a fossil fuel phase-out and funding from the Global North to help the Global South’s energy transition to renewables and to address climate change effects. In the meantime, whether or not the Global Stocktake has impacts depends on each of us and what we push our home nations to do.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy