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Coalition of the willing prevails on fossil fuel issue at Cop28

Summit sent a clear signal on ending use of fossil fuels but it remains to be seen if the worst offenders will pivot at the required scale to decarbonise

The world has committed to transition from fossil fuels with a clear deadline of 2050 – that is truly historic and is arguably the biggest step ever taken at a climate Cop since the Paris Agreement of 2015 to address an overheating world.

The elephant in the room – the single biggest contributor to climate change – has finally been faced, after decades of shameful pandering to Big Oil.

The grave flaw of the United Nations decision-making process, of sticking with consensus voting, provided cover for petrostates such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, though the climate crisis is transboundary.

Stalling was also the ploy of other states, who talked of addressing the climate crisis and yet were scaling up oil and gas exploration. Meanwhile, the Earth continued to burn.

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A coalition of the willing to tackle the fossil fuel issue, however, prevailed at Cop28. This was despite a poor initial ploy of the hosts, the UAE, in proposing a decision text that was too weak – too many ‘coulds’ and no ‘shoulds’.

Somehow, it galvanised a critical core group of countries, namely the European Union and small island states, who pushed for stronger language during the final tense 36 hours in Dubai. That stance was backed by the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia and Japan, some of the world’s largest oil producers.

But the sure hands of US climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua were evident – with the latter securing an immense diplomatic win at his last Cop before his retirement.

Yet as veteran watcher of climate negotiations Alden Meyer of the energy think tank E3G noted, this was a deal hatched in the capitals of Washington, Beijing and Riyadh – as well as in Dubai. The UAE, as a brother country to Saudi Arabia was pushing for a substantive outcome, and while brothers can fight, they can be close allies too.

There are three tests to apply to determine if Cop28 was a success. Firstly, did it send a clear signal on ending fossil fuels? Yes it did, even if it did not mention the words “phase out”. The global market signals are plain to see. Renewables, particularly solar, are the cheapest source of energy.

The sinners, however, are not going to become saints overnight. It remains to be seen if they will pivot at the scale to decarbonise the world by mid century by switching their vast investments.

At Cop28, they availed of the services of 4,456 lobbyists who attempted to put the main emphasis on cutting carbon emissions. Thankfully, they were seen off, though they secured recognition of the place of carbon-capture and storage technologies in curbing emissions. If that becomes a get-out-of-jail card for them, the world will suffer terribly and Big Oil will come roaring back.

The second test is if Cop28 will deliver a fair, fast and full transition for developing countries, combined with the right supports, especially under adaptation measures, to make them climate resilient.

Sadly the jury is out on that, though a resetting of the global financial system is happening at multiple levels to facilitate this, especially in providing access to clean energy. Climate campaigners, aid agencies and many developing states, however, will regard the outcome here as Cop28′s most concerning failure.

Thirdly, does Cop28 meet the 1.5 degree test? Does it meet the critical Paris goal of containing global temperatures rise to that limit to ensure a safe/liveable planet?

Weighing up the multitude of pledges made by business, countries and others outside the negotiating rooms and the commitments secured inside, science is likely to indicate a No.

Failure to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees has catastrophic implications for everyone, particularly the most vulnerable communities and countries.

The essential business of the climate Cop is far from done.

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