In this blog, Programme & Impact Manager Adriana Chavarría-Flores concurs that the outcomes of COP28 are “a lifeline, not a finish line”.

The latest science consistently shows that global CO2 emissions and fossil fuel production and consumption must peak within this decade to keep the Paris Agreement goals alive. This means that there is no room for new coal, oil and/or gas investments if we hope to achieve a 1.5°C future. Yet, fossil fuel production plans continue to expand at record high levels across old and new producer countries.

COP28 Negotiations

Many hoped COP28 would be a tipping point for oil and gas. In Dubai, the expectations from several parties and non-party organisations were set on reaching an international agreement on a fossil fuel phase out that explicitly included oil and gas.

In many ways, the selection of a petrostate – the UAE – as host country for the meeting, topped by the controversial selection of Sultan Al Jaber, head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), as COP28 President, set the scene for oil and gas to take centre stage. A record number of delegates representing oil and gas industries (2,456) were also reported to be present in Dubai.

As negotiations got underway, there were striking divides among countries’ positions.

The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) was consistently vocal in calling for a rapid fossil fuel phase out which they framed as “a matter of survival”. They reiterated that the fact that this concept remained absent from text drafts reflected the systemic injustice of the diplomacy behind the energy transition, ignoring the vulnerability of frontline nations.

We witnessed bold leadership from Colombia, who committed to phase out oil and gas, and from Spain, Kenya, and Samoa who announced joining the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) as full members.

Many developing countries (e.g. Brazil and representatives from the African Group) supported the inclusion of fossil fuel phase out in the text, as long as the timelines were differentiated so that advanced economies had to move first.

Other nations, including India, were more critical, repeatedly claiming their right to a fair share of the carbon budget and asking other negotiators in the room to stop using the Global Stocktake and NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) to ask for increased ambition from developing countries.

Major opposition came from OPEC nations and the Arab Group, particularly Saudi Arabia, whose statements called for focusing on reducing emissions not on the sources, for keeping a “menu of options” on the table rather than choosing one pathway, and for looking for the most “efficient and practical solutions” without compromising the prosperity of the countries.

Saudi Arabia is a strong promoter of technocratic solutions to climate change and, in a drastic statement, claimed that there is no 1.5°C future without carbon capture and storage (CCS) and carbon dioxide removal (CDR). This has been perceived as a tactic to avoid progress towards phasing down/out oil and gas as these technologies are still far from being able to deliver the scale of mitigation required.

While the UAE was less vocal, COP28 President Al Jaber raised eyebrows with contradictory statements that verged on climate denialism, including his assertation that there is “no science” indicating that a phase-out of fossil fuels is needed to restrict global warming to 1.5°C.

Protests outside the COP28 venue. Credit: UN Climate Change.

The first iteration of the Global Stocktake text, released on the second week of COP28, didn’t seem to please anyone. The text was criticised for vague wording which included calling for a phase out of “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption”.

In reaction to the text, a group of negotiators, including from Australia, the US, the UK, Canada and Japan, said they would “not be co-signatories” to “death certificates” for small island states. The vast majority of countries and civil society organisations fought until the very last minute to push for stronger language around fossil fuels in the decision – which they got, to an extent.

Though the language was dwindled down from “phase out” to “transitioning away from” fossil fuels, this is the first time that a COP text has explicitly mentioned fossil fuels which should be regarded as a landmark achievement. The text also recognises the role of CCS “particularly in hard to abate sectors”, which was considered a win as it is expected to prevent abatement technologies from being used as an excuse to expand fossil fuel production.

Notably, the text also mentions that emissions are projected to peak in 2020-2025 to limit global warming to 1.5°C, but with different timelines for countries depending on their national circumstances. Thus, accepting the different pathways language that many developing countries were asking for.

Our COP28 event: Beyond the peak: Planning for Just Transitions in Oil and Gas. Find out more here.

What comes next in the transition away from oil and gas?

Despite a deal that was celebrated by nations as the “best possible outcome”, the path to a transition away from oil and gas is an arduous one. The deal does not include any obligations or hard timelines, and there is a risk that wording around “transition fuels” and “CCS” could be used as loopholes.

Beyond the deal, the Global Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Pledge, signed by 127 countries, should support the energy transition, and recognises the need to end new coal immediately, and unabated fossil fuels by 2050.

Starting from January 2024, we need to see robust climate policies and transition strategies consistent with the urgency and the scale of decarbonisation targets reflected in the latest science. We only have six years before the end of this decisive decade, and current plans for oil and gas expansion need to be curtailed imminently.

A key enabler to this systemic transformation will be to decouple narratives that equate fossil fuel activities with prosperity and the achievement of sustainable development and SDGs. These narratives permeated COP28 negotiations and ignored the long-term costs and risks of inaction which research proves are higher than those of a rapid transition. They also ignore the non-economic impacts of fossil-based development pathways such as health risks from air pollution, loss of biodiversity and increased climate migration and conflict due to more frequent and severe extreme weather events.

Our Oil and Gas Transitions (OGT) programme aims to support these two objectives by increasing the understanding of evidence-based pathways to accelerate just transitions from oil and gas. Between 2021 and 2023 we examined scenarios for first-mover countries in the North Sea, including Norway, Denmark and the UK, using a participatory and inclusive approach.

This allowed us to gather lessons on participatory processes and policy recommendations that can inform countries facing similar challenges.

Our Oil and Gas Transitions workshop at COP28. Find out more here.

During COP28, we also launched a special issue in the Climate Policy Journal on just oil and gas transitions by 2040 and co-hosted two events on this critical topic (“Workshop: Just Transitions in the Oil & Gas Sector” and “Beyond the peak: Planning for Just Transitions in Oil and Gas”). In the future, we aim to extend our research to geographies in the Global South and the MENA region to catalyse ambitious, evidence-backed decision-making and climate action.

I join Simon Stiell, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary, in his COP28 final remarks, lamenting the lack of a clear signal to end the fossil fuel era but celebrating “the beginning of the end” for fossil fuels. Also, in his reminder that these outcomes are “a lifeline, not a finish line” in the path to 1.5°C.

The route to COP29 and beyond must be one of translating pledges into tangible actions, and my call is for governments, businesses, and all relevant actors to be brave enough to see beyond individual interests, and to seize this narrow window of opportunity to deliver transformational change to create a more just, inclusive, equitable and sustainable future for all.