Christopher Segar
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CoP 28 may signal the end for Fossil Fuels; but major challenges remain for both developed economies and the global south

Christopher Segar spent 32 years in the Diplomatic Service with postings mainly in the Arab world but also in China, Angola and at the OECD. From 2008 to 2015 he was Middle East analyst at the International Energy Agency in Paris.


The 28th Conference of the Parties (CoP) under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change closed in Dubai on 13 December. The final declaration, the “Global Stock-Take” (GST) to review progress since the 2015 CoP in Paris, included for the first time a reference to fossil fuels and their role in global warming. Just as CoP 26 in Glasgow had closed with a decision to “Phase down” rather than “Phase out” the use of coal, CoP 28 has been criticised for deciding merely to “transition away from Fossil Fuels” rather than phase them out.  But the declaration also, more specifically, enjoined signatories to triple the deployment of renewable energy and double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030; and to reduce methane emissions from fossil fuel operations by 75%. It was agreed that CoP 29 will be held in Azerbaijan, and CoP 30 in Brazil, by which time participating governments will need to present their revised ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ to the achievement of these goals.

Behind these ambitious targets stood the sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which emphasised that to hold global warming to 1.50 c it would now be necessary to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHGs) by 43 % by 2030 – i.e. by as much per year as was cut in the first year of the COVID 19 pandemic, but without destabilising the global economy. This urgency will no doubt be strengthened by the latest reports from EU satellite monitoring that a succession of record temperatures in the second half of 2023 represented global warming at a rate of over 1.40C above the long-run pre-industrial average.

The choice of Dr Sultan al-Jaber as conference chairman, given his new role as CEO of the UAE national oil company ADNOC, was controversial. Over the weekend of 9/10 December the representatives of OPEC countries and the members of the ‘High Ambition Coalition’ (mainly EU, African and Latin American states) wrestled over the final wording on fossil fuels. The outcome is notable as the first explicit reference to fossil fuels in such an agreement in the 35 years since the Brundtland Report of 1988 first called attention to the risks of catastrophic climate change, though the consensus language is much softer than many non-oil producing countries would have hoped.

Sultan al-Jaber is unusual as an oil company CEO in having for over a decade led the UAE’s MASDAR enterprise which focusses on renewable energy technologies. Since 2009 Abu Dhabi has also hosted the International Renewable Energy Agency, and has invested in huge solar power projects as well as a 5.6 gigawatt nuclear power plant bult by the Koreans. And Dubai has been a leader in both energy efficiency and the installation of smart metres. In preparing for the summit, Dr Al-Jaber worked closely with the IEA (under Dr Fatih Birol) whose estimates of the key steps necessary to stay within 1.50c are largely reflected in the final declaration.

CoP 28 held the world’s attention for much of early December. More than 100,000 delegates attended from governments, the UN agencies, NGOs, business, academia, and civil society. King Charles delivered the opening address, and it seems that his evening reception was the ‘hot ticket’ of the week. Pope Francis had intended to be there too, but in the event his speech was read for him by a cardinal. It reprised – though in even stronger language - the encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ which he had issued in 2015. President Macron was prominent, as was Rishi Sunak, flanked on occasion by Tony Blair. Both John Kerry and VP Kamala Harris were there for the US. At least two billionaires brought their yachts into the marina and hosted parties. Perhaps only Dubai could have accommodated such a range of delegates and celebrities so easily. It must at times have seemed like a cross between Davos and the Monaco Grand Prix.

So many delegates may seem excessive. Only 36,000 took part in CoP 27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh. On the other hand, because the conference declaration is not a legally-binding agreement, much depends on the signal it gives being amplified and disseminated through a whole range of actors. The Global Climate Action Portal supports the participation of all non-Party stakeholders: corporates, investors, cities, regions and civil society. In addition, a number of ‘variable geometry’ side agreements can be promoted through ‘coalitions of the willing’. Notable at CoP 28 was the Oil and Gas Decarbonisation Charter committing signatories to net zero operations by 2050 and ending routine flaring (methane) by 2030. Oil companies from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman and Libya were on board along with the whole range of prominent International Oil Companies (IOCs) such as Shell and Exxonmobil, though not the major Russian or Chinese companies nor the oil companies of Iraq, Iran or Kuwait. One additional innovation was the Declaration to Triple Nuclear Energy (by 2050) led by the USA, Japan, France, the UK and the UAE.

Michael Bloomberg who is now the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Climate Change, and Nicholas Stern who co-chairs the High-Level Expert Group on Climate Finance, were both pressing for more funds for the Global South. The Loss and Damage Fund which pre-empted so much negotiating time at CoP 27, was opened for contributions at the very start of the conference. But funding for the two other main streams – energy transition, and adaptation and resilience – have struggled to attract sufficient pledges. Stern’s report estimated that $2.4 trn would be needed by 2030. The economic and humanitarian cost of droughts, fires and floods linked to the current 1 to 1.3oc of warming suggests that spending on adaptation and resilience can only need to grow – not only in poorer countries but in the developed world too.

It is good that CoP 28 has renewed the policy framework. However, developed countries still face a number of challenges. Energy security remains a headache; social trends, which affect demand for energy, can be intractable; and fairness within western societies is becoming increasingly important. It remains to be seen whether developed countries will prove capable of surmounting such challenges. As Dr al-Jaber observed, “No treaty is better than its implementation”.


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