Will COP28 finally set a date to ditch fossil fuels?

Delegates walk at the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 8, 2023

Delegates walk at the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 8, 2023. REUTERS/Thaier Al Sudani

More than half the world backs an end to fossil fuel use – will the Dubai climate talks be the moment that leaders make the historic step?

Mohamed Adow is a climate justice advocate and director of energy and climate think-tank Power Shift Africa.

We stand on the verge of a truly historic moment in the history of humankind.  That may sound like a rather overblown statement, especially to say about COP28, a U.N. process which is known too often for inaction and “blah blah blah” to quote Greta Thunberg’s description.

But it’s possible that, within days, the world may have agreed that the fossil fuel era must end and will have set the date for its demise.

Decarbonising the global economy is the hardest challenge humans have ever taken on.  It’s an enormous feat with awful consequences if we fail. But if we succeed it will be a remarkable achievement with life-giving results for the whole world.

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The fact we may be announcing the funeral rites of fossil fuels in the middle of the Arabian Gulf, one of the biggest oil producers in the world, makes it only more remarkable. The COP28 President, Sultan Al Jaber, has consistently talked about wanting this to be a historic COP. 

The question is, will it be viewed by future generations as the COP where the world finally woke up to its addiction to the poison of fossil fuels and decided to kick the habit?  Or will it be seen as the COP that, despite taking place at the end of the hottest year on record, was captured by the fossil fuel industry (Al Jaber himself is the boss of the UAE’s state oil firm after all) and failed to set a phase out date for fossil fuels?

Already more than half the world is on board with agreeing to set a date here to phase out fossil fuels. But there are a few countries that are blocking progress and want to see the world continue to burn dirty energy.

Among this number is a curious axis of fossil fuel friends: Saudi Arabia, Russia, China and the United States.  President Biden claims to be a climate leader but the U.S. hides in the shadows when it comes to advocating for a fossil fuel phase out date.  When you remember that the US is the largest fossil fuel producer in the world, maybe it’s no surprise that Biden sides with this motley crew of authoritarian petrostates on this vital issue of human survival.

For African countries, a fossil fuel phase out date is something they support.  But they want it to be fair.  Many developing countries rightly point out that rich nations have had years of burning fossil fuels and so they should assist poorer countries with the transition from dirty energy to clean.  This will be in the form of finance and technology transfer – sharing the latest renewable energy technology to allow countries in Africa and elsewhere to harness the abundant wind and solar power all around them. That will be a key ingredient in any final agreement here.

The other big issue that needs to be resolved before we can call this summit a success is the negotiations around adaptation.  The loss and damage fund made headlines on the opening day but the vital issue of how the vulnerable adapt to a climate changed world has been almost forgotten.

A month ago, the U.N.’s Adaptation Gap report revealed the gulf between the available finance for adaptation and the actual adaptation needs of vulnerable communities was 50% larger than previously thought.

In fact, according to the report, adaptation needs of developing countries are now 10-18 times bigger than international public finance flows.  This cannot be allowed to continue. 

Here in Dubai some rich countries are trying to avoid meaningful negotiation on the framework for the Global Goal on Adaptation, which will boost adaptive capacity and reduce vulnerability, while supporting vulnerable nations to achieve resilience. These countries are playing ping pong with the lives of the people on the front line of the climate crisis.

These are the two big issues as we head into the final days of this meeting.  Countries here can either try and bury their heads in the Arabian sands and pretend the people of the world will not notice their actions, or they can take steps in a positive direction and make history for the right reasons.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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