COP 28 - reflections from this week: phase down or phase out

Cast your minds back to 2015 in which 194 states plus the European Union signed the Paris Agreement at the COP21 summit in Paris in order to pursue efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels”. Despite working to 5-year cycles in which each country is expected to submit a national climate action plan known as Nationally Determined Contribution – non-binding short to medium term plans based on each country’s capabilities and capacities - it wasn’t until earlier this year in which the first “Global Stocktake” was taken to assess the progress on the Paris Agreement and chart a way forward to limit the global temperature.  Therefore, it’s no surprise that the main focus of this year’s COP28 summit has been on the results of this “Global Stocktake” and how the 200 countries will agree a road map in respect of fossil fuel reduction. 

Depicted as the “heart” of the Paris climate accord and a “lifeline” for vulnerable countries, the Global Stocktake will help determine whether the world can forestall the worst impacts of climate change.  Yet, sadly, the focus of this week appeared to be on debating whether fossil fuels should be “phased-down” or “phased-out”. One of the most impactful moments of this week was an impassioned call from Children of countries most impacted by fossil fuels on the governments of major economic powerhouses to reaffirm their commitment to “phase-out” fossil fuels following the shocking UNICEF report that over a billion children are at “extremely high risk” of the effects of climate crisis.  Such calls echo a report issued by the UN Child rights Committee published in August earlier this year in which it affirmed that governments must take urgent action to phase out fossil fuels and transition to renewables to guarantee this.

This week’s COP28 commitments has proved that all is not lost.  Australia demonstrated its commitment to eliminate fossil fuel finance and Albania signed up to the clean energy transition partnership which commits signatories to phase out their offshore support for coal, oil and gas within 12 months. This marks a significant shift in Australia’s national policy on climate change as between 2009 and 2020 it spent $1.7bn on coal, oil and gas developments and just $20m on renewable energy. 

Additionally, this week highlighted that it’s not just governments making a pledge to commit to fossil fuel reduction, the ATAG Global Sustainable Aviation forum held on 6 December 2023 reinforced the Aviation Industry’s commitment to alternative resources, including sustainable aviation fuel to fund globalisation. Executive Director of the cross-industry Air Transport Action Group, Halene Dodd said that the International Civil Aviation organisation have worked with government to adopt a net-zero goal for 2050 and agreed a pathway towards the eventual replacement of fossil fuels for aviation starting in 2030 with a 5% emissions reduction goal. With the aviation industry producing emitting nearly 1 billion tonnes of fossil fuels annually, such collaboration and understanding that reducing fossil fuels is now an international emergency marks one of the greatest achievements of the COP28 summit and sets a precedent for other industries (and governments) to follow. 

The stark reality was highlighted by Reuters in which they noted that burning fossil fuels for energy is the engine of modern life - even with the growth of renewables, fossil fuels produce around 80% of the world's energy – but, money continues to be the sticking point.  Uganda’s energy minister emphasised that the country could accept a long-term phase out, if it made clear that developing nations can exploit their resources in the near term, while wealthy long-time producers quit first.  Yet, with countries such as China and Saudia Arabia raising the issue of “equity” emphasising that wealthy industrialised nations have borne the brunt of contributing the most to fossil fuel reduction, there appears to be little consensus or collaboration as to how to work harmoniously to achieve a reduction in fossil fuels. Perhaps this is best depicted by Norway’s foreign minister Espen Barthe Eide noting that the “phase-out” is a tool to reach a goal, and the goal is an energy system that has no emissions”.  How that is achieved is still yet to be answered…

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