COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber attends a plenary meeting at the climate conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 13, 2023 (OSV News photo/Amr Alfiky, Reuters).

Big questions loomed over this year’s COP28 climate conference in Dubai: Would fossil fuels and their role in climate change be included in a final COP statement for the first time? How strong would the language be? And what would the document ask of wealthy nations? From the start, climate advocates faced strong headwinds. The conference was hosted by the United Arab Emirates, which, despite forays into renewable energy, remains a petrostate with plans to continue ramping up its oil output over the next several years. Sultan Al Jaber, head of the UAE’s national oil company, Adnoc, presided over the conference. More than 2,400 lobbyists for the fossil-fuel industry were in attendance, far outnumbering climate scientists and representatives from the island nations most vulnerable to climate change.

Despite all this, there was reason for hope when the conference’s “global stocktake” was released, following up on the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. The final document of this year’s conference calls on nations to “transition away” from fossil fuels, and to make “deep, rapid and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions.” UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell described it as “the beginning of the end” of the fossil-fuel era. What matters now is how long it takes to get to the end of the end. The world is quickly running out of time to make real changes that will prevent irreversible damage. Most nations around the world, including the United States, have spent the past eight years failing to fulfill the climate goals they set for themselves in Paris. As climate scientist Johan Rockström noted, whether the language in a statement is slightly stronger or weaker (“phase-out” versus “phase-down”) can be an academic question—“what we need is a really concrete plan of what happens between now and 2025, when we need to bend the global curve of emissions.” The more that lofty national goals—like tripling renewable energy capacity by 2030 or phasing out inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies—are accompanied by strategies explaining how those goals will be met, the better our chances of averting the worst effects of climate change.

Most nations around the world, including the United States, have spent the past eight years failing to fulfill the climate goals they set for themselves in Paris.

Specificity is especially important when it comes to financing the energy transitions of the Global South, an issue that was mostly punted to 2024 in the stocktake. The document called for “a continued increase in the scale, and effectiveness of, and simplified access to, climate finance, including in the form of grants,” encouraging financial institutions to be more creative and flexible in helping less-developed countries grow their renewable industries. Unfortunately, it also included language about the role of “transitional fuels”—gas instead of coal—which climate activists worry will further entrench fossil fuels. Some wealthier countries did commit to giving $12.8 billion to the Green Climate Fund for less-developed nations, but this sum falls well short of the trillions of dollars that are necessary.

The same is true for the funds to help the most vulnerable countries with adaptation and “loss and damage” (a key topic at last year’s COP27). Creating the funds is clearly a good step; it proves that multilateral agreements like these can have positive effects. But as each year passes, progress remains far too slow—not the “deep, rapid and sustained” change that we need. Small steps in the right direction are not good enough: we need a leap.

Published in the January 2024 issue: View Contents

Isabella Simon is the managing editor at Commonweal.

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