Three decades after agreeing to avoid “dangerous” warming, the nations of the world today acknowledged that this would involve “transitioning away from fossil fuels.” This can be found on page 5 of the final document that emerged from the latest round of climate negotiations—COP28—which just ended, in Dubai. Depending on how you look at things, the statement represents either a genuine breakthrough that will allow the globe to avert catastrophe or a point so obvious that what it really reveals is how far offtrack things have veered.
First up, possibility No. 1: This year, greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil-fuel use are expected to total 36.8 billion metric tons. Emissions from changes in land use, mostly from chopping down forests, are expected to add another four billion tons. Meanwhile, the world is already experiencing what many scientists say is “dangerous” climate change: extreme heat waves, extreme rainfall, rapidly intensifying hurricanes, ever-increasing melt off of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. (Just in the final days of the COP, heat records were set in places as varied as Spain, China, and Mauritius.)
In light of this situation, which might be called “dire,” were the word not too weak, dozens of countries, including the nations of the European Union, came to Dubai pushing for an agreement on “phasing out” fossil fuels. To the representatives of small island nations, many of which are in danger of disappearing under rising seas, the matter was considered an existential one. Behind the scenes, though, many other countries—in particular, it seems, Saudi Arabia—were pushing back. (Almost half of Saudi Arabia’s G.D.P. comes from selling fossil fuels.) On Monday, the president of COP28, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, who also happens to be the head of the United Arab Emirates’ state-owned oil company, released a draft text that omitted the phaseout language. The move was seen as a capitulation to fossil-fuel interests, and the reaction was fierce: “We will not go silently to our watery graves,” John Silk, the head of the Marshall Islands’ delegation, said. “COP28 is now on the verge of complete failure,” the former Vice-President Al Gore tweeted. The draft, he wrote, “reads as if OPEC dictated it word for word.”
Two days later, a new text appeared. In this version, under Article II A, nations were exhorted to take steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, including “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.” By this point, the session had already gone into overtime, and the new draft, dubbed the U.A.E. Consensus, was quickly adopted. Al Jaber declared the deal “historic,” adding, “We have delivered a paradigm shift.”
Some hailed the agreement as a carbon-intensive version of Nixon goes to China. “That it has taken an oil-producing country to introduce such a commitment into a Cop outcome for the first time is remarkable,” Fiona Harvey, of the Guardian, wrote. “That the president of this Cop is chief executive of the United Arab Emirates’ national oil company, Adnoc, almost defies belief.” The most upbeat assessments held that the agreement would send a strong signal—to politicians, to investors, and to activists. (“I think this is a global turning point,” the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said.)But how is it possible that twenty-eight negotiating sessions were needed to agree on what has been self-evident all along, which is that dealing with climate change will require phasing out or transitioning away from fossil fuels? It is this question which brings us to possibility No. 2: “That this deal has been hailed as a landmark is more a measure of previous failures,” is how James Dyke, the assistant director of the Global Systems Institute, at Britain’s University of Exeter, put it.
The goal of avoiding “dangerous” warming lies at the heart of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a treaty drafted in 1992. (Virtually every nation in the world is now party to the convention, hence the Conference of the Parties.) In the years since the treaty was adopted, the world has emitted more CO2 than it did in all the prior millennia of human history. This dismal record reflects failures and injustices of many different kinds; what unites them is a refusal—largely by the Global North, but also, increasingly, by nations in the South—to face up to a simple set of geophysical facts. Burning fossil fuels inevitably produces carbon dioxide. CO2 hangs around in the atmosphere for a long time—on the order of centuries—and, the more it builds up in the air, the warmer the world will get. (As an added disaster, carbon-dioxide emissions are acidifying the oceans.)