Governments need to break with fossil fuel addiction to tackle the climate crisis

The brutal truth as we reflect on COP28 is that we are far from where we need to be to prevent catastrophic climate change

Protesters from Coal Action Network set up a climate justice memorial at Lloyd’s of London.

Our changing climate responds to changes in its composition, not words on a page or a speech from a podium. In other words – it is actions that will shape our future, not speeches, conferences or global pacts.

The brutal truth as we reflect on the COP28 outcome is that humanity is far from where we need to be if we are to have a hope of preventing catastrophic climate change that would irrevocably change our climate, the natural world and human civilisation.

The science is clear. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the most authoritative group of climate scientists on Earth, believe that the viability of humanity living within planetary boundaries rests on the actions we take in the next seven years. 

If we fail to achieve the changes to our energy use, carbon and methane emissions believed necessary by the IPCC any realistic hope of keeping global temperatures to within 1.5C above pre-industrial levels will be lost.

To keep within the 1.5°C limit they state that emissions need to be reduced by at least 43% by 2030 compared to 2019 levels, and at least 60% by 2035. This is the decisive decade, yet carbon emissions from fossil fuels and methane emissions, which contribute about a third of the temperature rise, will reach record levels in 2023, up 1.1% compared to 2022 levels and up 1.5% compared to pre-pandemic levels.

There is some good news to go with the bad. 2023 is projected to be the emissions peak, at long last. Almost all the Northern Hemisphere along with Australia and New Zealand are now seeing a decline in emissions, the only exceptions being Canada, Mongolia, and South Korea. Importantly, this group now includes China and the United States for the first time, the world’s two largest emitters.

Altogether there are now 42 countries, responsible for well over half the world’s emissions, that are on a path of steadily declining emissions, up from 36 last year. However developing countries are mostly increasing their per capita emissions. Excluding China, they account for over 40% of global emissions. Without progress in these countries, there is little chance for the world to achieve its 1.5-degree target.

It is important to acknowledge however that in many developing countries the rise in emissions is linked with changes in their land use, partly to satisfy demand for agricultural products in foreign countries. Deforestation to free up land for farming is a particular problem in the Congo, Papua, and Amazon forest basins, although for the latter there has been encouraging progress in reducing deforestation rates in 2023

Overall emissions are expected to fall to 2% below 2019 levels by 2030 if existing country plans are followed, far from the 43% required to keep temperatures below 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

In these circumstances we might expect the final COP28 text to be a call to action, one with clear deadlines, robust targets and sanctions for countries which fail to step up.

But that is not how UN conferences work. There are no sanctions and no deadlines. The only pressure a COP can put on its participants is that of the crowd – the reality that if the vast majority of nations want a specific outcome the outliers feel the need to fall in line.

Such was the story last week, as a last ditch conversation between the US, COP leaders UAE and Saudi Arabia finally got the latter to agree, for the first time, to text specifically referencing fossil fuels.

The final COP28 text thus calls for countries to “transition away” from fossil fuels – a landmark in that this is the first reference to reducing their use in a COP final text, but insufficient given the science and the urgency for dramatic, system wide change.

The response has been muted. Climate scientists acknowledged that the call to transition away from fossil fuels was historic, but said the deal was too weak to enable the world to keep global heating below the 1.5C Paris limit. The statement was vague, they argue, without targets or dates for emissions cuts, allowing a far greater role for carbon capture than is feasible and backing gas as a “transition fuel”, when most gas reserves must remain in the ground.

Developing countries were particularly aggrieved that little was promised to help them transition away from fossil fuels. The final deal included only a $700m (£549m) commitment to “operationalise” a new loss and damage fund for the rescue and rehabilitation of poor and vulnerable countries stricken by climate disaster.

Harjeet Singh, director of strategy for Climate Action Network International, said: “Developing countries, still dependent on fossil fuels for energy, income and jobs, are left without robust guarantees for adequate financial support in their urgent and equitable transition to renewable energy. The final outcomes fall disappointingly short of compelling wealthy nations to fulfil their financial responsibilities, obligations amounting to hundreds of billions.”

The loss and damage commitment falls far short, argues Asad Rehman of War on Want, of the developing countries’ demand for the “acknowledgment of historical responsibility, or redistribution, or the remaking of a financial system of debt, tax and trade that has been rigged to keep developing countries locked into exploiting resources simply to fill the coffers of rich countries.”

The biggest change, some believe, will be the impact of the agreement on investor behaviour as the day approaches when fossil fuel assets will lose all or the majority of their value as the world shifts to renewables and nuclear.

 “Now the signals are clear,” said Jennifer Morgan, Germany’s climate envoy. “If you’re an investor, the future is renewable. Fossil fuels are stranded assets.”

Morgan may be right, but the long expected date when fossil fuel assets become near worthless remains unknown, while for the moment fossil fuel companies including the UAE’s own Adnoc plan to open yet more oil and gas fields even scientists call for all exploration to end.

COP28 has undoubtedly moved the dial, but not far or fast enough. The outcome as things stand, says secretary general of the UN, António Guterres, is still a “hellish” future.

“Present trends are racing our planet down a dead-end 3C temperature rise,” Guterres continued. “This is a failure of leadership, a betrayal of the vulnerable, and a massive missed opportunity. Renewables have never been cheaper or more accessible. We know it is still possible to make the 1.5 degree limit a reality. It requires tearing out the poisoned root of the climate crisis: fossil fuels.”

Guterres is right. The pace of change may be too slow and uneven across countries, but experience shows that change towards a low-carbon economy is technologically and economically feasible.

Countries with decreasing emissions have shown that economic growth can be decoupled from higher emissions, and that government policies can meaningfully impact industrial emissions. The world’s governments now need to accelerate the transition and finally break with the fossil fuel addiction that got us here.

Mike Buckley is the director of the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations and a former Labour Party adviser 

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