COP28 reaches groundbreaking climate deal in Dubai calling for ‘transitioning away from fossil fuels’

After negotiators worked through the night, a new deal has been reached at COP28 which could signal the world’s desire to move away from fossil fuels over the next few decades in an effort to address climate change.

Representatives from nearly 200 countries gathered in a public meeting in Dubai to support the new deal, one day after the climate summit was scheduled to close. Moments after opening Wednesday’s session, COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber gave approval of the central document with the drop of the gavel.

“From the bottom of my heart, thank you,” al-Jaber said. “Together, we have confronted realities and we have set the world in the right direction.”

“We leave Dubai with our heads held high and our work goes on,” he said.

The agreement contains much stronger language on fossil fuels compared to a previous proposal.

For the first time, the text calls for a “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.”

Climate activists protest against fossil fuels during the final stages of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), in Dubai on Tuesday. (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters)

Groundbreaking proposal

During the two-week summit, al-Jaber raised expectations by consistently vowing to strike a historic deal in Dubai.

The  agreement is groundbreaking as it would mark the first time that nations agree at a UN climate summit to explicitly address fossil fuels and the need to move away from oil, natural and coal in order to limit global warming.

“I am in awe of the spirit of cooperation that has brought everyone together,” said John Kerry, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.

“To have as strong a document as has been put together, I find, is cause for optimism, cause for gratitude,” Kerry said.

There is added significance considering the climate summit is being held in OPEC-territory and al-Jaber, himself, is the chief executive of the United Arab Emirates’ state-owned oil company, ADNOC.

WATCH | New draft addresses use of fossil fuels:

COP28 final agreement draft text does not say ‘phase out’ of fossil fuels

The draft final agreement of the COP28 climate summit refers to transitioning away from fossil fuels but does not contain the words ‘phase out,’ the phrase which stalled negotiations earlier.

Still, some countries and environmental leaders are feeling disappointed because the deal does not call for a ‘phase out’ or ‘phase down’ of fossil fuels. Al-Jaber had suggested those terms could be included in a final agreement, but are absent.

The phrasing of transiting away from oil, gas and coal to reach net zero emissions implies that countries will aim to lower their production and consumption of fossil fuels over the coming decades, but can still use them beyond 2050 by using carbon capture facilities and other technology to prevent greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere.

That’s why the agreement is described by some environmental experts as a paradox, since it’s neither a small step forward nor a giant leap in efforts to address climate change, but somewhere in the middle.

“It’s not the phase out that the president promised, but it would be a significant step forward, especially at a COP that has been so visibly captured by the fossil fuel lobby,” said Caroline Brouillette, an environmental campaigner with Climate Action Network Canada.

Posters sit on the ground and against a wall. One poster shows a planet on fire and another reads 'end the fossil era.'
Environmental activists were hoping countries at COP28 would agree to completely phase out fossil fuels by 2050. Above, a poster displayed at the conference. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

The Alliance of Small Island States said on Wednesday it saw “a litany of loopholes” in the agreement,

“The text does not speak specifically to fossil fuel phase out and mitigation in a way that is in fact ‘the step change that is needed,'” said the alliance, known by its acronym AOSIS, which represents several countries that are facing climate effects such as rising sea levels.

AOSIS described the deal as “incremental and not transformational,” but will work with other countries in the spirit of cooperation to accelerate action for its communities.

The deal calls for a tripling of renewable energy capacity around the globe and a doubling of energy efficiency by 2030, which were both supported by Canada.

A person has a gavel in their right hand while on stage at a conference.
Al-Jaber bangs the gavel during a plenary session at the COP28 UN Climate Summit on Wednesday in Dubai. (Kamran Jebreili/The Associated Press)

A proposed deal released Monday was criticized for falling well short of the action needed to address global warming. That initial text was a failure, said Catherine Abreu, founder and executive director of the advocacy group Destination Zero, but Wednesday’s final agreement was worth a B grade.

“Finally, we have a COP outcome that acknowledges the cause of climate change,” she said, “And takes some action on addressing the consequences of climate change by adopting a loss-and-damage fund.

The global climate damage fund was launched during the conference with the support of more than 120 nations. It’s designed to help developing countries cope with the impacts of climate change such as floods, drought and rising sea levels. Germany and the host country U.A.E. were the largest contributors, each giving $100 million US, while Canada pledged about $12 million US.

A man in a suit talks with with microphones and cameras in front of him.
Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault speaks to reporters in Dubai late-Tuesday before leaving COP28. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Canada’s federal environment minister Steven Guilbeault said in a statement the deal “addresses the impacts of polluting and harmful energy sources, and shapes a path towards energies that are safer and more reliable.

“The text has breakthrough commitments on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and the transition away from fossil fuels. The package is not perfect, no UN text is,” Guibeault said.

Most large oilpatch companies in Canada already have set net-zero targets for 2050. Canadian oil production is expected to rise in 2024 to a record high.

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