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At COP28, the world calls time on fossil fuel

Jovi Ho
Jovi Ho • 13 min read
At COP28, the world calls time on fossil fuel
COP28 concluded with an agreement to shift away from the world’s traditional energy source. But challenges and uncertainties remain. Photo: Bloomberg
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After intense negotiations, COP28 concluded with an agreement to shift away from the world’s traditional energy source. Challenges and uncertainties remain

The world is set to transition away from fossil fuels, the long-standing energy source that has underpinned the global economy for centuries. After a day of overtime, 198 parties at COP28 agreed to phase out all fossil fuels, marking a historic shift in the nearly three-decade-long climate talks sponsored by the United Nations.

COP28 President Sultan Al-Jaber successfully concluded the first Global Stocktake, gavelling through the text around 11am on Dec 13 in Dubai (3pm Singapore time).

The Global Stocktake, or GST, is a process for countries and stakeholders to measure their progress towards the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international climate change treaty adopted by 196 parties at COP21 in Paris.

The agreed text, first unveiled as a draft around 7am on Dec 13 (11am in Singapore), avoids the term “phase-out”, opting for a “transitioning away” from fossil fuels “to achieve net zero by 2050”.

According to the final text, the Conference of the Parties “further recognises the need for deep, rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in line with 1.5°C pathways” and “calls on” countries to triple renewable energy capacity and double energy efficiency by 2030.

See also: Navigating Singapore's renewable energy landscape: Insights from Apac

It also “calls on” countries to accelerate efforts towards the “phase-down” of unabated coal power and develop “zero- and low-emission technologies”, including carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS).

Verb choice is paramount in these legally binding texts. Saudi Arabia and other large oil producers accepted the text because it is sufficiently vague, and “calls on” bears a relatively weaker modality equivalent to an “invitation” or “request”.

“Over the last two weeks, we have worked very hard to secure a better future for our people and planet,” says Al-Jaber after confirming the GST text. “We should be proud of our historic achievement, and the United Arab Emirates, my country, is rightly proud of its role in helping you to move this forward.”

See also: Bill Gates says he’s ready to put billions into nuclear power

He adds: “Let me sound a word of caution: An agreement is only as good as its implementation. We are what we do, not what we say. We must take the steps necessary to turn this agreement into tangible actions.”

Saudi Arabia’s support of the GST text may have prevented a deadlock. Just hours before the final plenary, Bloomberg reported that the kingdom, which had rejected the idea of phasing down or phasing out fossil fuels, had no objection with the text that calls for a transition instead.

Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman was personally involved in negotiations and was seen walking into the presidency’s office late into the evening of Dec 12 in Dubai’s Expo Centre.

Samoa protests

The seamless acceptance of the final text caught many experts by surprise, as the anticipated opposition may have come too late.

Following the presentation of the GST text, Samoa lead negotiator Anne Rasmussen quickly requested the floor, explaining that her delegation had been consulting fellow members of the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis) and arrived late to the plenary.

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“We didn’t want to interrupt the standing ovation, but we are confused,” says Rasmussen. “It seems you just gavelled the decision, and the small island states were not in the room.”

“We were working hard to coordinate the 39 small island developing states that are disproportionately affected by climate change, and so we were delayed in arriving here. So allow me, Mr President, to deliver the statement that we were going to deliver before this text was adopted,” she adds.

While she commends the “strong references to science”, Rasmussen says some paragraphs in the final text remain weak. “We do not see any commitment or even an invitation from parties to peak emissions by 2025. We reference the science throughout the text and even in this paragraph, but then we refrain from agreeing to take the relevant action to act in line with what the science says we have to do.”

Rasmussen adds: “It is not enough for us to reference the science and make agreements that ignore what the science tells us we need to do. This is not an approach that we should be asked to defend.”

She highlights Paragraph 11, which “recognises the specific needs and special circumstances of developing country parties, especially those particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change”.

“We have repeatedly requested that this be moved to the preamble to align with the Paris Agreement. We do not want to renegotiate the Paris Agreement. This reasonable request has been ignored. We do not consider Para[- graph] 11 to have any effect on the obligations and benefits contained in the Paris Agreement and convention on the special circumstances of the seats and [least developed countries].”

Speaking after Rasmussen, US climate envoy John Kerry highlights the standing ovation given to Samoa, which lasted longer than the one for Al-Jaber after the GST’s conclusion.

“The applause that we just saw for Aosis is a clarion call to all of us about our obligation and responsibility over these next months to ensure we’re reaching as far as we can to implement as fast as we can.”

Kerry, the former US secretary of state under President Barack Obama, commends the work of negotiators. “While all of us can find a paragraph, sentences or sections where we would have said it differently, where we would have liked it not to appear, we would have liked something else to appear; but in a multilateral venue, to have as strong a document as has been put together, I find is cause for optimism, cause for gratitude and cause for some significant congratulations to everybody here.”

Tom Evans, policy adviser at global climate change think-tank E3G, says “not everyone is ready to admit the truth of what’s needed to avert climate disaster”.

He adds: “Champions for a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels — both small island states and major economies — have pushed the rest of the world to realise this transition cannot be stopped. But this is only a small first step … The COP text shows the hard work that lies ahead: rewiring the financial system, driving action to vastly scale up renewables and energy efficiency and crucially paying much more attention to adaptation, which has been neglected, putting all of us at risk.”

Teresa Anderson, global lead on climate justice at international non-governmental organisation ActionAid, says COP28 shows that “while the world’s appetite for climate action has moved significantly forward, its willingness to pay lags behind”.

“The goal to move to a fossil-free future does not yet have the finance components needed to make this goal workable for lower-income countries,” says Anderson in a Dec 13 post on X, the social media network formerly known as Twitter. “If rich countries had been willing to put real finance and fair timelines on the table, the outcome could have been much stronger.”

COP28’s many pains

This year’s summit faced mounting challenges, chief among them scepticism about whether summit president Al-Jaber would broker the talks fairly.

Al-Jaber’s role as the head of the state oil company Abu Dhabi National Oil Company was already cause for concern, but he faced further controversy days before the summit began. Leaked briefing documents revealed the UAE had discussed fossil fuel deals with 15 nations.

The documents — obtained by independent journalists at the Centre for Climate Reporting working with the BBC — were prepared by the UAE’s COP28 team for meetings with at least 27 foreign governments before the summit.

In a Nov 26 report, the UAE team did not deny using COP28 meetings for business talks, maintaining that “private meetings are private”.

After the summit’s first weekend, Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, said in a televised interview on Dec 4 that the world’s top oil exporter would “absolutely not” agree to a text that calls for the phase-down of fossil fuels.

He called out countries pushing for a phaseout of fossil fuel for their hypocrisy. “I’m not naming names,” he said. “But those countries who believe in phasing out and phasing down hydrocarbons, you should come out and put together a plan for how, starting Jan 1, 2024.”

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec), too, complicated matters. In a leaked letter dated Dec 6, Opec Secretary General Haitham Al-Ghais urged Opec+ members to reject draft texts that target fossil fuels.

Citing “undue and disproportionate pressure against fossil fuels”, Al-Ghais urged members to “proactively reject any text or formula that targets energy that is fossil fuels rather than emissions”.

Sentiment soured further after the second and final weekend of the talks, when a draft agreement released on Dec 11 dropped references to the phase-out of fossil fuels, a day before the talks were due to end.

This sparked widespread criticism from experts, including climate advocate and former US Vice President Al Gore, who said COP28 was “on the verge of complete failure”.

Gore says in a post on X: “This obsequious draft reads as if Opec dictated it word for word. It is even worse than many had feared…. It is deeply offensive to all who have taken this process seriously.”

From the first weekend, Gore was critical of the host country, telling Reuters in Dubai that the UAE is “abusing the public’s trust by naming the CEO of one of the largest and least responsible oil companies in the world as head of the COP”.

Commenting on the final text, Gore calls the agreement “the bare minimum we need” and “long overdue”. “The influence of petrostates is still evident in the half measures and loopholes included in the final agreement.”

He says fossil fuel interests “went all out” to control the outcome, “but the passionate work of millions of climate activists worldwide inspired and motivated delegates from many nations to loosen the industry’s grip”.

Gore adds: “We must ask ourselves how much longer will the world have [to] wait before all nations summon the political will to overcome these narrow special interests and act on behalf of the future of humanity. It is up to all of us to hold our leaders accountable to their promise to transition away from fossil fuels once and for all.”

As climate negotiators stare down one another in Dubai, the fossil fuel industry continues deal-making, doubling down on a business generating billions in supernormal profits over the past few years.

On Dec 12, Houston-based Occidental Petroleum shook hands with shale producer CrownRock in a US$12 billion ($16.13 billion) acquisition deal.

The move by Occidental Petroleum, which Warren Buffett backs, is the latest in a slew of mega-billion M&As in the oil industry over three months.

On Oct 12, ExxonMobil announced it was buying Pioneer Natural Resources for US$60 billion and within days, Chevron announced the purchase of Hess for US$53 billion.

Singapore not a claimant

The climate summit had started strong, with world leaders agreeing on a loss and damage fund on the opening day. At least US$790 million has been pledged, and the fund will be hosted through the World Bank for the first four years.

Al-Jaber hailed the “unprecedented” speed of the agreement, which is intended to pay poorer countries for the harm caused by climate change.

Singapore will not claim from the loss and damage fund and will instead support fellow Aosis member states to receive money, says Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu.

Speaking to reporters in Dubai on Dec 11, Fu says the city-state “does not intend to access this finance”. “We will not be claiming from this fund, although we have to invest very significantly into coastal protection.”

Following her ambiguous comments in Parliament in February, her comments ended speculation that the republic could be a potential claimant. “Singapore belongs to [the] developing countries, and we stand as a potential claimant from this loss and damage fund,” said Fu then. “We have not even had the chance to discuss this internationally, and we have to decide whether to contribute or claim from this fund.” 

Singapore targets coal

The republic endeavoured to make itself heard at the summit. Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) managing director Ravi Menon kickstarted the second edition of the Singapore Pavilion on Nov 30, which then hosted 12 days of announcements and panels.

Over a hectic weekend for Singapore’s delegation, MAS launched the Singapore-Asia Taxonomy for Sustainable Finance (Singapore-Asia Taxonomy) on Dec 3, outlining detailed thresholds and criteria for defining green and transition activities contributing to climate change mitigation.

As the world’s first taxonomy to pioneer the concept of a “transition” category, the Taxonomy adopts a “traffic light” classification system — “green” to denote activities that are aligned today with a 1.5°C outcome, and “amber” to denote activities that will move to “green” over a defined period, or facilitate significant emissions reductions in the short term.

Against the fossil fuel fracas, the Taxonomy provides a credible framework to phase out coalfired power plants. This is a critical part of the energy transition in the Asia Pacific, says MAS, as coal accounts for almost 60% of power generation in the region.

Formerly referred to as the Singapore Taxonomy, the guidelines had been expected to be published in June. Instead, MAS sought feedback on additional criteria, such as the phaseout of coal-fired power plants.

Defining transition is particularly salient in Asia, says MAS. “The progressive shift towards a net-zero economy is taking place alongside economic development, population growth and rising energy demands. Clarifying what constitutes sustainable and transition financing will also help reduce the risk of green or transition washing, as financial institutions will be able to identify and disclose how their financed activities and labelled products are aligned with the taxonomy.”

Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean announced a new Asia-focused blended finance initiative that same day. He added that the government is prepared to contribute “catalytic capital” to support the partnership to mobilise up to US$5 billion for green and transition projects.

He first spoke about Financing Asia’s Transition Partnership, or Fast-P, when delivering Singapore’s national statement at COP28 a day prior.

“The initiative will draw on concessional capital to catalyse commercial capital from a range of partners, including multilateral development banks and philanthropists, in support of Asia’s transition to net zero,” says Teo, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security.

As Teo says, “some partners” have already pledged their support for Fast-P. “We are confident that more will follow.” 

Revisit The Edge Singapore’s coverage of COP28 here.

Photos: Bloomberg, Aosis, COP28 Singapore Pavilion

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