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Fossil fuels are on the way out, but not fast enough

Indigenous, health and civil society advocates worked hard at the global climate negotiations that just wrapped up in Dubai to put a focus on climate and health justice outcomes.

While the COP28 outcomes may be historic on some measures, they represent only baby steps compared with the giant strides that are needed to protect our health and futures.


Melissa Sweet writes:

Governments in Australia and elsewhere face increasing pressures to phase out fossil fuels in the wake of the global climate summit that just wrapped up in Dubai, the COP28, whose outcomes are being widely interpreted as signalling the end of the fossil fuel era.

However, climate health experts and others have denounced the summit’s failure to commit to a full phase out of fossil fuels, and to commit to meaningful investment in climate justice to protect those countries and communities that have historically contributed the least to the climate crisis but are bearing disproportionate impacts.

“Signals alone are not enough – only real action to phase out fossil fuels will protect people’s health”, said Jeni Miller, Executive Director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance, which represents 160 health professional and health civil society organisations from around the world addressing climate change.

“While recognisable progress was made by COP28, the failure to find consensus on a full and fair phase out of fossil fuels is deeply problematic when people’s health and lives hang in the balance – with the highest price being paid by communities who have contributed least to the problem,” she said in a statement.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) closed in Dubai on 13 December with an agreed text that signals the “beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era by laying the ground for a swift, just and equitable transition, underpinned by deep emissions cuts and scaled-up finance, according to a UN Climate Change news report.

“Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end,” said UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell in his closing speech. “Now all governments and businesses need to turn these pledges into real-economy outcomes, without delay.”

Stiell said his final message is to “ordinary people everywhere raising their voices for change”.

“Every one of you is making a real difference. In the crucial coming years your voices and determination will be more important than ever. I urge you never to relent. We are still in this race.”

World leaders at COP28 were joined by civil society, business, Indigenous Peoples, youth, philanthropy, and international organisations, with some 85,000 participants, including thousands of fossil fuel lobbyists and more than 1900 delegates from the health sector.

Dangerous loopholes

Jess Beagley, Policy Lead at the Global Climate and Health Alliance, said the COP28 final text clearly signals the impending end of the fossil fuel era, naming the need to end dependence on fossil fuels for the first time in a 30-year process.

However, it leaves “gaping and dangerous loopholes” such as carbon capture and storage, ‘transitional fuels’ like fossil gas, and nuclear power, and does not clearly commit to a full, fair or funded fossil fuel phase out, she said.

The Alliance noted the focus on health at the COP, including the COP28 Climate and Health Declaration, signed by 142 countries to date, the first ever official Health Day at COP; and an InterMinisterial meeting on climate and health that brought nearly 50 Ministers of Health and 110 high level health ministerial staff to COP for the first time.

Dr Courtney Howard, Vice Chair of the Global Climate and Health Alliance, said the COP28 outcome, while not the transformational text sought, did nevertheless indicate a turning point.

Dr Lujain Al Quodmani, President of the World Medical Association, said the meeting stood “as yet another global setback, marked by unfulfilled pledges and a lack of protection for our well-being, the future of generations to come, and the health of our planet”.

Josh Karliner, Director of Global Partnerships, Health Care Without Harm, said: “COP28 resulted in a big step forward for the climate and health agenda and two steps back for the health of people and the planet.

“On the one hand we witnessed growing commitment from health ministries around the world for health care decarbonisation and climate resilience…

“On the other hand, the failure of the world’s governments to adequately address fossil fuels – the root of the climate crisis – in these negotiations, keeps us on a warming trajectory that will have catastrophic consequences for our hospitals, our health systems and people’s health, undermining any progress made by the health sector. We need a fossil free future for health.”

Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said: “We watched first-hand as the fossil fuel polluters and wealthy governments manipulated developing countries to undermine real action on climate change … [while] our strong messages of fossil fuel phase-out fell on deaf ears and instead more false solutions will accelerate climate change and deforestation…The UN climate change conference has failed humanity and Mother Earth.” (reported in The Guardian).

Other analysis

Bill Hare, Climate Analytics: The final agreement at the Dubai Climate talks is a mixed bag. For the first time, the move away from fossil fuels is explicitly stated in a COP outcome – a first nail in the coffin for the fossil fuel industry. Yet oil and gas producers squeezed in unhelpful language, pretending gas can be a transition fuel, or that carbon capture can clean up after them.

Climate Action Network: This is the first time that the COP acknowledges and agrees to address the main cause of the climate crisis and sends a signal on the end the era of fossil fuel era. However, this road to transition away from fossil fuels will be at risk from the start because yet again there is no agreement on how this energy transition will be funded and how historical polluters will take responsibility for ensuring that justice and equity is delivered for the vulnerable peoples and countries in the global South.

Tasneem Essop, Executive Director, Climate Action Network International: “The COP outcome opened the road for a fossil fuel free world, but this road is full of potholes, dangerous distractions and if allowed, could lead to a dead end.”

Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International: “After decades of evasion, COP28 finally cast a glaring spotlight on the real culprits of the climate crisis: fossil fuels. A long-overdue direction to move away from coal, oil, and gas has been set. Yet, the resolution is marred by loopholes that offer the fossil fuel industry numerous escape routes, relying on unproven, unsafe technologies.”

Teresa Anderson, Global lead on climate justice, ActionAid International: “COP28 has spotlighted that while the world’s appetite for climate action has moved significantly forward, its willingness to pay lags behind. The mission to move to a fossil-free future does not yet have the finance components needed to make this goal workable for lower-income countries. If rich countries had been willing to put real finance and fair timelines on the table, the outcome could have been much stronger.

Mohamed Adow, Director of Power Shift Africa: “For the first time in three decades of climate negotiations the words fossil fuels have ever made it into a COP outcome. We are finally naming the elephant in the room. The genie is never going back into the bottle and future COPs will only turn the screws even more on dirty energy. Although we’re sending a strong signal with one hand, there’s still too many loopholes on unproven and expensive technologies like carbon capture and storage to keep dirty energy on life support.”

Laura Young, Tearfund Ambassador and Climate Scientist: “The final outcome of the UN climate talks has shifted the dial though it falls short of the landmark energy agreement that would have hailed the end of the fossil fuel era. The result is a mixed bag of transitioning away from fossil fuels whilst opening the door to  dangerous distractions and weakening of past commitments. We should applaud that countries have pledged to triple renewables and double energy efficiency by 2030, but unless coal, oil and gas are phased out at the same time, we’ll continue to fuel climate disaster.’

Lavetanalagi Seru, Regional Coordinator, Pacific Islands Climate Action Network: “The COP28 outcome has signaled that the days of the fossil fuel industry is numbered. There is a growing momentum to transition away from all fossil fuels.  This is an incremental step towards the right direction, however it falls short of climate justice and equity for our frontline communities, with those contributing the most to the climate crisis avoiding their responsibility to provide the finance and support to developing countries to transition and build resilience.

“This outcome continues to allow for dangerous distractions and loopholes, such as carbon capture, nuclear, and removal technologies, and weakening language on gender, human rights, indigenous rights, which is deeply disappointing.”

Sanjay Vashist, Director, Climate Action Network South Asia: “The outcome of COP28 makes it clear that the world only belongs to rich and influential in developed countries. The removal of equity and human rights principles from the final outcome text indicates that vulnerable communities in developing countries need to save themselves on their own and the real climate culprits are not coming to their rescue. We cannot celebrate mere inclusion of reference to fossil fuels in the text if it comes without means of implementation and finance for energy transition for poor and developing countries. If this is what a ‘historical outcome’ looks like, then it is on the wrong side of history.”

Javier Andaluz Prieto, Climate and Energy Head, Ecologistas en Acción: “This decision falls far short of the decisive and historic action we need. The inability of the countries of the global North to facilitate a just transition across the planet, coupled with the blockades of oil-interested countries such as the US and Saudi Arabia, continue to put 1.5°C at risk, no matter how much consensus is said to exist on the issue.”

Julia Levin, Associate Director, National Climate, Environmental Defence Canada: “For the first time ever, countries around the world have collectively agreed on the need to leave oil, gas and coal in the ground. There can be no mistake: the era of fossil fuels is quickly coming to an end. Yet, wealthy countries like Canada and the United States – who have an overwhelming responsibility to phase out fossil fuels first and fastest – have failed the global community by refusing to provide the financial support needed from developing countries in order to transition their economies away from fossil fuels, adapt to the impacts of the climate crisis and address the losses and damages being experienced.”

Nafkote Dabi, Climate Change Policy Lead, Oxfam International: “COP28 has averted disaster, but the final outcome is grossly inadequate. After five decades of fighting against the oil, gas, and coal giants, there is a whisper of hope that the end of the fossil fuel era is near. But justice is the key puzzle piece missing — and without proper funding on the table for low-income countries, we have nothing to celebrate as it means further debt and inequality. Once again, rich countries are trying to avoid their obligation to support people experiencing the worst impacts of climate breakdown, like those in the Horn of Africa who have recently lost everything from flooding six months after a historic five-season drought and years of hunger. These injustices call for urgent and decisive action, and what has been delivered today is miles away from the historic and ambitious outcome that was promised.”

Ann Harrison, Climate Justice Adviser, Amnesty International: “The outcome contains an important signal to the fossil fuel industry and the world that a phase out of fossil fuels is underway, a testament to the people-powered campaign that has pushed for this for decades. Yet the outcome leaves loopholes for business as usual for fossil fuel producers by calling for acceleration of risky and unproven technologies like carbon capture and storage. It also fails to ensure the massive scale up of climate finance needed to ensure the action needed on mitigation and adaptation takes place as soon as possible, leaving developing countries, Indigenous Peoples, frontline communities and other marginalized groups in the lurch.

Forbes has compiled responses from 21 climate experts with the overall message that small steps are not enough, despite the significance of the outcomes.

“Never before have the world’s countries come together and agreed to move away from fossil fuels,” said Rob Bellamy, lecturer in climate and society at the University of Manchester. “This historic agreement is testament to the voluntary architecture of the Paris Agreement, which has made tackling climate change much more effective and easier to agree upon … What we’re going to need now is rapid but responsible implementation of options for reducing emissions, adapting to impacts, and removing carbon from the air.”

James Dyke of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter: “COP28 needed to deliver an unambiguous statement about the rapid phase out of fossil fuels … Unfortunately, that did not happen,” he said. “That this deal has been hailed as a landmark is more a measure of previous failures than any step change when it comes to the increasingly urgent need to rapidly stop burning coal, oil and gas.”

Ilan Kelman, professor of disasters and health at University College London, said: “Another COP circus extravaganza has ended with yet more documents offering little substance … COP has become a distraction from, not momentum toward, effective action. For addressing human-caused climate change and, in tandem, all other sustainability aspects, we have achieved much more outside of COP.”

Mike Berners-Lee, Professor at Lancaster University’s Environment Centre: “COP 28 is the fossil fuel industry’s dream outcome, because it looks like progress, but it isn’t.”

Raphaëlle Haywood, from the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter: “The final report from COP28 is disappointing, but it does not change reality: we need to phase out fossil fuels now, regardless of the words on the page.”

At The Conversation, Associate Professor Matt McDonald says much more is needed than what COP28 has promised.

“In 2023, temperatures are already spiking past the crucial threshold of 1.5°C. The global stocktake of emissions cuts released in advance of the talks shows our current efforts are not enough to stop further warming.

“Countries such as Australia ad