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COP28: The Fossil Fuel COP


Richard Beardsworth, Professor of International Relations and Head of the University of Leeds Delegation to COP28, reflects on the outcomes of the climate change conference.

The Met Office confirmed this week that 2023 was the hottest year recorded going back to 1850. There was also intense media interest in whether the threshold of 1.5°C has been broken or not, with climate scientists clear that it has been exceeded, but that a run of at least ten years is required to confirm that the planet has entered a post-1.5°C scenario. In this context of climate emergency, the outcomes of COP28 are important. With over 110,000 delegates, COP28 was simply too big, and it remains difficult to assess its outcomes comprehensively. That said, the Global Stocktake (GST) was at the heart of the conference, and the negotiations constituted the political response to it. This opinion piece focuses on this response.

The GST is the first report since the Paris Agreement in 2015 that measures where greenhouse gas emissions stand in relation to keeping the average global temperature to 1.5°C.  The stocktake is categorical that countries are ‘way off track’ and that both scaling up renewable energy and phasing out all ‘unabated’ fossil fuels, with clear time-frames, is necessary. The report provided political momentum at the conference among ministers, negotiation teams, alliances and civil society actors: there was considerable hope that the first reference ever to fossil fuels in a COP final decision would be one of ‘phase-out’ or (at worst) ‘phase-down’. In the end political haggling among the High Ambition Coalition, led by the Marshall Islands, OPEC countries (of which foremost Saudi Arabia) and Russia led to a diplomatic compromise, disappointing many.

This compromise, labelled the ‘UAE consensus’, carries four energy-related outcomes. It is now internationally agreed that all countries should ‘transition away from fossil fuels … accelerating action in this critical decade so as to achieve netzero by 2050’ (para. 28d). Together with side declarations, led by the US and China, on rapid methane emissions reductions, this multilateral decision signals the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era. It was also agreed that renewable energy should be tripled globally and energy efficiency doubled by 2030 (para 28a), accelerating the drop in fossil fuel demand through the energy transition. Finally, it was agreed that future countries’ national plans to align with 1.5°C (called Nationally Determined Contributions, NDCs) must be economy-wide (taking into account all greenhouse gas emissions). The tripling of renewable energy and doubling of energy efficiency can contribute to about a 40% reduction (8Gt CO2e) by themselves. The reduction of the supply of fossil fuels makes up a large majority of the rest: a team at Cambridge Analytics suggests 40% by 2030 on a 2020 baseline, with the complete phase-out of coal and 75% of oil and gas by 2040.

If the alignment with 1.5°C remains the agreed global goal, then the sum of the above decisions means the following: all governments should commit to scheduled targets; these commitments should be reflected in detail in countries’ updated NDCs for 2030; and those who have the economic capacity to transition first should do so, all the while assisting vulnerable countries that cannot transition without financial and technological support (of which petrostates over-dependent on fossil fuel revenue).  In other words, while the political response to the GST was a compromise, with several large loopholes, the wording of the agreement frames the terms in which future climate action by governments is forged.

There are several approaches towards this political response to the GST. The first is scepticism (healthy or unhealthy). For example, the American climate scientist, James Hansen, has declared that 1.5°C is ‘deader than a doornail’; and the leading UK climate activist, George Monbiot, has judged that COP28 (presided by an oil CEO) was ‘a farce rigged to fail’. A second approach is to use the COP meetings as, precisely, a framework for action. The conservative MPs Chris Skidmore, Alok Sharma and Theresa May did so last week when voting against the new oil and gas licensing bill. Post-COP28 they could essentially argue: ‘If x is what is agreed internationally to hold to 1.5°C, then this policy y is utterly inconsistent with our international obligations.’ A similar approach may well be taken by Labour politicians if Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves opt to dilute the 28 billion pledge per annum to accelerate a clean energy economy. In sum, seemingly frail, words matter.

2024 is the year when 40% of the world’s population goes to election, including the US, India and the UK. If we want the political response of COP28 to the GST to mean something, those of us who can vote, must vote, and we must vote for energy policies that remain in line with 1.5°C. Regardless of whether or when the 1.5°C threshold is exceeded in the 2030s, every fraction of a degree of global warming matters. Therefore, all our votes matter. The fossil fuel COP28 produced an international agreement among countries; it is up to us citizens to ensure that this agreement has political meaning now.

This is an opinion piece written by Prof. Richard Beardsworth.

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