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COP28, first step to a fossil-fuel free future

By Reaven D’Souza
Executive Managing Editor

The 28th session of the Convention of Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), held in the United Arab Emirates from 1 November to 13 December, made history by reaching consensus on the need for the world to transition away from fossil fuels, in order to effectively tackle climate change..

Reaching unanimity on key issues has not been a forte of the annual COP climate conclaves. With nearly 200 parties pursuing their own national or regional interests, and each party endowed with a vote and a veto, it is not surprising that agreements on pivotal issues have evaded these gatherings for nearly three decades. An exception to the above, was the COP21 climate gathering in France, when the world unanimously adopted the historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Progress on the 2015 international Paris Pact, to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (ºC) above pre-industrial level, and to continue efforts to limit it to 1.5 ºC has since become an elusive target that subsequent COP gatherings have struggled to push forward. Despite the slow pace in implementing resolutions adopted at climate conferences, there have been several notable achievements at previous COP talks, especially on peripheral climate related issues.

However, the core challenge to climate change — addressing the environmentally deleterious impact of emissions arising from the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas — has been pointedly put aside by participants at most of the climate summits in the past. Climate scientists and activists have for long warned that without putting a halt to emissions arising from fossil fuel combustion, the goal of limiting global warming set by the Paris Agreement, and achieving the various targets outlined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) will be unattainable.

Despite numerous studies and warnings, the combined pressure exerted by the fossil-fuel industry and other vested interests has ensured that any meaningful measure to end fossil fuel usage did not make its way into the final text approved at past COP summits. Even at COP26 in the United Kingdom in 2021, which was billed as the ‘last best chance for climate’, an accord on ‘phasing-out coal’ — a key topic on the COP26 agenda — could not be reached.

While around 40 countries at COP26 agreed to quit coal for power generation, and 23 nations signed for the ‘Coal to Clean Power Transition Agreement’, some of the largest coal producers in the world, including Australia, China, India and the United States, were absent from the agreement. Thus the final text became a compromise, with a watered-down wording that called for ‘phasing down’ not ‘phasing out’ coal.
Studies show that to limit global temperature rise to within the 1.5°C range, around 90 percent of coal and 60 percent of oil and gas must remain unextracted.

Viewed against the repeated covert and overt actions taken by fossil-fuel producers to thwart meaningful resolutions at previous COP events, it is indeed remarkable that the first-ever decision to move away from fossil fuels came at a conference organized in one of the world’s top fossil fuel producing nations. Even more astonishing was that the gavel confirming agreement on the historic decision was wielded by the COP28 President Dr. Sultan Al-Jaber, who is also CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), one of the world’s largest producers of fossil fuel.

Hailed optimistically by many as marking the ‘beginning of the end of the fossil-fuel era’, and criticized by others for not going far enough, the decision at COP28 to begin stepping away from environment-polluting fuels is certainly a welcome move that was long overdue. The fact that it took nearly 30 years for the world to reach an agreement on an issue considered key to containing global warming, is telling.

The belated decision is an admission of the international community’s inability to respond effectively, collectively, and timely to global threats, especially when they are mainly implicit existential threats such as climate change. The delay in addressing fossil fuels over the years is also a shameful reminder of the tenacious grip that the fossil-fuel industry wields over decisions made at global climate conferences.

Nonetheless, at a time when the world is cleft by geopolitical schisms and unilateral decisions are the norm, it is highly commendable that negotiators at COP28 demonstrated a rare solidarity and multilateral approach in reaching consensus on several agreements. Parties with diametrically opposed views on the need to phase out fossil fuels, put aside their differences and found common ground in combating climate change.

Despite more than 100 states urging stronger wording such as ‘phasing out fossil fuels’ in the final text, in the end the approved text only called for: “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.”

Although the wording at COP28 on fossil fuels may be considered weak and leaves room for selective interpretation and implementation, the fact that fossil fuels are even mentioned in a final COP communique is significant. This is also reason enough for oil and gas producing nations to promote measures to protect their economies, investments, and livelihood of their people. Considering the existential threat posed by climate change, it is also imperative that countries highly vulnerable to climate repercussions accelerate actions to mitigate and adapt to the changes, while also reducing their own GHG emissions.

Kuwait in particular is highly vulnerable to climatic aberrations. In October 2021, while submitting its UNFCCC mandated revised Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) document, Kuwait noted that due to an arid climate, high summer temperature, and low annual precipitation, it lacked any freshwater, with 93 percent of its potable water being sourced through expensive seawater desalination processes. The document also added that low-lying coastal areas in Kuwait could be inundated by the predicted future global sea level increases, and that a rise of 0.5 – 2 meters in sea level could lead to a loss of 1.4 to 3 percent of its coastal land that would affect nearly 5 percent of its GDP.

In its NDC, Kuwait pledged to reach carbon neutrality in the oil and gas sector by 2050 and in other sectors by 2060, and to aim for a 7.4 percent reduction in its GHG emissions by 2035 under a business as usual (BAU) scenario. The document also referenced various mitigation projects and strategies that the country intended to pursue to reduce GHG emissions in the energy sector.

These included improving efficiency in energy production, increasing renewable energy projects, promoting carbon capture and storage technologies, as well as introducing mangrove cultivation to absorb CO2 emissions.

However, the national GHG inventory submitted in its NDC also shows that under a BAU scenario, Kuwait’s estimated GHG emissions in 2035 would be around 142 MtCO2eq, an amount 65 percent more than in 2016, the NDC reference year. Additionally, the document revealed that in 2021 Kuwait’s energy-related CO2 emissions were almost four times higher than in 1990, and that its CO2 emissions, at 23 tons of CO2 per capita (tCO2/cap), were the second-highest in the world, second only to Qatar’s 33 tCO2/cap. Kuwait clearly needs to ramp up its ambitions in reducing GHG emissions and move towards renewable energy sources.

Returning to the historic COP28, despite cynicism and criticism ahead of the climate talks, there is no denying that several real achievements were delivered during the two weeks of COP28. The climate conference began on a high-note with a record 154 Heads of States and Government attending the World Climate Action Summit. In a first for any COP conclave so far, leaders reached a consensus on the very first day of their summit, by agreeing to operationalize the contentious Loss and Damage Fund that had eluded a resolution over the past several COP talks.

Commitments to the fund started flowing in almost immediately, with the UAE and Germany both pledging US$100 million to the Fund. Over the days since the Fund’s operationalizing, more than $700 million from developed countries have bolstered the fund. The Loss and Damage Fund aims to help developing countries most affected by repercussions of climate change to mitigate the irreversible economic and non-economic losses they face from global warming each year.

Another major initiative at COP28 was the world’s first ‘global stocktake’ (GST) that evaluated the progress, or lack thereof, in achieving the goals outlined in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Considered a pivotal outcome of COP28, the first GST encompassed all elements of climate change negotiations, and will now serve as a reference for countries to develop stronger climate actions ahead of their next nationally determined contributions (NDCs) due by 2025.

Parties at COP28 also indicated their re-commitment to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement goals, including limiting global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial level, ratcheting up emission reductions by undertaking deep cuts in GHG emissions, and striving to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Around 130 Parties also agreed to triple their renewable energy capacity and double the rate of energy efficiency improvements, by the end of this decade.

At COP28, discussions also continued on setting a ‘new collective quantified goal on climate finance’ in 2024, taking into account the needs and priorities of developing countries. The new goal, which will start from a baseline of $100 billion per year, will be a building block for the design and subsequent implementation of national climate plans that need to be delivered by 2025. Other financing agreements reached at COP28 included the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which received new funding pledges to take the total pledges so far to a record $12.8 billion.

Everything else aside, the COP28 proved to all its detractors that while cynicism and criticism at the laggardly pace of climate talks over the past 27 years were valid and warranted, it was achievements and actions in addressing climate change that mattered. The talks also showed that despite its warts and all, a climate conference held in a petro-state and spearheaded by the CEO of a fossil-fuel company could deliver positive results on issues that had evaded solution over multiple COP events in the past.

In his closing remarks on the final day at COP28, COP28 President, Dr. Sultan Al Jaber said, “We have worked very hard to secure a better future for our people and our planet. We should be proud of our historic achievement.”

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