COP28 delegates applaud

Delegates applaud after a speech by COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber at the United Nations climate summit on December 13, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

(Photo: Fadel Dawod/Getty Images)

'A Tragedy for the Planet': Scientists Decry COP28 Outcome

"The lack of an agreement to phase out fossil fuels was devastating," one prominent expert said.

As the dust settles following the conclusion of the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai on Wednesday, prominent scientists say the final agreement does not do enough to avoid the most dangerous impacts of the climate emergency.

In the Global Stocktake text, national delegates called for "transitioning away from fossil fuels," but did not endorse the "phaseout" advocated by civil society and 130 out of 198 participating countries, according to The Guardian. They also opened potential loopholes for the fossil fuel industry by calling for the acceleration of untested technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS).

"No doubt there will be lots of cheer and back-slapping...," Kevin Anderson, a professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester, toldAgence France-Presse, "but the physics will not care."

"COP28 is the fossil fuel industry's dream outcome, because it looks like progress, but it isn't."

Martin Siegert, a polar scientist who is deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Exeter, told The Guardian: "The science is perfectly clear. COP28, by not making a clear declaration to stop fossil fuel burning is a tragedy for the planet and our future. The world is heating faster and more powerfully than the COP response to deal with it."

University of Pennsylvania climate scientist Michael Mann told AFP that the language around "transitioning away from fossil fuels" was "weak tea, at best."

"It's like promising your doctor that you will 'transition away from donuts' after being diagnosed with diabetes," Mann continued. "The lack of an agreement to phase out fossil fuels was devastating."

According to Anderson, human societies will surpass the carbon budget for limiting global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels if they continue to emit at current levels for the next five to eight years. An editorial published in Nature, meanwhile, said that carbon dioxide emissions would need to be stopped in just over 10 years in order for there to be a 50% chance of stopping warming at 1.5 °C.

The International Energy Agency calculated that pledges made at COP28 would only reduce emissions by around four metric gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030, covering around 30% of the gap between current promises and what needs to happen to limit warming to 1.5 °C.

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe said the COP28 concluded with "a stronger mandate to tackle the root causes of climate change than we had before—but with much less than what we need to avoid 'dangerous interference with the climate system' and meet our Paris goals."

Some did give the agreement credit for finally naming fossil fuels as the root cause of global heating.

"This agreement delivers on making it clear to all financial institutions, businesses, and societies that we are now finally—eight years behind the Paris schedule—at the true 'beginning of the end' of the fossil-fuel driven world economy," Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told AFP.

But others felt it was too little, too late.

"People celebrating COP28... what is WRONG with you??" NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus tweeted.

Kalmus added that he thought it was "shameful" that it had taken 28 COPs to get to the first mention of fossil fuels and showed "just how the entire COP process has been co-opted. This is how we lose a planet."

Others criticized the role of the fossil fuel industry, wealthier nations, and petrostates for watering down the text.

"COP28 is the fossil fuel industry's dream outcome, because it looks like progress, but it isn't," Mike Berners-Lee, a Lancaster University carbon footprinting expert, told The Guardian.

Meanwhile, the Nature editorial also said that developed countries were not acting in line with the science by refusing to adequately fund the energy transition in poorer nations.

"Wealthy countries need to lead the way," the editorial said. "This means not only slashing emissions and driving down the costs of clean-energy technologies, but also providing financial aid to help the poorest countries do their part. Yet world leaders have failed to come up with enough funds."

Mann argued that the COP process should be reformed going forward to prevent the fossil fuel industry or fossil fuel-dependent states from derailing the outcome. For example, decisions could be passed by super-majority instead of consensus and oil executives like Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber could be blocked from leading future talks.

"Mend it, don't end it," he told AFP. "We still need to continue with the COPs. They are our only multilateral framework for negotiating global climate policies."

But if the process is to continue, it needs to yield stronger outcomes.

"Until fossil fuels are phased out, the world will continue to become a more dangerous, more expensive, and more uncertain place to live," Imperial College London climatologist Friederike Otto told The Guardian. "With every vague verb, every empty promise in the final text, millions more people will enter the frontline of climate change and many will die."

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