Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

The End of Fossil Fuels: a Historic Conference ?

The End of Fossil Fuels: a Historic Conference ?
 Joseph Dellatte
Resident Fellow - Climate, Energy and Environment

Ambiguous communication strategies, crucial yet divisive issues, and tense geopolitics marked COP28, which concluded in Dubai. The conference was predominantly devoted to mitigation, in stark contrast to COP27, which had centered around loss and damage, leaving suspense lingering until the final moments. The much-anticipated dramatic twist unfolded as the possibility of a gradual transition away from fossil fuels was explicitly mentioned in the final declaration for the very first time.

Joseph Dellatte, resident fellow for Climate Policy at Institut Montaigne, delves into the behind-the-scenes dynamics of this conference orchestrated by the United Arab Emirates.

The key issues at COP28 were twofold: the Global Stocktake and the thorny question of mitigating global emissions. As the Conference draws to a close, have the negotiators managed to make progress on these two issues?

COP28 opened with an unexpected success

COP28 opened with an unexpected success as the parties reached an agreementon the establishment of the new Loss and Damage Fund. This fund will be entrusted to the World Bank, operating under the governance of a joint North/South Board of Directors. However, the Dubai conference did not primarily focus on financing issues, and no significant decisions were made on the matter; it remains a critical subject for the upcoming COPs.

Ultimately, the central theme of this COP revolved around the transition away from fossil fuels, exposing irreconcilable visions. On one side, the Europeans and small islands advocated for a definitive and comprehensive phase-out of hydrocarbons. On the other side, some countries argued that achieving carbon neutrality meant employing various means, including advanced emission sequestration technologies, allowing them to continue using fossil fuels. This perspective was championed by the Gulf oil monarchies, certain African and Latin American countries, and major emerging economies. These nations contended that an abrupt end to fossil fuels use could impede or slow their development, given their current reliance on fossil energies for growth. As a compromise, they sought compensation from Northern countries in exchange for a planned phase-out. However, this position, not novel, was once again rejected by so-called "developed" countries, who adamantly refused such financing, fearing the obligation to pay rich oil-producing nations, such as Saudi Arabia, to limit their oil extraction.
Nevertheless, the final declaration of COP28 in Dubai, particularly the energy section of the Global Stocktake, unequivocally commits the involved parties to a "Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade." States have also pledged to triple their renewable energy capacity by 2030, a notable commitment that received immediate acclaim from most of the world's major leaders, marking a historic first. Emmanuel Macron, for instance, lauded the agreement, emphasizing its significance in "committing the world to a transition without fossil fuels, by tripling renewables and recognizing the key role of nuclear power."

The question remains: How "historic" is this declaration truly? While it is indeed unprecedented for any previous declaration to explicitly mention "fossil fuels," it's crucial to note that the financing, method (abandoning hydrocarbons or financing to achieve the objectives), and the timeline for this transition have not been definitively decided. These three points continue to be sources of deep division. Intriguingly, the text also acknowledges the role of certain hydrocarbons as "transition fuels."

 The financing, method and the timeline for this transition have not been definitively decided. These three points continue to be sources of deep division.

One such example is natural gas (LNG, etc.). Natural gas, while a hydrocarbon, reduces emissions compared to coal or oil and is anticipated to be used by industries before transitioning to carbon-neutral technologies. However, it is essential to highlight that natural gas remains a fossil fuel and is a significant fossil resource for the United Arab Emirates, the host of the Conference, led by its president, Sultan Al Jaber, who also serves as the CEO of the country's primary oil company, rich in gas deposits.
In essence, while many express satisfaction with the outcomes of COP28, the results are, like always, nuanced. Some agenda items, such as the unresolved technical rules of Article 6 on international carbon markets and the ongoing deliberations about the Mitigation Work Program, remain pressing issues on the table for the next COPs.
This conference also witnessed the emergence of a potentially pivotal initiative-the call for a global taxation of fossil fuels. Spearheaded by France, Barbados, and Kenya, this task force aims to provide climate financing, relieving the pressure on the public budgets of Northern countries for various adaptation, mitigation, or loss and damage funds. Public opinion and the majority of governments in the North are wary of increasing direct redistribution to the South. Not surprisingly, this proposal has, for now, been summarily dismissed by many countries, including OPEC members. However, discussions persist within a coalition of countries, leaving the door open for its potential resurgence in future conferences.
An additional query revolves around nuclear energy. Historically marginalized at climate summits, nuclear energy gained substantial consideration in Dubai. À coalition of countries, including France, the United States, and South Korea, declared their commitment to tripling nuclear power capacity by 2050. The final declaration of the Global Stocktake also acknowledges nuclear power as a solution for achieving carbon neutrality.
In Dubai, more than ever before, a clear discrepancy emerged between the ambitious goals presented by various stakeholders (NGOs, Western civil society, and small, highly vulnerable islands) and the trajectory of negotiations. The publication of the first global stocktake mandated by the Paris Agreement, a significant milestone of the Dubai COP, highlighted the considerable gap between the objectives set in 2015 at COP21 and the current state of our trajectories.

Political representation and communication strategy: how would you sum up the atmosphere at COP28 in Dubai? What was the highlight that summed it up and embodied it?

The overall atmosphere at the conference took on a distinct character

The overall atmosphere at the conference took on a distinct character as geopolitics permeated the proceedings in a unique manner. While protests authorized by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have always been part of such events, activists sought refuge within the conference's confines, where UN rules hold sway, to evade prevalent censorship in the Emirates.

Numerous environmental activists aimed to display the Palestinian flag in a gesture of support for the cause, but such displays were prohibited. Undeterred, activists turned to wearing keffiyehs, which, too, faced reprimands but persisted in their presence. Notably, the Fossil of the Day, a satirical award organized by climate NGOs during the conference, traditionally given to the most uncooperative participants in the negotiations, was, on certain days, awarded for the plight of Palestine rather than climate-related concerns. This shift created discomfort for some activists who resisted the idea of conflating different causes, preferring not to entangle themselves in geopolitical affairs or feeling uneasy about meetings that resembled unequivocal pro-Palestinian gatherings denouncing Israel.

How did Sultan al-Jaber, the President of COP28, "live up to his role"? How did he appear throughout the COP?

Due to a confirmation bias surrounding the perceived positions of the much-criticized president of this Emirati COP, there was actually little remarkable to highlight about Sultan al-Jaber's leadership. He appeared consistent with expectations and demonstrated awareness of his interests. A controversy erupted in the first week when an interview with The Guardian surfaced. Allegedly, several weeks before the conference, Sultan al-Jaber told Mary Robinson, a world-class climate activist and former President of Ireland, that there was no scientific evidence compelling the cessation of fossil fuels to combat global warming.
While the scandal stirred activists, it swiftly subsided after he secured support from influential figures. The initial texts proposed by Sultan al-Jaber at the onset of the ministerial week often fell short of expectations, leading to subsequent reassessments. Despite his genuine expertise in renewable energies and professed commitment to achieving carbon neutrality, he emerged as an advocate for the continuation of hydrocarbons with emission sequestration options. This stance angered and divided many, particularly in Europe.
Sultan al-Jaber, essentially a pragmatist, believes in engaging major oil companies in climate negotiations. Notably, more than two thousand accredited members of the oil lobby were present at the COP. At the peak of the conference, media reports indicated that OPEC had sent a letter to its member countries attending the COP, asserting that a final declaration on phasing out fossil fuels would be highly detrimental to the economy. This revelation triggered outrage among some activists, while others interpreted it as a display of anxiety-induced weakness by oil companies-a recurring dynamic in the typical climate conference game.

Geopolitics of COP28: can we oppose a global South and a West? What are the dividing and converging lines? What alliances have emerged between countries?

COP28 witnessed significant deviations from COP27. While in Sharm el-Sheikh, the North/South divide was pronounced and centered on the Loss and Damage Fund, this time the division took a different form. Concerning the issues of mitigation and decarbonization, some countries in the South aligned themselves with European nations, including small islands and certain African countries. Conversely, other emerging countries, such as India and China, opposed the shift away from fossil fuels. The dividing line resurfaces intermittently, particularly when financing becomes a focal point. Coalitions prove to be fluid, constructed on a case-by-case basis.

After the Emirates, Azerbaijan: what signal is being sent by the choice of this country, which is rather questionable in terms of the criteria of Western democracies?

This decision may appear unexpected, yet it represents the only feasible option dictated by strong geopolitical constraints. Conferences are systematically arranged in each of the UN's geographical regions on a rotating basis. The upcoming conference was slated for Eastern Europe, but Russia exercised its veto power against all European Union countries, reciprocated by the EU vetoing Russia. Failing an agreement, the responsibility would default to Bonn, where the UNFCCC headquarters is situated-an outcome undesirable for the Germans. This left Serbia, Macedonia, and Moldova, who lacked the resources, and Azerbaijan and Armenia, both vetoing each other. Ultimately, Armenia withdrew its veto against Azerbaijan. The symbolism is notably disconcerting. While the choice of organizing a climate conference in the Émirates, a nation with 30 % of its GDP reliant on fossil fuels, had already sparked discontent, the prospect of hosting a climate conference in Azerbaijan, where 60 %+ of the GDP is based on hydrocarbons, is unlikely to elicit enthusiasm, to say the least.

Interview by Hortense Miginiac
Image copyright: Giuseppe CACACE / AFP

Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English