Welcome to another edition of Climate Matters. We’ve recently had a major climate conference, COP28, and I’d like to share my thoughts about its conclusions and the future it paints.

COP28 (Conference of the Parties) is the 28th United Nations Climate Change conference, held from 30 November to 13 December at Expo City, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. COP is now held annually (apart from 2020 when the Covid pandemic resulted in its cancellation) and has been running since 1992. The event is intended for governments to agree on policies to limit global temperature rises and adapt to impacts associated with climate change.

Expectations of any effective outcome were tempered by both the location and by the choice of president. UAE, the host nation, is known for its opaque environmental record and role as a major producer of fossil fuels, and the president, president Sultan Al Jaber, is the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), Neither seemed likely to embrace the wholesale elimination of fossil fuels. The conference was also notable for the number of fossil fuel lobbyists attending, outnumbering the delegates themselves.

Despite expectations the conference had a number of positive outcomes. Early on the conference agreed a “loss and damage” fund to compensate poor states for the effects of climate change, with significant contributions from the major developed nations. However less successful were attempts to limit fossil fuel subsidies, currently running at record level of 7.1 trillion dollars in the year 2022.

There was controversy on the 4th day, when the president Al-Jaber dismissed demands for a fossil fuel phase-out, but the following day he held a press conference in which he stated he “respects science”, thinks a phaseout of fossil fuel use is inevitable and claimed his comments were taken out of context.

The final agreement encouraged all signatory states to end their dependence on fossil fuels “in a just, orderly and equitable manner”, in order to prevent the worst outcome of climate change, while also working to achieve net zero by 2050. It also called for a tripling of global renewable energy capacity by 2030, the development of numerous “zero- and low-emission technologies”, further efforts “towards the phase-down of unabated coal power” and a cut in methane emissions. China and India did not sign the pledge to triple their output of renewable energy, and committed to coal power instead.

So where does this leave the planet? There are no binding commitments, just ‘encouragement’, ‘desires’, ‘further efforts’ and proposed cuts. On the face of it this seems somewhat underwhelming considering 2023 had the highest global temperatures ever recorded, Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets were at their smallest extent, and by some predictions, most notably by the respected climate scientist James Hanson, the 1.5 °C global temperature ‘limit’ would be passed in 2024. James Hanson was the scientist who first raised the threat of man-made global warming to the US Congress in 1988.

Against this pessimistic backdrop there are some positive rays of sunshine. The COP conferences do not generally contain strong binding commitments, the exception being COP21 in Paris, in 2015, when 174 countries agreed to pursue efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 °C. However, COP28 was the first where the outcome explicitly mentioned the necessity to shift away from all kinds of fossil fuels.

The importance of this agreement cannot be understated. Global fossil fuel companies make enormous profits by extracting a natural resource from the ground, refining and delivering it to the customers, without any charge for the environmental and human damage caused. They spend millions of dollars lobbying (and paying) politicians to dissuade them from taking steps to reduce fossil fuel use, and even more money on promulgating climate denialism and delaying tactics despite internally knowing the damage that is caused. For the president of one of the largest oil companies in the world, at a conference hosted by a major oil producing nation, to sign an agreement to end dependence on fossil fuels is a major breakthrough.

This agreement signals the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel industry. The value of the industry is dependent upon the value of their oil, gas and coal reserves. As consumption falls, so does the value of these assets, and therefore of the businesses. Investment will flee as the world moves to cleaner, greener energy. We may yet be spared the worst consequences of global warming, but only if all governments step up to the plate and cease developing new fossil fuel reserves. The British government is currently in danger of destroying its climate credentials by allowing new oil and gas exploration in the North Sea despite having signed the COP28 agreement. We must all work hard to hold our representatives in parliament to account.

Phil Shotton,

Ramsgate Society Lead on Environment and Climate Change