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Fossil fuels will not be “phased out”, but the world has now agreed that we must rapidly transition away from using oil, gas and coal in order to reach net zero by 2050, in a historic moment at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

At 11am local time on 13 December, countries adopted the text of an agreement that calls 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.”

“Thirty years we’ve spent to arrive at the beginning of the end of fossil fuels,” Wopke Hoekstra, the European Union’s climate commissioner, told a plenary of countries at the summit.

The agreement, known as the Global Stocktake, also calls for nations to take a series of steps to decarbonise their energy systems, including tripling renewable energy capacity and doubling the rate of energy efficiency improvement by 2030.

“The world needed to find a new way,” COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber told the plenary, after a standing ovation following the adoption of the text without any objections, calling it a “historic package to accelerate climate action”.

“It is the UAE Consensus,” he said. That consensus was reached after two weeks of contentious debate among countries focused around the specific language that would be used to describe the future of fossil fuels, which pushed the summit overtime by more than 24 hours.

Late into the night on 12 December, tired negotiators from each country filed into final consultations with Al Jaber to consult with him on any last concerns about the agreement. An exhausted negotiator from Iraq told New Scientist they had delivered one message to the president: focus on emissions, not fossil fuels, a sentiment reflected by other oil-exporting nations.

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An earlier draft of the agreement had been condemned by many other countries for the opposite reason – that is, for failing to include language on phasing out fossil fuels, something more than 100 nations and scores of civil society groups had spent months lobbying for ahead of the summit.

COP28 has concluded with an agreement on moving away from fossil fuels

GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images

Further countries, such as those in the African Group, opposed the draft because it lacked sufficient support to help countries adapt to climate change and because the language on reducing fossil fuel use didn’t adequately recognise that higher and lower-income nations have different responsibilities for ending fossil fuel use.

Following consultations with these groups, Al Jaber released a new draft of the core agreement at 7am on 13 December, which appears to have found a compromise among these fundamentally divergent views.

“The signal is very clear: we’re moving away from fossil fuels,” Dan Jørgensen, the climate minister of Denmark, which leads an alliance of nations committed to ending the use of fossil fuels, said in an informal huddle just ahead of the plenary. “We’re standing here in an oil country, surrounded by oil countries, saying ‘let’s move away from oil’.”

But there are still numerous ways in which the agreement falls short on what is needed to address climate change, some countries and observers say.

“Overall, the text looks like a major victory for the oil and gas-producing countries and fossil fuel exporters,” says Bill Hare at Climate Analytics, a think tank, pointing to the lack of a clear date for peaking emissions and the mention of the importance of “transitional fuels”, usually interpreted as a reference to fossil fuel gas.

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“We cannot afford to return to our islands with the message that this process has failed us,” Anne Rasmussen, a negotiator from Samoa, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, told the plenary. These small island nations have been a powerful voice for action throughout the summit, saying repeatedly that an agreement that didn’t do more to keep the temperature rise below 1.5°C would be a “death certificate”.

“We have come to the conclusion that the course correction that is needed has not been secured,” she said.

However, the fact that the agreement makes explicit reference to fossil fuels, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, represents a major step for global action on climate change. “This is a much stronger and clearer as a call on 1.5 than we have ever heard before,” John Kerry, the US climate envoy, said to the plenary.

Fossil fuels have been the biggest point of contention at the summit, but the agreement also addresses many other issues related to climate change, including what is needed to help vulnerable countries adapt to climate change and the steps required to reduce methane and other non-CO2 greenhouse gases.

Overall, it represents the world’s official response to the finding that greenhouse gas emissions remain far from the levels that would be in line with climate targets under the Paris Agreement, with a November report finding that around 3°C of warming expected even if all existing climate pledges were met.

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Felecia Phillips Ollie DD (h.c.) is the inspiring leader and founder of The Equality Network LLC (TEN). With a background in coaching, travel, and a career in news, Felecia brings a unique perspective to promoting diversity and inclusion. Holding a Bachelor's Degree in English/Communications, she is passionate about creating a more inclusive future. From graduating from Mississippi Valley State University to leading initiatives like the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program, Felecia is dedicated to making a positive impact. Join her journey on our blog as she shares insights and leads the charge for equity through The Equality Network.

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