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What does the COP28 deal to ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels actually mean? | Climate News


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The latest UN climate change conference in Dubai has seen almost 200 countries commit to “transitioning away from fossil fuels” for the first time.

COP28 negotiators have described it as a “historic” and a “landmark” deal for global efforts to reach net zero by 2050.

But many climate scientists are questioning the impact it will have, with others sceptical about the COP process in general.

Here Sky News looks at what the deal means globally, for the UK and for you.

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COP28 president ‘proud’ of historic deal

Fossil fuels, net zero and carbon capture

Despite being widely used, some of the key terms used in COP agreements such as the one struck in Dubai can feel ambiguous.

• Fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas, form naturally from dead plants and animals in the Earth’s crust. They contain hydrocarbon and can be extracted and burned as fuel for heat and electricity.

• Fossil fuel subsidies are defined as any action by a government to lower the cost of fossil fuel production or prices for energy consumers. In 2022 the International Monetary Fund estimated they were worth 7.1% of global GDP, the equivalent of $7trn (£5.6trn).

• Net zero is achieved when global greenhouse emissions balance out what we remove from the atmosphere. It’s not the same as ‘carbon neutral’, a label often used by businesses to imply a concerted reduction in carbon emissions and offsetting those they do produce.

• Carbon capture uses technology to trap carbon dioxide emitted from fossil fuels and store it underground to avoid any harmful effect to the environment.

• ‘Unabated fossil fuels’ refer to those where no attempt has been made to reduce their emissions through techniques such as carbon capture and storage.

What does the deal promise?

  • Transitioning away from fossil fuels in our energy systems, beginning in this decade, in a just, orderly and equitable manner so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science
  • Rapidly phasing down unabated coal and limiting the permitting of new and unabated coal power generation
  • Tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030
  • Accelerating efforts globally towards net zero emissions energy systems, utilising zero and low carbon fuels well before or by around mid-century
  • Accelerating zero and low emissions technologies, including, inter alia, renewables, nuclear, abatement and removal technologies, such as carbon capture and utilisation and storage particularly in hard to abate sectors, and low carbon hydrogen production, so as to enhance efforts towards substitution of unabated fossil fuels in energy systems
  • Substantially reducing non-CO2 emissions, including, in particular, methane emissions globally by 2030
  • Accelerating emissions reductions from road transport through a range of pathways, including development of infrastructure and rapid deployment of zero emission vehicles
  • Phasing out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that do not address energy poverty or just transitions, as soon as possible

What does ‘transitioning away’ mean – aren’t we doing it already?

There was agonising debate over the phrasing of the agreement’s clause on fossil fuels, with “transitioning away” eventually chosen over “phase out” or “phase down”.

It means that renewable energy will increase and be gradually substituted for fossil fuels across all global energy systems, according to Professor David Reay, expert in carbon management at the University of Edinburgh and co-chair of the Just Transition Commission.

He tells Sky News that unlike “phase out” there is no determined end point to a “transition”, with the language chosen to cater for countries still heavily reliant on fossil fuels without the economic means to adapt as quickly as others.

Professor Ilan Kelman, an expert in disasters and health at University College London, adds that most countries, including the UK and the US, have been “transitioning away from fossil fuels” for decades.

“This is simply the international community saying we agree that we are transitioning and will continue to transition.

“But what does it mean? Not a lot unless we act on it. It’s just legal terminology. We’ve had similar wording in agreements before that haven’t been acted on.”

At COP26 in Glasgow, “phase out” was used for a clause on coal, but this year it has arguably been diluted to “phase down” and “unabated coal”, which implies coal production can continue.

Professor Kelman adds: “It’s really up to governments, companies, non-profits and individuals to enact it and ensure they go forward with it.”

Read more:
What Lego can tell us about COP28
Analysis: COP ‘historic – but for wrong reasons’
Who is the COP president?

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Can we phase out fossil fuels?

Is COP legally binding?

COP places no legal obligation on its signatories to meet the terms of its agreements.

In response, countries are expected to update their own climate change legislation and ‘nationally determined contributions (NDCs)’, drawn up as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, accordingly.

Professor Reay says this year’s COP agreement is “really important to set the stage” as new NDCs are currently being devised ahead of the next set of targets in 2025.

“By the time we get to COP in Brazil in 2025, we’ve got a possibility of a major closing of the gap in terms of what nations are committing to do and how that adds up to limiting warming close to 1.5C,” he says.

Professor Kelman is more sceptical, saying the lack of accountability and enforcement for countries who fall behind on their promises makes the process “meaningless”.

What does it mean for me?

If the near-200 countries signed up to COP28 honour the idea of “transitioning away” from fossil fuels, fewer companies are likely to invest in them, Professor Reay says.

This means that at a consumer level, renewable alternatives like electric cars and heat pumps will become more commonplace – making it easier for us to make green choices, he adds.

But Professor Kelman argues that while COP reinforces the need to reduce our electricity consumption, it is “up to governments local through to national to enact the legislation so people are not hurt” by climate initiatives.

“COP processes and these agreements don’t really have much of an impact on individuals,” he says.

“But as individuals, if we want cheaper electricity, to breathe cleaner air, and for our taxes not to go towards subsidising fossil fuels we have to tell our politicians we want those things.”

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Sunak says North Sea plans are ‘better for climate’

How does the UK stand?

The UK Climate Change Act was passed in 2008 and has been updated regularly by successive governments according to global warming estimates and COP agreements.

Like most countries, it has always had the goal of contributing to net zero by 2050.

But earlier this year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was heavily criticised for delaying the ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles, weakening targets to phase out gas boilers, and issuing new gas and oil drilling licences in the North Sea.

While Professor Kelman describes the original UK climate legislation as “world leading”, he says the new North Sea licences are the “antithesis” of climate targets and the transition to a green economy.

Professor Reay chairs the Just Transition Commission, which advocates for progressive long-term sustainability strategies that do not come at a cost to individuals.

He warns that the UK government is using the concept of a ‘just transition’ as an “excuse to go slower on climate action”.

“We’re losing climate leadership not just morally, but it will also damage us economically if we carry on this line of essentially hiding from climate action,” he says.

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Climate activist says COP has given her a ‘flower for her grave’

Is COP28 strong enough for net zero by 2050?

Net zero targets depend first on whether countries adhere to the agreement, but also on how net zero is defined and calculated, Professor Kelman says.

“There are climate experts who say that net zero is so ambiguous and vague that it doesn’t mean much.

“So there’s a chance that countries might not meet their target or they’ll calculate it in such a way that doesn’t help in extensively reducing all greenhouse gases.”

But although we are “way off” the Paris target of limiting warming to 1.5C by the end of the century – instead on track for 3C – Professor Reay still believes COP28 “gets us closer” to net zero 2050 goals.

“This will provide a context for nations to ramp up their ambitions and move us closer,” he adds.

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