Reactions after the agreement at COP28: “start of the post-fossil era” or “canoe with a pierced hull”?

Some are happy, others disappointed. By approving a long-negotiated agreement this Wednesday, December 13 at the 28th UN climate conference in Dubai, countries around the world agreed to make a “transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems” which must be done “in a fair, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this crucial decade, in order to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050”. The term total “exit” of these greenhouse gas-emitting energies does not appear in the text, a concession made to countries rich in oil and gas. However, never in the history of United Nations climate conferences have fossil fuels as a whole been mentioned, even though their combustion since the 19th century is the primary cause of warming.

The 21-page agreement was then welcomed by the Emirati presidency of the conference, the United States, the European Union, France, Spain and the Netherlands, as well as the Arab countries. This is a “historic” decision to accelerate climate action,” said Sultan al-Jaber, Emirati president of this UN conference which brought together some 200 countries. The controversial president of the event, also head of the national oil company, is proud of the text adopted by consensus, without any of the 194 countries or the European Union objecting to his refusal. “For the first time, our final agreement contains references to fossil fuels,” he stressed, “we are leaving Dubai with our heads held high.”

Saudi Arabia also expressed on behalf of the Arab group its “gratitude” and praised “the great efforts” of the Emirati presidency. Riyadh asserted that countries must also “exploit all possibilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, whatever the source, and using all technologies.” The Gulf country is referring here to carbon storage and capture technologies, which are still poorly developed and very expensive.

It took almost thirty years of COP to “arrive at the beginning of the end of fossil fuels”, applauded at the same time the European Commissioner for Climate, Wopke Hoekstra. “We are taking a very, very significant step” to limit warming to 1.5°C, he believes. The “historic” agreement concluded at COP28 “marks the beginning of the post-fossil era”, rejoiced the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. In a world plagued by the return of conflicts, this agreement is in fact “a reason to be optimistic”, launched the American envoy for the climate, John Kerry.

“The COP28 agreement which has just been adopted is a victory for multilateralism and climate diplomacy,” noted French Minister of Energy Transition Agnès Pannier-Runacher in Dubai on Wednesday. Emmanuel Macron welcomed “an important step” which “commits the world to a transition without fossil fuels”, while calling for “accelerating” the fight against global warming.

A “litany of shortcomings”
But contrary to the general relief and the thunderous applause during the blow of the gavel delivered by Sultan al-Jaber after a long night of negotiations, the UN, the small island states eaten away by the rising oceans and certain public figures have been more measured. According to the latter, the adopted text includes a “litany of shortcomings”, does not directly call for an exit from fossil fuels and includes loopholes for countries that wish to continue to exploit their hydrocarbon reserves. Thus disappointing the hundred countries which demanded a stronger decision.

The alliance of small island states (Aosis), particularly threatened by climate change, expressed reservations and concerns after the adoption of the text, which it considers insufficient. “We have taken a step forward compared to the status quo but it is an exponential change that we really need,” regretted the representative of the Samoa Islands Anne Rasmussen, whose country chairs the organization. Delegates from Europe and other nations applauded her, giving a long standing ovation.

“The era of fossil fuels must end, and it must end with justice and equity,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres after the agreement was announced. “I want to say that the exit from fossil fuels is inevitable, whether [countries] like it or not. Let’s hope it doesn’t come too late,” urged this herald against climate chaos, addressing “those who opposed a clear reference” to this notion of elimination in the COP28 text. “The world cannot afford delays, indecision or half-measures,” he insisted. The text adopted by consensus can therefore be summed up in two words: imperfect compromise.

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