Verdicts are already being given on the latest climate deal which emerged early this morning [13 Dec] in Dubai, although many weary COP28 participants have yet to arrive home.
There has been considerable debate and discussion over the best path forward, but there was general agreement among Oxford researchers about the devastating impact of fossil fuels and the need to phase out their use, while supporting nature-based solutions, developing renewables and switching to clean energy.
It had been clear from the beginning; though, this was to be a major talking point at COP – and so it proved. During the conference, the university’s environmental researchers and climate experts have made clear concerns about the prospects for limiting global warming, protecting nature and delivering on climate justice for developing nations.
As the conference closed, experts were sharing reflections. Kaya Axelsson, said, ‘It's taken almost 30 years to have a serious conversation about fossil fuels [which] demonstrates the political might of the industry. But, by the same logic, the fact we are now talking about hardly anything else shows tides are turning, even as an oil producing nation holds the pen.
"Contribute to" is less strong than... "require" and "transition away" is weaker than "phase out," but this still represents an historic signal that the fossil fuel era is coming to a close
‘The line we have all been waiting for on the phase out of fossil fuels has arrived in a new form: The text: "calls on parties to contribute to... transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly and equitable manner..."
‘"Contribute to" is less strong than a word such as "require," and "transition away" is weaker than "phase out," but this still represents an historic signal that the fossil fuel era is coming to a close.’
Meanwhile, Professor Myles Allen, the scientist behind the term ‘Net Zero’, asked, ‘So, COP28 has just called 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”. Is this the moment that the world finally decided to hit the brakes, even if ever so gently, on fossil-fuelled global warming?’ See full comment here.
Talking just before the end of the conference, Alexis McGivern said, ‘We’re hopefully going to see the key cause of the climate crisis - fossil fuels - addressed head on in the text. Of course, without the requisite finance and technology transfer to the Global South to help their transition, and without historical polluters stopping extraction first, this will not be equitable. Centring a just approach to transition means understanding that any cover text must echo Paris language of common but differentiated responsibilities.’
Professor Nathalie Seddon said, ‘Robust evidence from science and practice highlights the importance of protecting and restoring biodiversity for a habitable, cooler world. The Global Stocktake and Global Goal on Adaptation texts have recognised this, in the inclusion of nature-based solutions and ecosystem-based approaches for both mitigation and adaptation to climate change.
There is a lack of language on the importance of guidelines for high-integrity nature-based solutions, that ensure local benefits for people and biodiversity as cornerstones of resilience in a warming world
Professor Nathalie Seddon
‘A significant development is the inclusion of an explicit reference to the Kunming Biodiversity Global Biodiversity Framework agreed at the UN Convention of Biological Diversity. The text has also acknowledged the critical need to respect the rights and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, which we support.
‘However, there is a lack of language on the importance of guidelines for high-integrity nature-based solutions, that ensure local benefits for people and biodiversity as cornerstones of resilience in a warming world. Whilst transitioning away from fossil fuels marks an important moment in the history of UNFCCC, we are frustrated that stronger language calling for a fair and funded fossil fuel phase-out was not included.’
And Dr Abrar Chaudhury pointed out, 'With the controversial appointment of a head of an oil company as the COP president, COP 28 was rife with mistrust and conflict of interest from the beginning. Yet, in all the climate gatherings, one central actor has always been missing - business. 100 companies are responsible for 70% of emissions, yet these businesses shied away from the negotiations and instead built their own spaces for discussions. This silo was broken by bringing the key stakeholder in the room.'
He continued, 'Some argued that the COP was hijacked by the oil barons, yet no progress can be made unless the opposing sides sit together. The final text may have been diluted under the garb of techo fixes such as removal and storage technologies, with a lack of clarity on the finance and technology, but it is a step towards agreeing that fossil fuel is incompatible with a 1.5C world. Despite the efforts of a horde of lobbyists and consultants, it is a blow to the fossil industry and is a signal of the beginning of the end of fossil fuels.’
Despite the efforts of a horde of lobbyists and consultants, it [the agreement] is a blow to the fossil industry and is a signal of the beginning of the end of fossil fuels
Dr Abrar Chaudhury
But, just to remind everyone that other issues were under debate in Dubai, Dr Radhika Khosla pointed out, ‘Sustainable cooling was a COP28 success story. 63 countries signed a pledge to cut their emissions from cooling systems by 68% by 2050.
‘This was the first international commitment to target emissions from air-conditioning and refrigeration for food and medicine. Signatories included several G20 countries, including the US and Canada, where nearly three-quarters of the potential for cutting cooling-related emissions by 2050 resides. Cooling is now firmly on the global agenda.’ See article here.
Meanwhile, Professor Juliane Reinecke maintained the very process of COP negotiations could represent an issue, '‘A fundamental challenge exists: the two-table problem: the disconnect between negotiators representing their countries at the official COP table and the domestic constituents they need to answer to back home.'
It is now some two weeks since the conference started, but even before people flew out to Dubai, the massive scale of the challenge was already being set out by leading researchers, with fears about whether it was still possible to stay on the Paris pathway – with global warming limited to 1.5 C.
On 30 November, Professor Cameron Hepburn said, ‘1.5 degrees is not dead yet, but a massive resuscitation effort is required to save it.
1.5 degrees is not dead yet, but a massive resuscitation effort is required to save it
Professor Cameron Hepburn
‘The good news is, there is a huge amount of clean innovation in the private sector, clean capital flows are rising and clean costs declining. Polluting industries will need to be ready to either clean up their mess, and remove CO2 from the atmosphere, or pay the full economic costs of the damage they are causing.’
And, in an interview Professor Lavanya Rajamani, maintained, We are not on track for the much-discussed and debated 1.5-degree C restriction on global warming, which has been the cherished target of every COP since 2015 in Paris…The Report of the Technical Dialogue of the Global Stocktake from September was very clear about this. Despite all the pledges and all the talk, we are on an overshoot pathway.’
There were, though, early indications that there would be some movement on climate justice – and providing assistance to developing countries – with the announcement of a loss and damage fund. But Professor Sam Fankhauser explained, ‘The new facility is very welcome, but unlikely to cover the climate impacts we have already unleashed.'
And Natasha Lutz, researcher on climate change, said at COP, ‘This agreement is a welcome step towards ensuring the balance of financial responsibility is borne by those nations who have contributed the most to the climate crisis.
‘…many of the nations who will be contributing to this fund have not yet pledged to phase-out fossil fuels; a step needed to prevent further climate damages.'
Criticism of the event was voiced in the first few days about the conference. And, on 5 December, Dr Laurence Wainwright said, 'For COP28 to be a success we must see two things: ambition, and the courage to translate that ambition into action….
Many are rightly asking questions as to whether private jet travel undermines the essence of such a conference and demonstrates an unacceptable level of hypocrisy
Dr Laurence Wainwright
'We must also see leaders doing a better job of setting the example and practicing what they preach. Set to have the highest-ever carbon footprint of a COP, many are rightly asking questions as to whether private jet travel undermines the essence of such a conference and demonstrates an unacceptable level of hypocrisy.'
And the debate around fossil fuels became a central talking point as COP28 progressed – and the technology of carbon capture became central.
Dr Steve Smith wrote, 'To stop the temperature from rising, we need to stop adding to our cumulative total of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. We can do that by stopping all emissions. Having a decent chance of stabilising the rise at 1.5°C requires us to stop by 2050 – within a generation. If we can’t do that soon enough, we can balance out residual emissions by doing an equivalent amount of carbon removal from the atmosphere. That is what we call net zero...
'...In short, to achieve the goals that countries signed up to in the Paris Agreement, we must be super-ambitious both in cutting emissions and in scaling carbon removal – it is not an either/or choice. If we are too late in getting to net zero and the resulting climate impacts are too much to live with, then carbon removal will become an even more important option.’ See full article here.
And Professor Allen maintained, 'We are going to generate more carbon dioxide than we can dump in the atmosphere and still limit warming anywhere near 1.5C....So, as well as reducing the rate of fossil fuel use, we have to scale-up safe and permanent carbon dioxide disposal....
'“Phase out ‘unabated’ fossil fuels” is less catchy than "phase out fossil fuels" but it could be done and, crucially, it could be done in time to keep 1.5 alive. But it is only useful if 'abated' fossil fuels is defined consistent with the physics of climate change and the goals of the Paris Agreement, which is why we're running a side-event on precisely this topic this evening [Tues].' See the full opinion piece here
It was to be the central debate over the subsequent days. On 6 December, Alexis McGivern insisted, ‘Abatement is the word on everyone’s lips in Dubai. Fossil fuels were mentioned for the first time ever in a COP text at COP26 in Glasgow two years ago. COP28 is the battle ground for language over “fossil fuel phase out” to be included in any final agreement.
Abatement is the word on everyone’s lips in Dubai...[but] Our climate, health and development goals remain unachievable as long as we are still producing fossil fuels
‘…Our climate, health and development goals remain unachievable as long as we are still producing fossil fuels.’
And Dr Rupert Way , pointed out, ‘Any hopes that the cost of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) will decline in a similar way to renewable technologies such as solar and batteries appear misplaced. Our findings indicate a lack of technological learning in any part of the process, from CO2 capture to burial, even though all elements of the chain have been in use for decades.’ See research here
From a legal perspective, there were warnings about reliance on carbon capture.
Dr Rupert Stuart-Smith, admitted, ‘There is no way to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees without removing some CO2 from the atmosphere.’
But, he said, ‘There is a big difference between pathways to net zero that fail to cut emissions adequately in the near term and leave us with little choice but to retrieve vast quantities of emissions from the atmosphere…and those that entail steep and immediate cuts in emissions - at least 50% this decade - and do not leave such a heavy clean-up burden for future generations.
Policymakers must recognise the risks associated with relying heavily on CO2 removal, and failing to cut emissions rapidly could see climate targets challenged in the courts
Dr Rupert Stuart-Smith
‘Policymakers must recognise the risks associated with relying heavily on CO2 removal, and failing to cut emissions rapidly could see climate targets challenged in the courts.’
This was supported by Dr Thom Wetzer, Associate Professor of Law, Director of the Oxford Sustainable Law Programme, who explained, ‘The climate policies of many countries are incompatible with the Paris Agreement unless vast quantities of CO2 are removed from the atmosphere in the future….’
As the Conference drew to a close, concerns were voiced powerfully about the need for climate justice. Dr Brian O’Callaghan said, ‘Over the last decade the can of climate justice has been kicked down the road so frequently we have run out of tarmac.
‘Until leaders accept that hitting climate targets to save life and liberty is literally impossible without rapid progress in developing countries…
Over the last decade the can of climate justice has been kicked down the road so frequently we have run out of tarmac
Dr Brian O'Callaghan
‘We cannot accept false excuses such as, “we can’t afford it” or “developing countries can finance it themselves”. We can afford it. In two years, we spent $20 trillion of public funds responding to COVID-19 and annually implicit and explicit fossil fuel subsidies total $5.9 trillion per year.
‘…We need a step-change in progress - with few exceptions, we didn’t see that – or COP28 will fade as another wasted opportunity.’
Researchers from across the University of Oxford came together during COP28 from across many programmes and networks including (but not limited to) Oxford Net Zero, ZERO, Nature-based solutions, The Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, the department of Biology, Oxford’s Said Business School, Physics, The Blavatnik School of Government, Engineering and Geography to provide research excellence and leadership on the zero-carbon transition.