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Climate Change

Despite discord, UN climate meeting finds some agreement

COP28 yields calls transition away from fossil fuels, reduce methane emissions

by Leigh Krietsch Boerner
December 15, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 41

COP28 director-general Majid Al Suwaidi, wearing a long white robe and head covering, speaks to a group of about 200 members of the press in Western clothing from a podium at the COP 28 meeting in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Credit: COP28/Neville Hopwood
COP28 director-general Majid Al Suwaidi speaks to the media in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

After almost 2 weeks of heated talks and dissension, the biggest environmental policy conference of the year ended with a deal for the world to start “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems.” The meeting also produced an agreement from oil and gas companies to clamp down on methane emissions and a pledge to provide financial assistance to regions facing severe damage due to climate change.

The meeting, the 28th United Nations Conference of Parties (COP28), was held from Nov. 30 to Dec. 13 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of the world’s largest oil producers. The end of the event came almost a day behind schedule because of arguments about the exact wording of the agreement and what it means for the future of fossil fuel use.

COP28 marks the first time that stopping fossil fuel use was recognized as a way to mitigate climate change, according to UN chief António Guterres. In his closing statement at COP28, Guterres said discussion of the issue had been blocked at past meetings.

The deal reached did not use the word “phaseout” in connection with fossil-fuel energy sources, however. The word had been part of an earlier draft and was supported by countries susceptible to climate change but opposed by oil-producing ones such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, who is also head of Abu Dhabi’s state-owned oil company, Adnoc, called the outcome a “victory for multilateralism” and said that it puts within reach the Paris Agreement goal of staying under a global temperature rise of 1.5°C within reach.

“To those who opposed a clear reference to a phaseout of fossil fuels in the COP28 text, I want to say that a fossil-fuel phaseout is inevitable whether they like it or not,” Guterres said in his closing statement. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come too late.”

In a statement, Bill Hare, CEO of the advocacy group Climate Analytics, calls the final settlement both “a mixed bag” and “a first nail in the coffin for the fossil fuel industry.”

“The energy section [of the agreement] is weak and simply doesn’t have enough hard commitments to bring the 1.5 °C warming limit within reach this decade,” Hare says.

Earlier in the meeting, another deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions also met with mixed responses. For the new Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter (OGDC), over 50 large oil and gas companies, which are responsible for more than 40% of oil production worldwide, pledged to reduce methane emissions by 2030 and committed to net-zero-methane operations by 2050.

At about the same time, the Biden administration unveiled final regulations for achieving a 30% methane emission reduction in the US oil and gas industry by 2030. The rules ban routine flaring, mandate leak monitoring, and establish a system for third-party companies to detect large methane releases. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that this rule will prevent 58 million metric tons of methane emissions from 2024 to 2038. Methane has about 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.

Methane emissions from fossil fuel production make up 8–10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, says Neil Grant, an analyst at Climate Analytics.

“Most of the evidence out there suggests that we need to cut methane emissions from the energy system by 2/3 to 3/4 by 2030,” he says. The gas has a strong impact on near-term climate change and has caused about 30% of worldwide temperature rise since the industrial revolution, according to the International Energy Association (IEA).

Matt Watson, vice president of energy transition at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), says the OGDC is meaningful because individual companies, not countries, are making the pledge, and many are state-run enterprises that haven’t engaged in the methane conversation before. Watson says that national oil companies represent over half of global oil and gas production and that as state-run firms they are more likely to be around in the long term than privately owned ones.

But some advocacy groups worry that the pledge to reduce methane emissions is hollow. “COPs are full of promises, right? And this could be seen as just another promise,” Watson says. To ensure that companies follow through, third-party accountability was written into the charter, with oversight by the EDF, the IEA, and the International Methane Emissions Observatory.

“The commitment on the elimination of methane by 2030 is a step in the right direction,” the UN’s Guterres said in a Dec. 3 address. But “there must be no room for greenwashing.” And while the pledge to reduce methane emissions is good, it kind of misses the point, according to Grant at Climate Analytics. “It is very dangerous if we forget that the majority of emissions come from burning fossil fuels, not from digging them out of the ground,” he says.

In the first days of COP28, several nations pledged to contribute to the loss and damage fund, designed to help vulnerable areas around the globe reduce greenhouse gas emissions and repair and prevent damages caused by climate change. The UAE and Germany each contributed the equivalent of $100 million, the UK up to $75 million, Japan pledged $10 million, the US $17.5 million, and the European Union about $250 million, including Germany’s portion.

While the contributions are seen as a win, some critics say they don’t go far enough. Rachel Cleetus, policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, calls the US’s contribution “paltry” in a blog post. “For comparison, the floods in Pakistan in 2022 are estimated to have cost that nation in excess of $30 billion,” she writes.

The next COP meeting is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 11–24, 2024, in Azerbaijan.



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