What the Cop28 climate deal means for rich, poor, big oil - and everyone else

Fossil fuel compromise leaves both rich and developing countries with homework to do

Diplomats applaud after a climate deal was approved following all-night negotiations at Dubai's Expo City. Getty Images
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The global climate deal agreed in the UAE is a sprawling compromise package with a bit of something for everyone.

It emerged from all-night negotiations after a more than 24-hour push by rich nations, vulnerable island states and campaigners to get the whole world “transitioning away” from fossil fuels.

That is a historic first – although in return, there are concessions to developing countries, coal users and gas exporters that mean the fossil fuel industry retains “large footholds” for the future.

And while the global stocktake agreed by weary delegates in Dubai is a hugely significant call to action, it is now up to each of the 198 countries involved to put this blueprint into action back home.

“Now all governments and businesses need to turn these pledges into real-economy outcomes, without delay,” the UN’s climate chief Simon Stiell told Cop28’s closing plenary.

In 21 pages of text that were fought over line-by-line, here is what the deal means for the key players.

'Historic' global stocktake approved at Cop28 in Dubai

'Historic' global stocktake approved at Cop28 in Dubai

Developing countries: Play your part in net zero

Everyone – the developing world included – is asked to contribute to “transitioning away from fossil fuels”.

That is the all-hands-to-the-pump language that their richer partners had demanded, after a previous draft suggested it was optional.

However, there are sweeteners for countries who say they need fossil fuels – for a while yet – for revenue and economic development.

Gas is treated as a “transitional fuel”, there is no phase-out of coal, and fossil fuel subsidies are acceptable if they tackle “energy poverty”. There is a recognition of “different national circumstances, pathways and approaches”.

There is also language stressing the need for funding and that developed countries “should continue taking the lead” on emissions cuts. Some campaigners, though, say the rich are offering too few specifics on finance.

“A critical test is whether far more finance is mobilised for developing countries to help make the energy transition possible,” said Ani Dasgupta, the president of the World Resources Institute.

Rich countries: Bring the money

Diplomats from Europe and North America sounded content with the results of their fossil fuel offensive.

It means there is no suggestion that emissions cuts are a job for the biggest historical polluters alone.

The deal does, however, call for “accelerated financial support” from rich countries and scolds them for failing to deliver on a long-promised $100 billion pledge.

It warns of a “growing gap” between the money being provided to developing countries and the estimated cost of at least $5.8 trillion for them to implement green policies.

Europe and the US should not “posture as climate champions” when they are the biggest contributors to climate change and have failed to provide adequate finance, said Friends of the Earth spokeswoman Sara Shaw.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock acknowledged that the deal was “just the starting point” for EU countries and that “this way can be walked only together, if we are supporting the most vulnerable here in the world, if we are providing the technologies”.

“The text of the global stocktake decision rightly stresses the need to mobilise trillions of dollars in investment to accelerate cuts in greenhouse gases, strengthen adaptation and resilience, and respond to loss and damage,” said Nicholas Stern, the chair of the Grantham Institute on climate change.

“That is a challenge that must now be taken forward by finance ministries and the international financial institutions, including the multilateral development banks,” Lord Stern added.

Small islands: Need action across the board

Members from small island states, which face extinction if sea levels rise too far, have been a powerful voice at Cop28.

In a closing message, the small island alliance said the text contained “many good elements” but warned of loopholes that could undermine the fossil fuel push.

The world’s actions must “meet the magnitude of the climate crisis, that meet the expectations that the world has of us, and that meet what is needed to secure the future of the coming generations,” said its lead negotiator Anne Rasmussen.

Aside from efforts to slow global warming, vulnerable countries also need funding to adapt to a hotter climate and deal with disasters that may no longer be stopped.

Cop28’s first-day loss and damage deal creates a fund to meet some of these costs, although contributions by the likes of the US and EU countries have been criticised as too small.

On adaptation – stepping in with things like flood defences before loss and damage occurs – there is a separate Cop28 decision on a “global goal” to protect water, food, health, biodiversity and cultural heritage, although some say there is a lack of specifics targets.

In the stocktake there is “very good language” on scaling up adaptation finance, said Gabrielle Swaby of the World Resources Institute, although it still “begs the question of how developed country parties are going to deliver on that commitment.”

Oil and gas sector: Keeps a foothold

Many described the Dubai deal as a historic moment that marks the “beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era”.

Still, Mr Dasgupta said the text “contains some large footholds for the fossil fuel industry”.

There is agreement that “that transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition” – meaning natural gas. Russia, China and Iraq were among those who sought this language.

The deal refers to transitioning away from fossil fuels “in energy systems” – which is not the same as the whole economy.

In addition, countries are invited to use technologies such as carbon capture, utilisation and storage, which can limit the damage to the planet but which some regard as an unproven way of keeping fossil fuels in the mix.

Further agreements would be needed to “ensure murky concepts like 'abatement technologies' deliver real climate progress”, said Anusha Mata, policy adviser at think tank E3G.

Despite the deal, “oil and gas are going to be used for decades to come”, said UK negotiator Graham Stuart.

For everyone: Now make it happen

One overarching message from the global stocktake has long been clear – the world is “not yet collectively on track” to slow global warming to 1.5°C to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

The way forward agreed in Dubai is the foundation on which countries are expected to base their next round of national climate plans, due in 2025.

They should specify how their new plan “has been informed” by the Dubai deal, according to the agreed text.

The fossil fuel deal “is an important step. It can even become a historic step – but only if a massive drawdown of coal, oil and gas really happens worldwide in the coming years,” said Christoph Bals of lobby group Germanwatch.

Updated: December 14, 2023, 5:11 AM