Nations Agree to ‘Transition Away From Fossil Fuels’ in Landmark Climate Deal

The agreement, which ended the COP28 climate conference, is not legally binding, but it’s the first to explicitly call for moving away from fossil fuels

A row of people standing and applauding on stage
COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber and others applaud after nations adopted the first climate deal calling for a transition away from fossil fuels. A lead negotiator for 39 small island nations noted that the group was not in the room when the final agreement was reached. GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP via Getty Images

As the United Nations Climate Change Conference came to a close on Wednesday, negotiators reached an agreement to transition away from fossil fuels to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

The deal does not require countries to phase out or phase down the use of fossil fuels. But it’s the first time nations have agreed to move away from the forms of energy that produce large quantities of greenhouse gases, per Seth Borenstein, David Keyton, Jamey Keaten and Sibi Arasu of the Associated Press (AP).

“Humanity has finally done what is long, long, long overdue,” said Wopke Hoekstra, the European commissioner for climate action, per the New York Times’ Brad Plumer and Max Bearak. “Thirty years—30 years!—we spent to arrive at the beginning of the end of fossil fuels.”

While the wording in this agreement goes farther than any before, some experts said it doesn’t go far enough. John F. Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, said that “many, many people here would have liked clearer language about the need to begin peaking and reducing fossil fuels in this critical decade,” per the Washington Post’s Chico Harlan.

At 2015’s climate conference in Paris, nations set a benchmark of preventing global temperatures from increasing by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Reaching this goal requires slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent by 2030 and by 60 percent by 2035 compared to 2019 levels, as well as achieving net zero emissions by 2050, according to Wednesday’s agreement.

But recent research found that worldwide carbon emissions are on track to reach a record high this year, despite global temperatures having already risen 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Carbon dioxide emitted today can remain in the atmosphere for between 300 and 1,000 years, according to NASA.

The new agreement asks countries to agree to triple global renewable energy capacity and double the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030. It calls for “accelerating efforts” toward phasing down coal, asks countries to reduce methane emissions and calls for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.”

The agreement is not legally binding and can’t require countries to follow through. Nations can use the deal to come up with stronger climate action plans that are due by 2025. However, a statement calling for global emissions to peak by 2025 was removed from the final agreement, write the Guardian’s Adam Morton, Patrick Greenfield, Fiona Harvey, Nina Lakhani and Damian Carrington.

Anne Rasmussen of Samoa, the lead negotiator for 39 countries in the Alliance of Small Island States, said the final deal was agreed to while the alliance was not in the room. “The process has failed us,” Rasmussen said, per the Guardian. “We have made an incremental advancement over business as usual when what we really needed is an exponential step change in our actions and support.”

“The problem with the text is that it still includes cavernous loopholes that allow the United States and other fossil fuel producing countries to keep going on their expansion of fossil fuels,” Jean Su, energy justice director for the Center for Biological Diversity, tells the AP. “There’s a pretty deadly, fatal flaw in the text, which allows for transitional fuels to continue,” meaning countries may use carbon-emitting natural gas.

Still, others applauded the achievement, which is a signal to investors and legislators that the world is moving away from fossil fuels. “In a multilateral venue, to have as strong a document as has been put together, I find is cause for optimism, cause for gratitude and cause for some significant congratulations to everybody here,” said Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, per the Washington Post.

This year’s conference also established a loss and damage fund, which allows wealthier countries to contribute money to climate mitigation efforts in other parts of the world. It has received more than $700 million thus far. However, a recent study found that $400 billion would be needed annually, according to U.S. News and World Report’s Julia Haines.

Former U.S. vice president Al Gore called the new deal to transition away from fossil fuels “the bare minimum,” per the AP. “Whether this is a turning point that truly marks the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era depends on the actions that come next.”

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