COP28 President Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber (R) and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Executive Secretary Simon Stiell embrace in a plenary session during the United Nations climate summit in Dubai , on December 13, 2023. AFP

DUBAI – Nearly 200 nations meeting in Dubai on Wednesday approved a first call for the world to abandon fossil fuels, the main climate change culprit behind a planetary crisis.

After 13 days of talks and another sleepless night in a country built on oil wealth, the UAE leadership at the COP28 summit hit the gavel to signal that the world had reached a consensus.

“You have moved forward, you have shown flexibility, you have put common interest ahead of self-interest,” said COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber, whose role as head of the UAE's national oil company has raised eyebrows among many environmentalists.

The UAE, he said, was “rightly proud” of its role in bringing “transformational change” to the planet.

“The world needed to find a new path. And by following our North Star, we found that new path,” he said, to applause, referring to the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Jaber released hours earlier a draft of the agreement aimed at bringing island countries that fear extinction to Saudi Arabia, which has led the charge to continue exporting its oil.

Reinforcing the language of a previous project that was vehemently denounced, the agreement calls for “the transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a fair, orderly and equitable way, accelerating action in this critical decade, in order to reach net zero by 2050 in maintaining science.”

It marked the first mention of all fossil fuels in 28 years of climate summits.

“For the first time in 30 years, we may now reach the beginning of the end of fossil fuels,” EU climate chief Wopke Hoekstra said before entering the plenary session.

Danish negotiator Dan Jorgensen, part of a group tasked with moving forward, called the deal “historic progress.”

The text, however, stopped short of making calls during the summit for a “progressive elimination” of oil, gas and coal, which together represent around three-quarters of the emissions responsible for the planetary crisis.

The low-lying islands fear extinction due to rising sea levels and worsening storms, with the Marshall Islands denouncing the previous project as a “death warrant”.

The bloc of small island states called the revised text “an improvement”, but reiterated concerns, saying the agreement was “incremental and not transformational”.

UAE steps up language

Jaber's previous project only suggested that nations “could” reduce the consumption and production of fossil fuels, among other options, provoking the fury of green groups.

Virtually all environmentalists considered the new text an improvement, although many warned that there is still much more to do.

“We are finally naming the elephant in the room. The genie will never go back to the bottle and future COPs will only tighten the screws on dirty energy even further,” said Mohamed Adow, director of think tank Power Shift Africa, referring to the annual UN climate meetings, known as Conferences of the Parties. .

“Some people may have had too high expectations for this meeting, but this outcome would not have been heard two years ago, especially at a COP meeting in a petrostate,” he said.

The agreement also made short-term goals of ending net emissions by 2050 more explicit.

It called on the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 43% by 2030, compared to 2019 levels.

Rachel Cleetus, policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the agreement “sends a strong signal that world leaders recognize that a sharp shift away from fossil fuels toward clean energy in this critical decade and beyond, in line with science, it is essential to meeting our climate goals.”

Still gaps

But Jean Su of the Center for Biological Diversity, while seeing progress, said there are still “cavernous gaps” for fossil fuels.

The agreement only addresses the use of fossil fuels in energy, and not in industrial areas such as the production of plastics and fertilizers.

She also expressed alarm at the recognition of the role of “transition fuels”, which she considered a code word for producers of natural gas and other fossil fuels, such as the United States, for energy security reasons.

While it does not use the term “phase out” of fossil fuels, it supports work towards a phase-out of “hard coal power” – meaning coal with carbon capture technology to reduce emissions, criticized by many environmentalists as unproven, could continue.

The largest COP meeting ever welcomed more than 88,000 people, including a record number of fossil fuel industry lobbyists.

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The 2015 Paris summit approved checking warming to 1.5ºC – a goal repeated in the last draft, but which critics say is virtually impossible without serious efforts to curb oil, gas and coal.