COP28: Will the "transition away" from fossil fuels really happen by 2050?

World Resources Institute president Ani Dasgupta hailed the commitment as a “historic outcome [that] marks the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era”

The pledge aims for a just, orderly, and "equitable transition", accelerating action to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. (photo: DW)
The pledge aims for a just, orderly, and "equitable transition", accelerating action to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. (photo: DW)


Global leaders at the climate summit have pledged to ultimately move away from fossil fuels cutting a wide swath through everyday life in a monumental attempt to keep the world from warming more than 1.5 degrees centigrade, considered the tipping point to a cataclysm.

That will mean a dramatic change from the world now to when it is implemented: No more petrol for cars, gas for cooking and coal for electricity generation.

World Resources Institute President Ani Dasgupta hailed the commitment as a “historic outcome [that] marks the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era”.

“Despite immense pressure from oil and gas interests, high ambition countries courageously stood their ground and sealed the fate of fossil fuels” he said in a statement.

“High ambition countries” are those that pitch for more stringent action to restrict greenhouse gas emissions.

But there is a catch in the commitment made at the meeting known as COP28 (or 28th Conference of Parties to Climate Change Convention) in the United Arab Emirates this month, as consequential as it may sound: The keyword in the pledge is “transitioning away” not phasing out that some like the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wanted.

And there is no firm timeline, either: It calls for the transition to take place 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.

Net zero is the stage where any greenhouse gas output is neutralised that none is added to the atmosphere.

The 2050 deadline is not necessarily for totally eliminating fossil fuels, but to reach a level where their continuing greenhouse gas output, though on a much lower rate, is neutralised by technologies like carbon capture that capture and store or transform the gases.

The call to “transition away” was a disappointment for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who is a firm advocate of completely phasing out fossil fuels, and others who share his view.

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

He said that the goal of keeping global warming to 1.5C will be impossible without the phase out of all fossil fuels.

Explaining with optimism the phrase in the UAE Consensus document about transitioning away in an “equitable manner”, Dasgupta said: “The outcome rightly recognises that countries will follow different pathways to shift away from fossil fuels, but the resounding message is that no nation can sit out the energy transition. The shift from fossil fuels must be fair and fast -- and no one can be left behind.”

That would mollify the demands of developing countries.

In an oft-cited quote, India’s Power and Renewable Energy Minister Raj Kumar Singh had articulated those reservations ahead of COP28, “We are not going to compromise with the availability of power for growth.”

But Harjeet Singh, global political strategy head at Climate Action Network International, was quoted by UN News as saying that the although transition goal was a “long-overdue direction to move away from coal, oil, and gas,” it was "marred by loopholes that offer the fossil fuel industry numerous escape routes, relying on unproven, unsafe technologies.”

Most of the increases in fossil fuel use would come from developing countries, as the consumption in Western countries falls, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Looking at the present consumption levels and the future energy needs of the Global South struggling to raise their people out of poverty and to an acceptable standard of living, transitioning out of fossil fuels is a monumental task.

The scenario gives mixed picture with the industrialised countries, that were the first to massively exploit fossil fuels and contribute the most to global warming, reducing their consumption, while developing nations increase theirs.

The IEA estimates the world oil demand in 2023 at 101.7 million barrels per day (mb/d).

But its rate of increase is also coming down, it noted, due to lower economic growth, energy efficiency and “booming” adoption of electric vehicles.

According to IEA, global coal consumption was 8.54 billion tonnes (bt) this year.

Again, increased coal use in China by around 5 per cent and India by over 8 per cent offset cuts in consumption in European and other countries, it said.

Gas, which is the lesser polluter of the fossil fuel family, recorded globally 4.03 trillion cubic metres (tcm) use last year according to Gas Exporting Countries ForumFordum (GECF), which expected a 1 per cent increase this year.

But gas is, in fact, considered a “transitional fuel”, which can act as a bridge between the more polluting coal and petroleum and renewable energy as it is less polluting than them.

Transitioning out of fossil fuels would require cutting out their use, a challenge given the volumes of their current use.

The IEA says that the world has a viable pathway to building a global energy sector with net-zero emissions in 2050, but it is narrow and requires an unprecedented transformation of how energy is produced, transported and used globally.

The UAE consensus points to ways of achieving the goal.

It wants the global renewable energy capacity tripled and the annual rate of energy efficiency improvements to double by 2030.

The adoption of zero- and low-emission technologies, including renewables, nuclear, abatement and greenhouse gas removal technologies such as carbon capture and low-carbon hydrogen production should be accelerated, the declaration said.

It gave attention to road transportation, speeding up the development of infrastructure and rapid deployment of zero and low-emission vehicles.

According to the IEA, private cars and vans were responsible for more than 25 per cent of global oil use and around 10 per cent of energy-related carbon emissions last year.

Therefore, switching over to electric vehicles would make a big difference -- and it is already happening.

The investment and advisory company Morningstar forecasts that by 2030, 40 per cent of global vehicle sales will be electric, a five-fold increase from last year.

The European Union has decreed that starting in 2035 only zero-emission cars and vans can be sold there, and the US goal is for half of them to be of that type.

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