COP28 Deal: How Transitioning Away From Fossil Fuels Is Different From Phasing-Out

COP28: The 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or the 28th edition of the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28), witnessed on December 13 a historic move as a first-of-its-kind deal that urges Parties to transition away from fossil fuels was approved. This is the first global stocktake text, an assessment of progress made towards mitigating global warming since the Paris Agreement in 2015. 

While the inclusion of fossil fuels in the deal is being hailed as a victory, the text does not mention the ‘phase-out’ of fossil fuels, which are responsible for the majority of climate-warming emissions. 

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Difference between ‘transitioning away’ from fossil fuels, and ‘phasing-out’ fossil fuels

‘Transitioning away’ from fossil fuels is different from ‘phasing-out’. Transitioning away offers a flexible approach to choose cleaner energy technologies, while phasing-out is a more rigid approach that encourages ending fossil fuel use. 

Transitioning away does not specify a complete elimination of fossil fuels, and represents a broader shift towards alternative energy sources which are clean and do not contribute to global warming and climate change. In other words, transitioning away from fossil fuels suggests a gradual move towards cleaner options such as renewable energy, and does not outline a specific timeline of the complete cessation of fossil fuel usage. 

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Meanwhile, fossil fuel ‘phase-out’ strongly implies a planned, systematic reduction and eventual elimination of fossil fuels, and indicates a more structured and deliberate process of moving away from them.

Also, ‘phase-out’ is a demand made by climate activists and vulnerable countries. ‘Transitioning away’ is open to various interpretations, while ‘phase-out’ is a definitive cessation of fossil fuel use. 

‘Transitioning away’ from fossil fuels indicates a shift towards renewable energy, but does not commit to a complete transition away from fossil fuel use. 

“In the COP28 agreement, the term ‘transitioning away from fossil fuels’ is distinct from a ‘phase-out’ — a demand made by us, climate activists, and vulnerable countries. While ‘phase-out’ connotes a definitive and measurable cessation of fossil fuel use, ‘transitioning away’ remains more ambiguous, open to various interpretations. This phrasing indicates a shift towards renewable energy but stops short of explicitly committing to a complete transition away from fossil fuels,” Harjeet Singh, Head, Global Political Strategy, Climate Action Network International (CAN-I), a global network in over 130 countries working to combat climate crisis, told ABP Live.

‘Transitioning away’ is less prescriptive, and allows for flexibility in the adoption of sustainable energy. 

“‘Transitioning away from fossil fuels’ implies a broader shift towards alternative energy sources without specifying a complete elimination of fossil fuels. It suggests a gradual move towards cleaner options, incorporating renewable energy, without necessarily outlining a specific timeline or the complete cessation of fossil fuel usage. On the other hand, ‘phase-out’ explicitly denotes a planned, systematic reduction and eventual elimination of a particular element, such as fossil fuels, indicating a more structured and deliberate process of moving away from them. The term ‘transitioning away’ is less prescriptive, allowing for flexibility in the approach to sustainable energy adoption,” Anjal Prakash, Clinical Associate Professor (Research) and Research Director, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business, told ABP Live.

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Important aspects mentioned in the GST text, what more it should have stated, and why

The text states that it recognises the need for deep, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in line with 1.5 degrees Celsius pathways, and calls upon Parties to make global efforts, taking into account the Paris Agreement, towards tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030; accelerating efforts towards phase-down of unabated coal power; accelerating efforts globally towards net-zero emission energy systems, utilising zero- and low-carbon fuels by mid-century; and transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly, and equitable manner. 

The text urges Parties to accelerate action in this critical decade in order to achieve net zero by 2050. 

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The global stocktake text also calls upon Parties to accelerate zero- and low-emission technologies such as renewables, nuclear energy, abatement and removal technologies such as carbon capture, utilisation, and storage, and low-carbon hydrogen production; substantially reduce non-carbon dioxide emissions globally, in particular methane, by 2030; accelerate the reduction of emissions from road transport through the development of infrastructure and rapid deployment of zero- and low-emission vehicles; and phase-out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that do not address energy poverty or just transitions. 

In the entire text, ‘fossil fuel’ is mentioned only twice.

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The text requests Parties to revisit and strengthen the 2030 targets in their Nationally Determined Contributions as necessary to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal by the end of 2024. Nationally Determined Contributions are climate action plans signed by all the Parties to the Paris Agreement to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts.

The text emphasises that finance, capacity-building, and technology transfer are critical enablers of climate action, but does not mention concrete numbers, which means that COP29 must focus more on climate finance. 

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A ‘Road map to Mission 1.5C’ is mentioned. This is a set of activities aimed at significantly enhancing action in this critical decade to keep 1.5 degrees Celsius within reach. This is an initiative by Brazil ahead of COP30. 

Methane is only the non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gas referred to in the text. In previous texts, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases were mentioned.

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The language on coal has remained unchanged since the COP26 agreement in Glasgow, for the text emphasises the phase-down of unabated coal. 

An important point mentioned in the text is that of energy poverty, and the phase-down of inefficient subsidies that do not address energy poverty. 

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The text recognises that transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating energy transition, while ensuring energy security. This is a new point, and could refer to gas, according to an analysis by Climate Trends, a research-based initiative that focuses on issues of climate change and environment. 

Also, the text does not clearly specify how developing countries, and emerging and vulnerable nations will be supported in their energy transition. 

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The text emphasises the importance of conserving, protecting, and restoring nature and ecosystems towards achieving the Paris Agreement goal, including through enhanced efforts towards reversing deforestation and forest degradation by 2030. Enhanced efforts should also be made towards protecting other terrestrial and marine ecosystems acting as sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases, and towards conserving biodiversity. 

A peer-reviewed scientific article released during COP28, that highlights 10 new insights in climate science, says that over-reliance on natural carbon sinks is a risky strategy and their future contribution is uncertain. Anything that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases is called a carbon sink. Ocean and carbon sinks are growing due to increasing carbon dioxide emissions. 

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As climate change intensifies, ocean and carbon sinks will grow further. There is a possibility that in the future, carbon sinks will absorb less carbon than has been estimated. 

Hence, instead of relying on natural carbon sinks, emission reduction efforts must be implemented on priority. Nature-based solutions can help increase carbon sinks. 

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The text mentions that over the past decade, mitigation technologies have become increasingly available, and become cheaper. These include renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar power. It also recognises the need to increase the affordability and accessibility of such technologies. This means that the text encourages a transition to renewable energy technologies.

According to the agreement, the carbon budget consistent with achieving the Paris Agreement temperature goal is now small, and is being rapidly depleted. Historical cumulative net carbon dioxide emissions already account for about four-fifths of the total carbon budget for a 50 per cent probability of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

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The text recognises that global greenhouse gas emissions are projected to peak between 2020 and at the latest before 2025 in global modelled pathways that limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius, and to two degrees Celsius, with no or limited overshoot. The text notes that time frames for peaking are not the same for all countries, and may be shaped by sustainable development, poverty eradication needs, and equity.

Technology development and transfer, and capacity-building and financing can support countries in peaking emissions as soon as possible. 

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The text recognises that deep, rapid and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions of 43 per cent by 2030, and 60 per cent by 2035, relative to the 2019 level, and reaching net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 are necessary the limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius with no or limited overshoot. 

There is no significant input from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on required emissions reductions in coal, oil and gas, and the required scale of methane emissions reductions.

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Due to climate finance pledges made at COP28, the Green Climate Fund now stands at $12.8 billion. 

The text encourages Parties and non-Party stakeholders to enhance cooperation on the implementation of environmental agreements, particularly their work under the Rio Conventions on Biodiversity, Climate Change, and Desertification, which were agreed at the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. 

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All this is essential to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, and sustainable development goals. 

Food accounts for a third of greenhouse gas emissions, but the need to cut emissions from food is not mentioned in the COP28 deal. Also, not much on finance commitment in the food sector and for the conservation of nature has been specified. 

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Therefore, one can conclude that the COP28 GST text should have decisively addressed the financial and implementation challenges that developing countries face while transitioning to renewable energy. The text also does not compel wealthy nations to fulfil their financial obligations. A Fossil Fuel Treaty to ensure a just and socially-equitable clean energy transition is paramount, and must ensure that all countries, especially the developing ones, can avail the benefits of a sustainable transition.

“The COP28 GST text needed to decisively address the financial and implementation challenges that developing countries face in transitioning to renewable energy. It fell short of compelling wealthy nations to fulfil their critical financial obligations. What’s urgently needed now is a Fossil Fuel Treaty, a global framework to guide an equitable shift away from fossil fuels. This treaty must ensure that all countries, especially those developing nations most reliant on fossil fuels for energy, revenue, and employment, can participate in this crucial transformation in a just and sustainable manner,” said Singh.

The Fossil Fuel Treaty is a framework that will support developing countries in transitioning away from fossil fuel dependency.

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The Global Biofuel Alliance, launched during the 2023 G20 Summit, is not mentioned in the text. This collaboration is dedicated to advancing and globally adopting biofuels to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector. 

“The Global Biofuel Alliance, launched during the G20 leaders’ meeting in New Delhi, is a collaborative platform dedicated to advancing and globally adopting biofuels. India takes a leadership role in fostering international cooperation through this alliance, seeking to catalyse efforts that promote the use and development of biofuels.  It aims to address climate change concerns by encouraging sustainable and environmentally-friendly biofuel solutions on a global scale, contributing to the broader goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector. Unfortunately, the initiative did not make it to the text,” said Dr Prakash. 

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How India and the rest of the world will be affected by ‘transitioning away’ from fossil fuels

India is among the many developing nations that have expressed concern about the economic implications of rapid decarbonisation. India and China were among the countries that did not sign the pledge to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030. 

Developing nations argue that developed nations are largely responsible for historical emissions, and since the developing countries are aiming for economic growth, they need more time for a clean energy transition.

“India seeks financial and technological support from developed countries to facilitate a smoother shift toward cleaner energy. Additionally, developing nations emphasise the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ in climate negotiations, indicating a belief that developed nations should bear a greater burden. India’s stance reflects the complex balance between environmental goals and economic development,” said Dr Prakash.

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The COP28 decision to transition away from fossil fuels underscores the need to balance environmental imperatives with economic and development goals, but may have potential loopholes. For instance, the text states that carbon capture and storage and other removal technologies can be used to accelerate net-zero goals. According to the British Geological Survey, carbon capture and storage is the process of capturing carbon dioxide at emission sources, transporting the carbon dioxide and then storing or burying it in a suitable deep, underground location. In other words, carbon capture and storage removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere directly or indirectly. 

“The COP28 decision to transition away from fossil fuels, rather than an outright phase-out, carries significant implications for India and the world. While it underscores the need to balance environmental imperatives with economic and developmental goals, we must remain vigilant against potential loopholes in the agreement. The reliance on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and other removal technologies could jeopardise the real impact of these measures,” Singh explained.

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Carbon capture and storage can help certain sectors, but the technique is used to weaken net-zero targets, and justify investments in oil, fossil gas, and other polluting fuels. 

Therefore, framing carbon capture and storage as a climate solution can hinder efforts to combat climate change. 

An analysis performed by Climate Action Against Disinformation, a global coalition of more than 50 organisations working to identify, analyse, and counter climate disinformation worldwide, and published during COP28, found that fossil fuel firms are spending millions of dollars for the promotion of carbon capture and storage as a “silver bullet” solution to climate change, and hence, are manipulating the narrative around climate change solutions.

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Implications of the ‘Loss and Damage’ text for India

The text on ‘Loss and Damage’ emphasises the recognition of loss and damage associated with climate change and extreme weather events, recognises the role of sustainable development in reducing the risk of loss and damage, and highlights the vulnerability of vulnerable developing nations. 

The text also recognises the importance of advancements in international efforts to minimise and address loss and damage associated with climate change impacts in developing countries. 

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The text recognises that national efforts such as planning, recovery, rehabilitation, reconstruction, displacement, and relocation are necessary to respond to loss and damage. There should also be mechanisms for channelling funding, especially at the local level and for those on the frontline of climate change.

The implications for India include an increased acknowledgement of the adverse impacts of climate change and a call for urgent and enhanced actions to address loss and damage.

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“The text on loss and damage emphasises the recognition of loss and damage associated with climate change and highlights the vulnerability of particularly vulnerable developing countries, considering factors such as geography, socioeconomic status, gender, and displacement. For India, it implies a heightened acknowledgment of the adverse impacts of climate change and a call for urgent and enhanced action to address loss and damage. The document underscores the need for coherence in efforts related to disaster risk reduction, rehabilitation, and displacement, emphasising comprehensive risk management,” Dr Prakash explained. 

He concluded that India, with its vulnerability to climate-related challenges, may find increased international expectations for proactive measures and enhanced support to address the economic and non-economic losses associated with climate change.

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