Where next for fossil fuel fight?

Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak holds a press conference at COP28 before delivering his National Statement to the conference. 

The final outcome text of the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) - dubbed the ‘UAE Consensus’ - has garnered mixed reactions from around the world.

This was the first time a COP outcome has explicitly mentioned fossil fuels, the main cause of the climate crisis.

The final outcome text of the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)- dubbed the ‘UAE Consensus’ - garnered mixed reactions from around the world. 

Some have lauded COP28 for delivering a historic outcome and ushering in the end of the fossil fuel era, while others have decried the summit as a failure, a dereliction of collective duty or - in the words of John Silk of the low-lying Marshall Islands - a “death warrant”.

Both of these groups are right: the outcome of COP28 is historic in its explicit mention of ‘fossil fuels’ and also woefully insufficient to the scale of the challenge humanity faces. 

Borrowed time

Remarkably, this was the first time a COP outcome has explicitly mentioned fossil fuels, the main cause of the climate crisis, with 90 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions coming from their combustion. That fact alone bears testimony to the lost decades in climate action as a result of the denialism and obstructionism of the fossil fuel lobby and their state allies. 

The final text may send a strong signal that the global economy must transition away from fossil fuels with “accelerating action in this critical decade”, but it also contains little in new finance for those developing countries that need to transition away from fossil fuels, leaves the door wide open for the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to justify continued extraction of fossil fuels, and contains a raft of loopholes that the fossil fuel industry worked hard to insert. 

Indeed, at least 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists attended the summit. This made the fossil fuel industry the biggest delegation after hosts UAE and Brazil, with more passes than all the delegates from the ten most climate vulnerable nations combined. 

And as COP reached its crescendo, a leaked OPEC letter tellingly warned that “pressure against fossil fuels may reach a tipping point with irreversible consequences”, calling on its members to “proactively reject any text or formula that targets energy, i.e fossil fuels, rather than emissions”. Fossil fuels did make the final cut, but a phase-out did not. 

The fact that fossil fuel majors feel that we are on the verge of a tipping point with irreversible consequences suggests they know they are living on borrowed time. But ongoing government subsidies and financial support for their plans for expansion leaves them confident they can ignore the science, which states that no new expansion is compatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement

This was the first time a COP outcome has explicitly mentioned fossil fuels, the main cause of the climate crisis.

'Climate club'

Despite the lengthy final text, much remains unsaid. In particular, how rapidly nations must transition away from fossil fuels, how it can be achieved in a just and equitable manner, and - crucially - how such a transition will be funded and by whom. These questions may have been kicked into the grass by the COP28 leadership in the interest of reaching a timely consensus in Dubai.

Beyond the formal text to emerge from the summit, a raft of countries joined the Power Past Coal Alliance (PPCA), a coalition of national and sub-national governments working to speed-up the transition away from coal, including Czechia, Kosovo, Norway, Iceland, Norway and the USA, whose coal fleet is behind only China and India in size. 

Phasing out coal rapidly is a necessity, but it poses huge economic and social challenges to countries that are highly dependent on coal. Research reveals that if coal-dependent India, China and South Africa were to phase-out coal in line with a 1.5°C trajectory, it would be historically unprecedented and twice as fast as any past coal transition. 

Findings like these show that it is wealthy nations that must move first to phase-out all fossil fuels, not just coal. The ranks of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA), another ‘climate club’ that brings together national and sub-national actors that have agreed restrictions on new oil and gas licenses, grew too. 

Spain, Kenya and Samoa became full members, joining the other 20-plus first-movers. Alongside this, BOGA announced the BOGA Fund that will help both Kenya and Colombia develop plans to phase-out fossil fuels. 


The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty initiative also welcomed several new members: Palau in Oceania, the Pacific Island nation of Samoa and the Micronesian island of Nauru formally endorsed the treaty, as well as Colombia, a major regional producer of coal and gas. 

When announcing the decision to call for a Fossil Treaty, Colombian President, Gustavo Petro, declared “between fossil capital and life, we choose the side of life”. Given the clear ambition of these first-movers and the global momentum building for a managed and rapid phase-out of all fossil fuels, the burning question is where next

The language in the text around transitioning away from fossil fuels should, in theory, provide a useful foothold for social movements and civil society to hold their governments to account over fossil fuel expansion. After all, a government hell-bent on opening new coal mines and oil refineries can now be challenged for working against the transition that nations agreed to in Dubai. 

But, even then, the outcome text provides such governments with cover by allowing for different “national circumstances, pathways and approaches”, leaving the door open for “transition fuels” like gas and hydrogen and the use of CCS, all of which will be used to justify further extraction.

Perhaps the next crucial steps in phasing out all fossil fuels will take place outside the halls of future COPs where there is greater momentum. 


A growing number of countries have unilaterally introduced policies to curtail the production of fossil fuels (such as Denmark, Colombia, Costa Rica, France and Ireland) and redirect public finance away from fossil fuel projects through export credit agencies (such as the UK and France), for instance. 

Many of these have gone on to join forces through endorsing the Fossil Fuel Treaty or joining BOGA, and can now work together to sketch out coherent and convincing plans for phasing-out fossil fuels. 

These are the countries that are prepared to chart a new course, going beyond the lowest common denominator outcomes that COP summits inevitably produce because of voting procedures that allows fossil fuel majors to exercise a veto over ambitious action which threatens their interests. 

Despite the clear scientific consensus about the need for a rapid and managed phase-out, charting this new course requires challenging deeply held beliefs about the centrality of fossil fuels to economic growth and development. It also requires facing head-on those actors that seek to obstruct and derail the phase-out. 

This requires intensified international collaboration and immense foresight and determination - all qualities that COP28 has unfortunately fallen short on. 

These Authors

Freddie Daley is a researcher on the SUS POL project on supply-side approaches to climate change based at the University of Sussex and Peter Newell is professor of international relations and project lead on the SUS POL project at the University of Sussex.

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