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Nations’ plan to ‘transition’ from fossil fuels is too slow, experts say

Days of contentious wrangling in Dubai at the United Nations’ 28th annual climate summit ended December 13 with a historic agreement to “transition away” from fossil fuels and accelerate climate action over the next decade. The organization touted the agreement as a moment of global solidarity, marking “the beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era.

But the final agreement reached at COP28, signed by nearly 200 nations, did not include language that explicitly mandated phasing out fossil fuel energy, deeply frustrating many nations as well as climate scientists and activists.

The agreement is considered the world’s first “global stocktake,” an inventory of climate actions and progress made since the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial average (SN: 12/12/15).

It acknowledges the conclusions of scientific research that greenhouse gas emissions will need to be cut by 43 percent by 2030 compared with 2019 levels, in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. It then calls on nations to speed up climate actions before 2030 so as to reach global net zero by 2050 — in which greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere are balanced by their removal from the atmosphere. Among the actions called for are increasing global renewable energy generation, phasing down coal power and phasing out fossil fuel subsidies.

But among many scientists gathered in San Francisco at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting to discuss climate change’s impacts to Earth’s atmosphere, polar regions, oceans and biosphere, the reaction to the language in the agreement was more frustrated than celebratory.

“The beginning of the end? I wish it was the middle of the end,” says climate scientist Luke Parsons of the Nature Conservancy, who is based in Durham, N.C. “But you have to start somewhere, I guess.”

It is a step forward, says Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Saying it out loud, that we are aiming to phase out fossil fuels, is huge.”

It’s not a moment too soon: The globe is already experiencing many climate change–linked extreme weather events, including the hottest 12 months ever recorded (SN: 11/9/23). Still, Scambos says, “it’s a tribute to the science and the negotiators that we can take this step now, before the disastrous global impacts truly get underway.” But, he added, “I fear that the pace [of future climate action] will … still be driven by impacts arriving at our collective doors.”

Other researchers had a grimmer take.

“It was weak sauce,” says climate scientist Michael Mann of the University of Pennsylvania. “What we really need is a commitment to phase out fossil fuels, on a very specific timeline: We’re going to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent this decade, bring them down to zero mid-century. Instead, they agreed to transition away from fossil fuels — the analogy that I use is, you’re diagnosed with diabetes, and you tell your doctor you’re going to transition away from doughnuts. That’s not going to cut it. It didn’t meet the moment.”

Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at the University of California, Irvine, called the agreement “deeply disappointing and misleading,” noting that it didn’t include any language specifically calling for phasing out fossil fuels. Furthermore, he says, “COP28 keeps entertaining the idea that 1.5 degrees Celsius may be achievable, but everyone is offtrack to meet that goal. [And] for ice sheets and glaciers, even 1.5 degrees is not sustainable.”  There already are fears, for instance, that the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet can’t be stopped (SN: 8/9/21).

Even if the world stays close to that average temperature, “the ice sheets are going to be retreating,” says Rob DeConto, a glaciologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “But you start getting out toward the end of the century, and all hell is going to break loose if we go much above 1.5. You’re talking about actually exceeding the limits of adaptation around so much of our coastlines.”  

On December 12, the eighth anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service noted that the world has, in effect, “lost” 19 years by delaying action to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Back in 2015, climate projections suggested that Earth’s average temperature would reach the 1.5 degrees C threshold by the year 2045 — then 30 years away. Now, projections show that the planet may reach that benchmark by 2034, just 11 years in the future.

“We’ve got a shrinking window of opportunity,” Mann says. “And that window of opportunity will close if we don’t make dramatic and immediate reductions to our carbon emissions.”

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