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Climate change and energy

The two words that pushed international climate talks into overtime

Fights over plans for fossil fuels delayed COP28's conclusion.

December 14, 2023
Hands of a woman sifting through pieces at a coal depot
Coal accounts for about 40% of global emissions from fossil fuel use.AP Photo/Ajit Solanki

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The annual UN climate negotiations at COP28 in Dubai have officially come to a close. Delegates scrambled to get a deal together in the early morning hours, and the meetings ended a day past their scheduled conclusion (as these things tend to). 

If you’ve tuned out news from the summit, I don’t really blame you. The quibbles over wording—“urges” vs. “notes” vs. “emphasizes”—can all start to sound like noise. But these talks are the biggest climate event of the year, and there are some details that are worth paying attention to. 

We’ve seen agreements on methane and renewables, and big progress on an international finance deal. And, of course, there was the high-profile fight about fossil fuels. As negotiators wrap up and start their treks home, let’s take a beat to sort through what happened at COP28 and why all these political fights matter for climate action.

What’s the point of these meetings anyway? 

The UN Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings are an annual chance for negotiators from nearly 200 nations to set goals and make plans to address climate change. 

You might be familiar with the outcome of one of these meetings: eight years ago COP21 gave us the Paris Agreement, the international treaty that set a goal to limit global warming to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) over preindustrial levels.

This year’s meeting comes at a crucial time for the Paris Agreement. Part of that treaty requires the world to put together a progress report on climate change, called the global stocktake. It’s supposed to happen every five years, and the first one was scheduled to finish up at this year’s COP. 

What were the big agreements from the meetings? 

1. On the first day of the talks, there was a big announcement about a loss and damage fund. This is money that richer nations put into a pool to help pay for damages caused by climate change in more vulnerable nations. 

You may remember that the creation of this fund was a major topic at last year’s COP27 in Egypt. The urgency was spurred by a collection of climate disasters, including particularly devastating floods in Pakistan in August 2022. 

Now there’s some money going into the account: at least $700 million pledged by wealthy nations.

There are some caveats, of course. The agreement is still short on details, missing anything like financial targets or rules about how nations will put money in. In fact, there’s currently no requirement for wealthy nations to contribute at all, and the pledged money is a fraction of what many scientists say is really needed to pay for the damage caused by climate change. (Some estimates put that number at $100 billion annually.)

2. Over 100 countries pledged to triple renewable energy capacity and double energy efficiency by 2030. In addition, the US and 20 other countries signed a pledge to triple global nuclear capacity by 2050. 

3. Finally, 50 oil and gas companies pledged to virtually eliminate methane leaks from their operations by 2030. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and plugging up accidental leaks from oil and gas production is seen as an easy way to cut climate pollution. 

The companies that signed this pledge, which included ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco, represent 40% of global production. 

Some analysts have pointed out that the pledge will have a pretty limited effect. Most human-caused methane emissions come from agriculture, after all. And accidental methane emissions aren’t the biggest problem fossil-fuel companies cause, by a long shot. The majority of emissions from fossil-fuel companies isn’t from their operations but from their products.

What was holding things up? 

In two words: fossil fuels. 

I wrote in the newsletter a couple of weeks ago about how fossil fuels were going to loom large over these talks, not least because they’re being hosted in the UAE, a nation whose wealth relies heavily on them. The leader of the talks (and head of the UAE’s national oil company) has lived up to that prediction, questioning the scientific reasoning behind the calls to eliminate fossil fuels

As delegates worked to put the final agreement together, a sticking point in the debate was how fossil fuels would be represented. Earlier versions of the draft text called for phasing them out. But many nations, including the UAE, objected to this sort of language. And these meetings run by consensus: everybody has to sign off on the final agreement. 

So in the final version, the language was watered down. The pivotal paragraph now calls on parties to take a series of actions, including “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, 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.”  

In a way, this bit is a win, since it’s the first COP agreement that even mentions fossil fuels by name. (The bar is truly on the floor.) 

Ultimately, the exact wording of a COP agreement probably won’t be the thing to spur anybody into real action. Rather, the state of the world’s attitude toward climate change is reflected in this agreement: there’s a growing acknowledgement that something needs to change in our relationship with fossil fuels. But there’s not a wide enough consensus yet on the speed of that change, or what that relationship should look like as we pursue ambitious climate goals. 

Maybe next year. 

Another thing

The carbon removal industry is starting to take off, but some experts are warning that it’s headed in the wrong direction. 

There’s a growing signal that the world may have to remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to limit global warming. But in a new essay, two former US Department of Energy staffers argue that the emergence of a for-profit sector could actually spell danger for the technology’s ability to help meaningfully address climate change. 

Get all the details in the latest story from my colleague James Temple.

Keeping up with climate  

Silicon powder could be the key to longer EV range and faster charging. Battery giant Panasonic will use silicon material from US-based startup Sila to build new EV batteries. (Wired)

→ Sila’s material debuted in a much smaller product in 2021. (MIT Technology Review)

Not the potatoes! Heavy rains have been bad news for European potato harvesting, sending prices soaring. Thanks, climate change. (Bloomberg)

Repairing EV batteries can be dangerous and difficult. But some mechanics want to do it anyway to save customers money and keep older EVs on the roads. (Grist)

This startup wants to sprinkle rock dust over farmland for carbon removal. (Wired)

Public (non-Tesla) EV chargers in the US can be unreliable, to put it lightly. Here’s how $7.5 billion in federal funding aims to change that. (Canary Media

Two- and three-wheelers are going electric in nations across Asia and Africa. And these small vehicles are having a big impact, making up the majority of reduction in oil demand as transportation goes electric. (New York Times)

→ Gogoro is building a massive network of battery-swappable electric scooters. (MIT Technology Review)

Animal agriculture is a big contributor to climate change, but convincing meat eaters to cut back isn’t easy. If you want to get more people to eat plant-based foods, don’t call them “plant-based.” Much less “vegan.” (Washington Post)

There was one permitted offshore wind farm in progress in the US Great Lakes. Now, the project is on hold. (Inside Climate News)

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