Subscriber OnlyMedia

Early surprises at Cop28 raise hopes for better news to come

What the world needs now is an acknowledgement from all parties of the need to phase out fossil fuels

Welcome to this week’s IT Sunday, a Cop28 special edition written by The Irish Times’s Environment and Science Editor Kevin O’Sullivan.

The UN’s annual global climate talks have kicked off in Dubai with indications the gathering of almost 200 countries has the potential to be as momentous as in 2015 when the Paris Agreement was delivered against expectations.

The omens are good as day one of Cop28 came with some surprising aspects. Agreement on a loss and damage fund to help developing countries at the forefront of emerging climate breakdown – fought over for decades – was agreed with money likely to flow from early next year. By evening time there was €450 million in the pot.

The second unexpected element was absolute clarity from Cop28 president, Sultan al-Jaber, the main facilitator of negotiations, on what he expects from the coming two weeks, with specificity on critical issues such as cutting emissions, increasing adaptation to prepare for inevitable impacts and climate finance to assist decarbonisation in poorer states.


All this was with the intention of being led by his “northern star”; keeping global warming to within a 1.5 degree rise. In his opening ceremony address, he flagged fossil fuel companies had to do more, which was quite something given he is also chief executive of UAE’s national oil company, Adnoc.

In demanding much greater ambition, he nearly outdid António Guterres but the UN secretary general set the bottom line: “The 1.5-degree limit is only possible if we ultimately stop burning all fossil fuels. Not reduce. Not abate. Phase out – with a clear timeframe aligned with 1.5 degrees.”

Cops since Paris have invariably been cumbersome affairs with poor outcomes and too much weakening of language on curbing fossil fuels. Moves on phasing down coal, oil and gas were constantly blocked by petrostates.

Cop veterans and battle-weary climate activists will note the irony that this year’s gathering is being held in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, built on oil extracted from the desert.

Some believe this backdrop is grotesque in light of the havoc the climate crisis has brought this year with fossil fuels, ultimately, the chief culprit. The ravages linked to an overheating planet were concentrated on the most vulnerable and communities most exposed to extreme weather.

They will point to a U.N.-backed report released recently which found that despite their promises, the world’s governments still plan to produce and consume more than twice as much coal, oil and gas in 2030 as they should to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees — a gap that’s remained largely unchanged since 2019.

By tomorrow, leaders will have departed, ministers and high-level officials will carry on a further eight days of negotiations behind closed doors. There will be haggling over adjectives and commas but principally over the extent of climate finance for poor countries, attempting to agree cuts in greenhouse gas emissions needed to stay within the 1.5 degrees and whether to phase out fossil fuels.

The game of “down or out” will surface repeatedly. Should the world “phase out” what’s known as “unabated” oil and gas — that’s when fossil fuels are burned without technologies to capture their greenhouse gases — or should they just be “phased down”?

Sultan al-Jaber was remarkably up front in suggesting there should be proactive engagement with fossil fuel companies. He went to say “so let’s be transparent in the actions and decisions we take with each other”.

And in that spirit, delivering on promises he made on accountability, the UN — which organises the summit — has reformed the badging system for delegates.

Every participant at this Cop is already publicly listed. The whole world now knows who’s here, he noted. There is more transparency but what Planet Earth desperately needs right now is honesty from all parties in acknowledging the case for phase out, and for them to agree an orderly timeline to do so.

As always, there is much more on, including rundowns of all the latest movies in our film reviews, tips for the best restaurants in our food section and all the latest in sport. There are plenty more articles exclusively available for Irish Times subscribers here.

We value your views. Please feel free to send comments, feedback or suggestions for topics you would like to see covered to and thank you to those who filled out our recent survey.