U.N. climate agreement addresses fossil fuels for first time as Blue Pacific nations, U.S. push for more ambitious goals


United Nations climate talks in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in December 2023 closed with an agreement by nearly 200 nations to “transition away” from fossil fuels. It marked the first time a U.N. climate compact has called for governments to burn less coal, oil and natural gas, a step some observers called historic. Blue Pacific nations on the front lines of the climate crisis, however, said the deal is inadequate to limit the global temperature rise that threatens island and low-lying nations with rising sea levels.

“We have come to the conclusion that the course correction that is needed has not been secured,” said Samoan representative Anne Rasmussen, speaking for the Alliance of Small Island States at the U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP28. “We have made an incremental advancement over business as usual when what we really needed is an exponential step change in our actions and support.”

The COP28 agreement called for “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” and for phasing out fossil fuel subsidies “as soon as possible.”

Many scientists say fossil fuels — which account for over 75% of greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90% of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the U.N. — are the largest contributors to global climate change. Nevertheless, analysts said the focus on fossil fuels was surprising for a summit hosted by one of the world’s largest oil producers.

More than 100 countries, including European Union (EU) members, the United States and climate-vulnerable nations, supported more ambitious goals that would require nations to phase out coal, oil and natural gas — rather than begin cutting back.

Meanwhile, nations including Russia and Saudi Arabia pushed for the conference in Dubai to focus only on reducing climate-related pollution instead of addressing the fossil fuels causing it, reported Reuters news agency. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) did not endorse ending fossil fuel use, although its representatives backed renewable energy proposals.

Some nations also sought to distract from the focus on climate change during COP28. The PRC complained that summit participants had suggested inviting Taiwan, the democratically governed island that Beijing threatens to annex by force. Russia claimed that if the West would free up gold reserves frozen after Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin could help developing countries respond to climate change.

The U.S. prioritizes measures to mitigate and build resilience to climate change globally. For example, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command established the Climate Change Impacts program within the Hawaii-based Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance in 2021. The program collaborates with Allies and Partners on research and information exchange to anticipate and respond to climate-driven security impacts; conforms to regional frameworks, such as the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, in building climate resilience; and informs decision-making to address impacts of climate change and related natural disasters.

Takeaways from COP28:

  • More than 120 countries pledged to triple renewable energy capacity and double energy efficiency, both by 2030. The PRC and the S. agreed to the measures before the summit.
  • The EU, Germany, Japan, the UAE, the United Kingdom and the U.S. pledged more than $700 million to the Loss and Damage Fund for countries hit hardest by the climate crisis.
  • Australia, Estonia, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland and the U.S. committed $3.5 billion to the Green Climate Fund to help developing countries adapt to and mitigate climate change.
  • The U.S. announced it would cut methane emissions by its oil and gas industry by nearly 80% through 2038. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases.
  • Fifty major oil and gas companies, representing about 40% of global production, agreed to cut methane emissions to nearly zero by 2030.

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