COP28 – The Dawn of a Post-Fossil Fuel Era

COP28 – the largest climate conference to date, with almost 97,000 registered participants – started with the good news of the Loss and Damage Fund becoming operational, went through a battle over the wording of the fossil fuel phase-out, and ended yesterday with the adoption of the first Global Stocktake.

With the statement “Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with science”, it is the first officially adopted UNFCCC document to include language on abandoning the extraction of oil, the fuel most relevant to the transport sector.

We didn’t fully turn the page on the fossil fuel era, but this is clearly the beginning of the end.

Simon Stiell, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC

In addition, and also for the first time, language on the transport sector and Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs) was included in the decision, making COP28 a milestone for decarbonising transport.

ZEVs have moved from alliances to negotiations

ZEVs, the poster children of the transport community at the COP, have grown up to become an issue in the official negotiations, having been the subject of numerous initiatives and alliances on the side lines in recent years.

Although the language included in the final decision was watered down during the negotiations, the call to contribute to the global effort to “accelerate the reduction of emissions from road transport through a variety of means, including infrastructure development and the rapid deployment of zero- and low-emission vehicles” is a first in reflecting sectoral climate action on transport in the UNFCCC negotiations.

Clearly, the work of numerous partnerships such as the ZEV Transition Council, the International ZEV Alliance, Accelerating to Zero and others has created enough momentum for negotiators to recognise the potential for reducing emissions from road transport.

While no new e-mobility initiatives were announced, the ongoing work of ZEV initiatives and policy makers is also reflected in new countries joining existing initiatives and Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs), such as the Global Commercial Drive to Zero Programme, which gained five new members.

Avoid and Shift on the rise

With all the attention on ZEVs, avoidance and shifting measures have arguably been neglected at previous COPs. The high-level champions ensured that they were included at this COP, if not in the negotiations, then on the thematic agenda. Driving change: How “Avoid & Shift” targets can transform land transport is based on the argument that the transition from internal combustion engine vehicles to zero emission vehicles alone is not enough to decarbonise the road transport sector. It therefore proposes three targets:

  • Standard for convenient access to green mobility options per capita
  • Per capita active and public transport expenditure target
  • Target for reduction of mobility-related energy consumption per capita

These three qualitative targets serve as a foundational step towards defining quantitative Avoid & Shift breakthroughs specific to the surface transport sector for COP29, laying the groundwork for comprehensive progress.

An example of Avoid and Shift action during COP28 was the launch of the Alliance for Cycling and walking Towards International Vitality and Empowerment (ACTIVE), led by the Netherlands. As a follow-up to the Global Capacity Building Initiative, it aims to train 10,000 mobility experts in the Global South over the next 10 years.

The sustainable transport community highlighted the urgency to act

Alongside the negotiations, the transport community used COP28 in Dubai to showcase best practices, connect transport decision-makers and announce commitments to help move to a 1.5 degree pathway and meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The COP format attracts so many participants as it is also a bazaar of solutions and deals, and is used by the community to network.

For example, new announcements focused on shipping included 10 companies joining the Cargo Owners for Zero Emission Vessels. This collaborative platform brings the total number of cargo owners working to drive ambition and action towards zero emission shipping to over 35. In addition, the Green Maritime Africa Coalition (GMAC) promoted the supply and use of zero emission fuels in Africa’s maritime sector, in line with the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) 2050 decarbonisation plan.

The SLOCAT Partnership used the opportunity to mobilise action through their call to double the share of energy efficient and fossil-free forms of land transport by 2030, requesting governments and transport stakeholders to take action focusing on shifts to public transport, walking, cycling and rail freight, as well as electric vehicles and railways. With two signatory countries and several supporting organizations, more activities have been announced for 2024.

A large number of side events were held, in particular on 6 December, the Transport Thematic Day, many of which were held in parallel with the COP presidency events.

The Dubai milestone: Navigating the challenge of a fossil fuel phaseout

While countries did not agree on the much-needed phase-out of fossil fuels, they did include language on fossil fuels for the first time – under the presidency of an oil and gas-dependent country and with a reference to staying on a 1.5°C pathway. Moreover, the language is not limited to “unabated” fossil fuels, but targets fossil fuels in general. Although not enough, this can be seen as a foot in the door of fossil fuel divestment.

To those who opposed a clear reference to a phaseout of fossil fuels in the COP28 text, [..] a fossil fuel phase out is inevitable whether they like it or not.  Let’s hope it doesn’t come too late.

António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations

In addition to the above cited “transitioning away from fossil fuels” the global stocktake calls for “Tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030”. The language on tripling renewables and doubling energy efficiency improvements is important as electrification takes up speed, renewable energy has to keep up to fully untap the potential of zero emission vehicles and fuel the transition.

Beyond the negotiations, two interesting initiatives have gained momentum. The Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance has won three new members: Spain, Kenya, and Samoa and a new structural element. As of now, the alliance goes past peer to peer exchanges and grants financial support to two of its members. Nonetheless, no oil and gas producer countries have joined the alliance yet. The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty which emerged in 2022 has also gained six new members in the current year.

The next steps are reporting emissions and updating NDCs – including transport

While many countries agreed on the need to accelerate the deployment of renewables, the actual breakpoint for phasing out fossil fuels was much more contentious, despite scientific reports showing that on current trajectories the world is heading towards a +3 degree world – hardly the future we’d like to live in.

The next few years will be crucial to further increase ambition and climate action, which must be reflected in the 2025 NDC updates. This includes strengthening the transport content of NDCs over the next two years.

To ensure that this sectoral action is evidence-based, increased transparency and work on better quality GHG emissions and transport data will be key. The GST decision recalls the upcoming submission of biennial transparency reports and national inventory reports in 2024.

This is also part of the new Strategy of the International Climate Initiative, a central programme of the German Government’s international climate and biodiversity funding. The strategy has been launched at COP28 and calls for robust MRV systems and reliable data sets to ensure that the transport sector makes a substantial contribution to the NDCs.

The long journey to transport decarbonisation continues to Baku and Belém

Some issues relevant to transport have been deferred to future climate conferences, such as the Global Goal on Adaptation, where further negotiations on sectoral operationalisation and financing are needed. Another issue that remains on the table is the question of carbon markets (Article 6 in climate jargon), where no agreement was reached. Both are relevant to transport as they are entry points – or potential barriers – to climate finance.

It remains for the incoming presidencies of Azerbaijan and Brazil to secure more ambitious language on fossil fuel divestment and to address topics. Phasing out oil – a fossil fuel on which the transport sector is currently particularly dependent (around 94% of EU transport is fuelled with oil) – must be part of this agenda.

The troika formed at COP28 between the current UAE presidency and the forthcoming presidencies of Azerbaijan and Brazil has announced that it will “work towards reducing fossil fuel dependency”. However, with fossil fuels accounting for more than 90 per cent of Azerbaijan’s exports, and with Brazil having just announced its intention to join the OPEC+ oil cartel, it is the responsibility of the global community to hold future COP presidencies to account for their commitment to global climate action – including fossil fuel divestment.

©COP28 by Anthony Fleyhan, Source: UNFCCC Flickr
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