We needed real commitments, but got greenwashing instead

By Antrea Panagiotou

The COP28 climate summit concluded with the main promise being to “transition away” from fossil fuels. Although the deal was characterised as “historic” by some, including COP president Sultan Al-Jaber, others consider it rather disappointing.

Was COP28 indeed a historic moment or did it fall short of reaching a deal that will meet the target of keeping the rise of the global temperature below 1.5°C?

The controversy of COP28

It is noteworthy that well before the beginning of the climate summit, COP28 sparked a whirlwind of heated debates. First, it was hosted in the United Arab Emirates, a petrostate, ie a state whose economy is dependent on oil and gas, also known for its “blatant contempt for human rights”, as per Amnesty International.

Second, the president-designate of COP28, Sultan Al Jaber, is also the CEO of an oil company, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), which was initially planning to use COP28 as an occasion to pursue more oil deals with foreign governments, as was revealed in leaked briefing documents that were published by BBC News and the Centre for Climate Report.

This controversy was further compounded by Sultan Al Jaber’s claim that “there’s no science” that indicates that we need to phase out fossil fuels to restrain global warming to below 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels, when it has been scientifically shown time and again, by the IPCC, Nasa and the United Nations, to name but a few, that the main cause of the climate crisis is the use of fossil fuels.

A historic win for our planet?

Controversy aside, on December 13, the Global Stocktake deal, the COP28’s main outcome, was reached; a deal that has been greeted as “an important step” following the Paris Agreement. Surprisingly enough, this deal is the first in the 30-year-history of UN climate change talks to explicitly address the root cause of the climate crisis, ie fossil fuels, which is admittedly, as James Dyke, professor at the University of Exeter said, more of an indication of previous failures rather than a “landmark win”.

The deal precisely commits nearly 200 nations to “transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly and equitable manner, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science”. This of course is not in line with what science is telling us, but is instead a watered-down statement. Interestingly, the much stronger term “phase out”, which was originally included in the deal, was removed following OPEC’s (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) lobbying led by Saudi Arabia.

The leniency of the deal in putting an end once and for all to the fossil fuel age was also seen in that it solely talks about “accelerating the efforts to phase-out unabated coal power”. This essentially means, that fossil fuel industries can continue burning coal as long as they use CC(U)S (Carbon Capture (Utilisation) Storage) technologies. This is at the very least problematic, given the uncertainty that surrounds the effectiveness of these technologies, their immensely high costs and more importantly, the fact that by using such technologies the problem of burning fossil fuels remains unsolved.

Still, some somewhat positive outcomes emerged from COP28. Such examples include the pledge for some countries to double energy efficiency and triple renewable energy capacity. However, by not defining a baseline, countries are left to choose the baseline that suits them best.

What is more, an agreement was reached, for the first time, establishing the much-anticipated loss and damage fund, that is, a fund for the negative consequences that arise from the unavoidable risks of climate change. Unfortunately, the pledge for the fund only covers 0.2 per cent of the losses developing countries are dealing with as a result of global heating.

Pledges were also made for the cooling sector, targeting emissions from air-conditioning and refrigeration for food and medicine, as well as measures for agriculture, that accounts for approximately 12 per cent of global GHG emissions globally.

Yet to the question of whether these measures suffice or not to tackle the global climate crisis, the answer is no. As Mike Berners-Lee, Professor at Lancaster University’s Environment Centre stated: “COP28 is the fossil fuel industry’s dream, because it looks like progress, but it isn’t.”

The purpose of COP

One may ask at this point, “why should all this matter?” After all, the COP28 deal is not legally binding, meaning that countries can essentially avoid acting on climate without having to deal with any legal consequences. Yet, climate summits can set global climate targets and the minimum standards by which countries could – and should – ideally abide.

Accruing from this, COP28’s failure to set higher standards is woeful, considering the high cost of inaction, both in terms of money spent in the face of climate-spurred catastrophes and in terms of lives put at immediate risk. To put things into perspective, a study that was published in November this year, by healthcare professionals, estimated that approximately “5 million excess deaths per year globally are attributable to ambient air pollution from fossil fuels and could therefore be avoided by phasing fossil fuels out”.

COP28 and Cyprus

President of the Republic of Cyprus, Mr Christodoulides, was also present in the COP28 Summit highlighting that “Cyprus (…) has witnessed higher frequency and extent of huge wildfires, droughts and floods, as well as prolonged periods of extreme heatwaves (as a result of anthropogenic emissions)”. He added that “we need to accelerate the pace, especially in our country, to implement our climate strategy.”

The latter may come as a surprise when, based on the currently revised draft of the National Plan on the Energy and Climate (NECP), Cyprus’ main decarbonisation strategy in the energy generation sector revolves to a big extent around the use of fossil gas. Specifically, from the end of 2024 onward, liquefied natural gas (LNG) will be imported as a replacement of diesel and HFO (heavy fuel oil) which currently make up almost 83 per cent of the country’s energy mix. What is more, it is projected that by 2027-28, fossil gas will be produced from the Aphrodite field, the first field to be discovered within Cyprus EEZ, for a period of 18 years.

Yet, scientists warn about the urgency to stop burning fossil fuels altogether and transition to renewables, boost energy efficiency and invest in truly viable solutions that will not create carbon lock-ins and lead to stranded assets.

The need for real change

Already the average global surface air temperature has increased by 1.2°C compared to pre-industrial levels, while 2023 was the hottest year on record – as per the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. With climate change being the driving force behind a series of extreme events, from the disastrous wildfires in Greece and Sicily to the wildfires in Hawaii, states’ lukewarm engagement in effectively tackling the climate crisis is simply unacceptable.

At this point, the question we should be asking is not whether COP28 was a historic moment or a greenwashing success for fossil fuel industries, as we probably all know the answer to this by now. What we should be asking instead is how to put an end to this frenetic dependency on fossil fuels. And no, it is not only about individual responsibility; riding your bike to work and recycling may align with your environmental consciousness, but statistically it will not take us where we need to be.

What we need instead is systematic action taken by governments in the form of subsidies in renewables, energy efficiency solutions, and infrastructure to support public transport. Only by providing the right framework will mass-scale implementation be possible.

Antrea Panagiotou is a climate change officer at the Cyprus Environmental Studies Centre – Terra Cypria