Protesters at COP28, calling for an end to fossil fuels

Global: What happened at COP28? Essential need-to-knows

The COP28 climate summit in Dubai ended after 14 days with an agreement which recognized for the first time the need to move away from fossil fuels. Hailed by some as “historical” but decried by others as a “death certificate” – here’s what you need to know.

What happened at COP28, and what does the reference to fossil fuels actually mean?

The overarching decision involving the almost 200 parties at COP28 was on the Global Stocktake – a five-yearly check on the status of climate action and progress measured against long-term goals adopted at the Paris Agreement of 2015.

In the Global Stocktake at COP28, the parties agreed to “transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems.” This explicit reference to fossil fuels, linking them to the climate crisis, is a first in global climate negotiations. This signal, weak though it is and short of the fast, fair, full and funded phase out we have called for, reflects decades of people-led campaigning on climate change to highlight the dangers and harms of fossil fuel production and use, and the damage and threat they pose to human rights.

This agreement, called the “UAE Consensus” was described by the COP28 presidency as a “historical” step, but there remains a huge gap between its aspirations and delivering climate justice, as it leaves loopholes for the fossil fuel industry, and financial commitments at the summit were woefully inadequate.

The final text of the Global Stocktake gives the fossil fuel industry a broad license to carry on conducting business as usual, polluting, land grabbing, wrecking the climate, degrading the environment and eroding people’s human rights. The fossil fuel lobby welcomed its call for an acceleration of technologies for climate mitigation, such as carbon capture and storage, and carbon removal methods, even though they are risky and unproven, and cannot be scaled up sufficiently to bring about the reduction in emissions needed. The transition away from fossil fuels applies only to “energy systems”, but not to their use in plastics, transport or agriculture. It says that “transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security” – a coded reference to fossil gas. The commitment to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030 is an advance, but all renewables’ projects must respect human rights, and benefit local communities.

On funding, the US$188 million pledged for “adaptation” to help states most in need of assistance to strengthen their climate resilience – a little over half the US$300 million target – fell abysmally short of the many billions of dollars required, especially when many island states face an existential crisis, and the rights of billions of people, often in marginalized communities, are under threat.

The window of time available to avert the worst impacts of climate change is vanishingly small, but it still exists and progress is possible.  

Agreement on the Loss and Damage Fund was good news, right?

For decades campaigners called for a fund to provide effective remedies to communities affected by the unavoidable consequences of climate change or extreme weather so that they can rebuild their lives. Since COP27 finally agreed to create this Loss and Damage Fund, the last year has been spent negotiating over how it should be run and financed. COP28 has now largely settled the issue, but the finance pledged so far by a few countries is wholly insufficient to make it effective. Billions of dollars are needed, but a few hundred million US dollars were pledged.

Based on the polluter pays principle, which holds that the largest historic emitters of greenhouse gases must remediate the climate harms they have caused, we have called on all developed countries and others in a position to do so including high income fossil fuel producing states, to significantly scale up their financial contributions. The United States, the largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases, committed only US$17.5 million.

Questions remain about how the World Bank, which has been asked to manage the fund, will administer it. We are calling for it to adopt a human rights-consistent approach, to ensure effective participation of affected communities and civil society in the operation of the fund and in decisions on financing. We want to see direct access to funding for affected communities, with support made available as grants rather than loans to avoid increasing the indebtedness of developing states.

Was the United Arab Emirates a successful host of the summit?

As an authoritarian and extremely repressive petrostate that is continuing to expand its own production of fossil fuels, the UAE was always an unlikely candidate to host an inclusive summit to protect the global climate and human rights – and so it proved. Efforts by corporate interests to capture COP accelerated, both by the UAE appointing Sultan Al Jaber, the head of the state oil and gas company ADNOC, as COP president, and through the record numbers of fossil fuel industry lobbyists and executives in attendance. The UAE’s cynicism was confirmed as it welcomed Russia’s President Putin for talks in Abu Dhabi during the summit, partly to discuss oil exports.  

Within the Blue Zone (the UN-controlled area of COP28), limits on civil society inclusivity and actions were unusually restrictive, and inconducive to a participatory and meaningful outcome for all stakeholders. Activists were filmed and monitored, leading to an atmosphere of intimidation. Beyond the Blue Zone, the UAE’s prohibitions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and criminalization of any criticism of the authorities applied.

The UAE could have used the spotlight of COP to signal that it was prepared to turn a page and heeded our call to release dozens of dissidents it has unjustly imprisoned, many for more than a decade. Instead, it brazenly started a new mass trial of dissidents during COP as it looks to extend the sentences of scores of people it has unjustly detained, including many prisoners of conscience, by prosecuting them on a new set of trumped up “terrorism” charges. The defendants include Ahmed Mansoor, the last human rights activist who was working openly in the UAE, who has been detained since 2017.

Where does this leave us on global warming and human rights?

The final COP28 text is set within a framework, agreed in Paris in 2015, to try and keep the rise in average global temperature this century to within 1.5˚ Celsius above pre-industrial levels to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

Yet the agreement does not specifically address how this will be achieved. It sets emissions reductions timeframes and targets, but does not specify how to reach them, except in the vaguest terms. The Global Stocktake agreement is supposed to give guidance to states as they revise their own individual targets and pathways, known as Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs. These are due to be presented between the end of 2024 and early 2025, ahead of COP30, in Belém, Brazil. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says current NDCs are insufficient to keep within 1.5˚C, even if fully implemented. Carrying on as we are, without change, is predicted to lead to a catastrophic 2.9˚C rise this century.

Average global temperatures this year will be the hottest ever recorded by a significant margin, at about a 1.4˚C rise, so the 1.5˚ buffer is all but used up, and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are at concentrations never previously recorded and are still rising rapidly.

We know global warming causes more extreme weather events, including stronger and more frequent storms, intensifying both droughts and rainfall, increasing the frequency and severity of wildfires, as well as intensifying slow onset events like sea-level rise and glacial melting which threaten communities around the world. Some Pacific Island nations at risk of being inundated by rising seas, storm surges, coastal erosion, or salination of land, described the outcome of COP28 as a “death certificate”.

Increasing air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels is having disastrous consequences for human health, and violating people’s universal right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. This should have been brought home to delegates breathing in the smog in Dubai.

As well as endangering lives and wrecking properties, climate change disrupts biodiversity and damages ecosystems on which humans rely, disproportionately affecting Indigenous peoples. It can also devastate harvests, reduce access to food and water, intensify resource competition and increase conflict, displacement and migration – affecting a huge range of other rights. The rights of billions of people are at stake.  

Where will COP be next year, and does it matter?

After months of fraught discussions, Azerbaijan, another authoritarian petrostate with a dreadful record of repressing freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly – is set to host COP29.

Fossil fuel revenues account for about half of the Azerbaijani economy, and the vast majority of its export revenues. The state-owned integrated oil and gas company SOCAR is a major source of income for the government of President Aliyev, which has all but crushed any opposition through arbitrary arrests, torture, and the continuing harassment and detention of journalists and suppression of civil society.

The odds are stacked in favour of COP29 serving the interests of the host government and the fossil fuel industry – and against an inclusive summit with meaningful participation by Indigenous peoples, marginalized groups, climate activists and human rights defenders, which will safeguard the rights of billions of people threatened by climate change.

It is time to ensure human rights are at the centre of meetings organized by the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) – as parties have agreed they should be. Amnesty International is calling for Host Country Agreements to be published as a matter of course and for future hosts to guarantee respect for and protection of human rights. The UNFCCC should also develop a clear conflict of interest policy and robust accountability framework to ensure that fossil fuel companies cannot unduly influence outcomes and prevent the just and equitable transition to renewable energy for all that we so urgently need.