Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024

COP28 was more than a summit for African nations acutely vulnerable to climate disasters despite being the least responsible for carbon pollution. Africans hoped it could be a pivotal moment where the world’s climate crisis would be confronted head-on. That hope was almost dashed entirely but salvaged at the last minute. Early on in the negotiations to draft the final text, instead of agreeing on a fossil fuel phasedown deal, a historic commitment that would have lit the path out of Africa’s deepening climate despair, the COP28 draft agreement fell far short. There have been important strides taken by the host nation. Before the summit, the United Arab Emirates had pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the first Middle Eastern country to do so. And the UAE’s COP28 presidency put forward an ambitious agenda, mobilizing nearly $84 billion in funding and launching a $30 billion catalytic fund, Altérra, to mobilize up to $250 billion for positive climate action – all in the first five days. This COP has also seen the World Bank increase its commitment by an additional $9 billion annually for climate projects—not to mention $22.6 billion toward climate action provided by multilateral development banks on top of that. And the loss and damage fund, so far raising more than $700 million, was a breakthrough. But given the scale of the crisis, this is not nearly enough. For African nations, the stakes have never been higher. The relentless march of climate change threatens to render large areas of our land uninhabitable within mere decades—not to mention potentially unleashing a massive wave of climate refugees toward the West. That’s why it was so disconcerting that OPEC heavyweights like Saudi Arabia, along with major economies including China and India, had ruled out calls for a fossil fuel phasedown, let alone a phaseout. Indeed, China and Russia shielded coal—the dirtiest of fuels—from criticism. And how exactly were these nations justifying their refusal to curb emissions? In the guise of supporting the global south, they claimed that curbing fossil fuel production is detrimental to economies that rely heavily on it, as many African nations do. Yet they ignored the catastrophic impact of business-as-usual fossil fuel exploitation, which is a lethal blow to the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and a veritable death sentence for our countries. Exceeding 1.5 degrees would be disastrous for Africa, which produces the lowest per-capita emissions out of all continents. If nothing changes, approximately 250 million people in Africa could experience high water stress by 2030 due to climate change, impacting water availability for drinking, agriculture, and industry. Africa’s hopes were about to be dashed on the rocks of political and economic self-interest. Yes, our economies are intertwined with fossil fuels, but the answer is not reckless continuation of fossil fuel production. The solution lies in a just and equitable transition to clean energy, underpinned by significant climate financing support from wealthier, industrialized nations. Without this, the idea of a fair transition simply does not hold up. Which is why African countries themselves said that they have no choice but to use fossil fuels if rich, industrialized nations refuse to provide funding for their green transition. Saudi Arabia, India, and China had an opportunity to demonstrate that they are not stuck in the past but are instead ready to embrace the future. That means grappling constructively with the recognition that to retain a safe climate, the world must phase down fossil fuels. Doing so would be consistent with the fact that China and India are, respectively, the world’s first and third top renewable energy producers, with Saudi Arabia picking up the pace this year. But it’s not just the major oil producers that almost derailed COP28 at the last hour. It’s also the United States and Europe that, despite ramping up their rhetoric in support of a fossil fuel phaseout, have failed to facilitate the climate finance needed to actually make it feasible. Their calls thus left a sour taste for many African delegates. Many of us had experienced a sense of palpable hope around this critical issue when COP President Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber met with Kenyan President William Ruto during the Africa Climate Summit, where they agreed to support private-sector engagement in climate finance. To kick-start the initiative, the UAE invested over $13 billion to catalyze renewable energy projects across Africa. In contrast, the failure of the U.S., U.K., and EU to back up their fossil fuel phaseout rhetoric with tangible mechanisms to make it financially viable—especially for the world’s developing nations—has alarmed many African leaders who feel we are being told we can have nothing: no fossil fuels for development, and no finance for a green transition. Without the financing to support a crash program in energy transformation, leaving fossil fuels in the ground would be a recipe to collapse into poverty. Ultimately, without a drastic reduction in global fossil fuel production, Africa will continue suffering from escalating extreme weather events and natural disasters, leading to a greater need for funds to be directed toward climate disaster response and recovery, rather than proactive mitigation and adaptation efforts. That is why the final COP28 agreement brokered by the UAE represents such a significant breakthrough. For the first time in history, we have a global climate agreement that formally recognizes the crucial significance of systematically reducing oil, gas, and coal use by incorporating the language of “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems.” That such an agreement was signed off by 198 countries was extraordinary. That it was the UAE, the seventh-largest oil producer in the world, that managed to bring the world’s biggest oil producers—including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, China, and Russia—onto the side of recognizing this transition seemed surprising but revealed that they needed one of their own to broker this stunning compromise. There’s still much work to do. We lack a mechanism to unlock the trillions of dollars of finance necessary to back such a huge and complex transition. The richest, most industrialized nations that have watered down their financial commitments at every opportunity were eagerly pointing the finger—but it is they who have refused to put their money where their mouths are. Ultimately, this is the first COP that has managed to rally 198 world governments behind a vision of a world after fossil fuels, backed by a goal of tripling renewable energy and doubling energy efficiency by 2030. That goal is enough to tackle up to three-quarters of the emissions reductions required by that year to avoid dangerous climate change. There’s no avoiding the fact that global energy markets will receive an unmistakable message from this declaration: The future is renewable, and the age of fossil fuels will soon be behind us.

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