By Brad Plumer and Max Bearak
The sweeping agreement, which comes during the hottest year in recorded history, was reached Wednesday after two weeks of furious debate at the United Nations climate summit in Dubai. European leaders and many of the nations most vulnerable to climate-fueled disasters were urging language that called for a complete “phaseout” of fossil fuels. But that proposal faced intense pushback from major oil exporters such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq, as well as fast-growing countries such as India and Nigeria.
In the end, negotiators struck a compromise: The new deal calls on countries to accelerate a global shift away from fossil fuels this decade in a “just, orderly and equitable manner,” and to quit adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere entirely by midcentury. It also calls on nations to triple the amount of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, installed around the world by 2030 and to slash emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that is more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term.
While past U.N. climate deals have urged countries to reduce emissions, they have shied away from explicitly mentioning the words “fossil fuels,” even though the burning of oil, gas and coal is the primary cause of global warming.
“Humanity has finally done what is long, long, long overdue,” said Wopke Hoekstra, the European commissioner for climate action. “Thirty years — 30 years! — we spent to arrive at the beginning of the end of fossil fuels.”
The new deal is not legally binding and can’t, on its own, force any country to act. Yet many of the politicians, environmentalists and business leaders gathered in Dubai hoped it would send a message to investors and policymakers that the shift away from fossil fuels was unstoppable. Over the next two years, each nation is supposed to submit a detailed, formal plan for how it intends to curb greenhouse gas emissions through 2035. Wednesday’s agreement is meant to guide those plans.
“This is not a transition that will happen from one day to the other,” Susana Muhamad, Colombia’s environmental minister, said this week. “Whole economies and societies are dependent on fossil fuels. Fossil capital will not disappear just because we made a decision here.” But, she added, an agreement sends “a strong political message that this is the pathway.”
The deal represents a diplomatic victory for the United Arab Emirates, the oil-rich nation that hosted these talks at a glittering, sprawling expo center in Dubai under smoggy skies just 11 miles away from the largest natural gas power plant in the world.
It remains to be seen if countries will follow through on the agreement. Scientists say that nations would need to slash their greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 43% this decade if they hope to limit total global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with preindustrial levels. Beyond that level, scientists say, humans could struggle to adapt to rising seas, wildfires, extreme storms and drought.
Yet global fossil-fuel emissions soared to record highs this year, nations are currently on track to cut that pollution by less than 10% this decade, and the world has already heated by more than 1.2 degrees Celsius. Many scientists say it is now highly unlikely that humanity can limit warming to 1.5 degrees, though they add that countries should still do everything they can to keep warming as low as possible.
Representatives from small islands, whose coasts are disappearing under rising seas and whose wells are filling with saltwater, said that the new climate agreement had a “litany of loopholes” and was not enough to avert catastrophe.
“This process has failed us,” said Anne Rasmussen, the lead negotiator for Samoa, who complained that the deal had been approved while a group of 39 small island nations was not in the room. “The course correction that is needed has not been secured.”
Past climate agreements have often failed to encourage meaningful action. In 2021, nations struck a deal in Glasgow, Scotland, to “phase down” coal-fired power plants. But Britain approved a new coal mine just one year later, and global coal use has since soared to record highs.
Even as negotiators from the United States and Europe pressed forcefully for a deal to reduce fossil fuel use, environmentalists pointed out that oil production in the United States was surging, while European countries were spending billions on new terminals to import liquefied natural gas amid the war in Ukraine.
U.S. officials talked up the fact that Congress had recently approved hundreds of billions of dollars to adopt and manufacture clean energy technologies such as solar panels, electric vehicles and heat pumps that would help curb the world’s appetite for oil, coal and natural gas.
As bleary-eyed diplomats in Dubai argued in all-night sessions over language in the text, they were forced to wrestle with the realities and stark challenges of a global transition away from fossil fuels in greater detail than ever before.
Saudi Arabia and oil and gas companies argued that the talks should focus on emissions, instead of fossil fuels themselves, saying that technologies such as carbon capture and storage could trap and bury greenhouse gases from oil and gas and allow their continued use. To date, nations have struggled to deploy that technology on a broad scale.
Other world leaders countered that the best way to cut emissions was to switch to cleaner forms of energy such as solar, wind or nuclear, reserving carbon capture for rare situations when alternatives are unavailable.
The final text calls on nations to accelerate carbon capture “particularly in hard-to-abate sectors.” But some negotiators expressed concern that fossil fuel companies could seize on that language to continue emitting at high rates while promising to capture the emissions later.
Some oil producers already see wiggle room in the deal. In a television interview after the summit, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the Saudi energy minister, said that the agreement “buried the issue of immediately phasing out or phasing down” fossil fuels and instead “left space for countries to choose their own way.” He also insisted that Saudi Arabia’s oil exports would not be affected.
The final agreement also has language recognizing that so-called transitional fuels can play a role in the transition to clean energy and ensuring energy security. “Transitional fuels” is widely seen as code for natural gas, something that gas-producing countries like Russia and Iran had called for. Some nations seeking an end to fossil fuels lamented the inclusion of that language.
After the agreement was reached Wednesday, John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, said that it showed countries could still work together despite their sharp differences.
“In a world of Ukraine and Middle East war and all the other challenges of a planet that is foundering, this is a moment where multilateralism has come together and people have taken individual interests and attempted to define the common good,” Kerry said. “That is hard; it’s the hardest thing in diplomacy; it’s the hardest thing in politics.”
But there were still signs that bitterness and distrust lingered. “Developed countries say a great deal about ambition in tackling the climate crisis when standing before the media,” said Diego Pacheco, the lead negotiator for Bolivia. “But in the negotiation rooms of this conference they are blocking and creating distortions and confusion and adding complexity to all the issues that are priorities for developing countries.”
“Champions for a rapid phaseout of fossil fuels, both small island states and major economies, have pushed the rest of the world to realize this transition cannot be stopped,” said Tom Evans, a climate policy adviser at E3G, a research organization. “But this is only a small first step.”