Nearly 30 years after the United Nations began convening countries to address the effects of climate change, nearly 200 nations took a crucial step on Wednesday, agreeing to move away from planet-warming fossil fuels — naming, for the first time in the climate talks’ formal agreement, the long-accepted cause of the crisis.
“Humanity has finally done what is long, long, long overdue,” Wopke Hoekstra, European Union commissioner for climate action, said as the climate talks known as COP28 wrapped up.
The agreement marked a major step forward, yet many critics warned that the deal still had significant shortcomings, including a failure to call for an outright phasing-out of oil, gas, and coal, while giving nations too much wiggle room in their transitions to clean energy.
Within minutes of opening Wednesday’s session in Dubai, COP28 president Sultan al-Jaber gaveled in approval of the central document — an evaluation of how off-track the world is on climate and how to get back on — without giving critics a chance to comment. He hailed it as a “historic package to accelerate climate action.”
The UN’s goal is to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times, and al-Jaber repeatedly called that his “north star.” So far the world has warmed 1.2 degrees (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) since the mid-1800s.
Despite the step forward, little in the agreement called for concrete change, according to Kelly Sims Gallagher, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “By any objective accounting, the final text of COP28 is weak with few meaningful decisions,” she wrote on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
The biggest achievement, she said, was the establishment of what’s known as a Loss and Damage Fund, where developed nations that have played the biggest role in causing climate change will help pay for climate-related damages felt by developing countries.
But even that fell short. “The funding levels are in the hundreds of millions. The scale of it needs to be in the billions,” said Mimi Sheller, dean of The Global School at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
That’s just one of several ways that small island nations felt slighted.
Several minutes after al-Jaber pushed the document through, Samoa’s lead delegate, Anne Rasmussen, on behalf of small island nations, complained that they weren’t even in the room when al-Jaber said the deal was done. She said that “the course correction that is needed has not been secured,” with the deal representing business-as-usual instead of exponential emissions-cutting efforts. Rasmussen said the deal could “potentially take us backward rather than forward.”
The specter of the fossil fuel industry weighed heavily on the talks, with more than 2,400 fossil fuel representatives and lobbyists reportedly attending. As the conference was beginning, news broke that the United Arab Emirates planned to use its position as host to lobby for oil and gas deals around the world.
But while the ultimate progress may seem incremental, the fact that the world’s second-largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia, was among the nations signing on to the agreement is noteworthy, said Luis Dávila, senior director of communications at Schneider Electric, which has its US headquarters in Massachusetts.
It may be thanks to al-Jaber’s role as president. He was a “messenger they could trust,” said Davila, who worked for the UN on communications related to the 2015 Paris Agreement, a major breakthrough for the UN climate talks. “If it had been the leader of Greenpeace telling them what to do, it wouldn’t have had the same impact,” he said.
Senator Ed Markey criticized the deal, issuing a statement saying the plan “doesn’t go far enough” while pointing the finger at the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
“OPEC and its cronies wield their influence over negotiations, and the most vulnerable nations and communities continue to suffer the consequences of our inaction,” Markey said. “COP is at risk of becoming the Club of Oil Pushers. The United States is drunk on oil and gas production and exports, and we are not alone at the bar.”
Despite the perceived shortcomings in the new deal, there were more self-congratulations than flagellations on Wednesday.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement that, “For the first time, the outcome recognizes the need to transition away from fossil fuels . . . and it must end with justice and equity.”
UN climate secretary Simon Stiell told delegates their efforts were “needed to signal a hard stop to humanity’s core climate problem: fossil fuels and that planet-burning pollution. Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end.”
Stiell also cautioned that what was adopted was a “climate action lifeline, not a finish line.”
The new deal had been floated early Wednesday and was stronger than a draft proposed days earlier, but had loopholes that upset critics.
“There’s a pretty deadly, fatal flaw in the text, which allows for transitional fuels to continue,” which is code for natural gas that also emits carbon pollution, said Jean Su, energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Gaurab Basu, a Boston-area physician and director of education and policy at Harvard University’s Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment, who attended the conference as part of its first-ever Health Day, said the talks laid bare the competing interests around the world. “I am struck that in the year 2023, we are still struggling to be laser-focused on a full, rapid, and just phase-out of fossil fuels to protect health and social stability,” he said. “The science is clear. We are falling more behind on our commitment to the Paris Agreement and running out of time.”
Muskaan Khemani, a research data analyst at the Center for Climate & Health at Boston University’s School of Public Health and a youth climate activist, said the influence of the fossil fuel industry was heavily discussed in Dubai. But, to her, the industry’s influence was largely behind the scenes, except for one person she saw carrying a branded bag of handouts. “I was like OK, wow — OPEC at COP?” she said.
While the outcome fell far short of what she had hoped to see, Khemani said she felt any progress was partly driven by “the young people there who are fighting tirelessly” to make sure language about fossil fuels was included.
The deal also includes a call for tripling the use of renewable energy and doubling energy efficiency by 2030.
At a press conference, US special envoy John Kerry called Wednesday’s agreement “a clear unambiguous message on one of the most complicated issues that we face.” He said that the United States wanted stronger language, but that it was too much “of a steep climb” to get from 195 nations.
Kerry said, “There were times in the last 48 hours where some of us thought this could fail.” But “we stayed at it. People showed good faith. People stepped up.”
The deal says the transition will be done in a way that gets the world to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 and carbon pollution to peak by 2025, but gives slack to individual nations like China to peak later.
Former vice president Al Gore, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning climate activist who attended the conference, said that while it is an important milestone “to finally recognize that the climate crisis is at its heart a fossil fuel crisis,” the deal is “the bare minimum” with “half measures and loopholes.’’
“Whether this is a turning point that truly marks the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era depends on the actions that come next,” Gore said.
Globe correspondent Vivi Smilgius contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also used.