DUBAI, United Arab Emirates
After nearly three decades of negotiations, the annual United Nations climate talks concluded this week with a first: Its delegates finally mentioned the words “fossil fuels” in an agreement and the need to “transition away” from them.
The agreement contains plenty of exceptions — for example, for using gas as a transition fuel — but it is probably the best that could be expected from negotiations held in United Arab Emirates and chaired by Sultan al-Jaber, the head of the UAE’s national oil company. Indeed, ironically it may have been the only setting where such an agreement could have been reached.
The final language, tepid as it is, is seen as progress — a signal that the fossil fuel era will someday end. But let’s be clear: It took almost 30 years for delegates to mention the main cause of climate change, and if countries don’t immediately move beyond the voluntary approach of the Paris Agreement and start imposing mandatory measures, we’ll face a climate disaster that is now unfolding far faster than most realize.
The impending disaster — and the failure of voluntary measures to avoid it — was dramatically illustrated last week in a report by more than 200 scientists who found that fast-rising temperatures threaten to soon trigger “tipping points” in natural systems, destabilizing the world’s climate and producing runaway warming.
“Tipping points in the Earth system pose threats of a magnitude never faced by humanity,” said Tim Lenton, lead author of the new study from the University of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute. “They can trigger devastating domino effects, including the loss of whole ecosystems and capacity to grow staple crops, with societal impacts including mass displacement, political instability and financial collapse.”
The world’s temperature has already warmed by 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and the new study notes that such tipping points could occur at as low as 1.3 to 1.5C, levels almost certain to occur this decade. Most terrifying of all is the risk that one or more tipping points will trigger others, leading to a cascade of irreversible damage.
Yet solutions do exist. The fastest, safest, and least expensive way to limit warming over the next two decades is to cut methane, a super climate pollutant 80 times more powerful in warming than carbon dioxide over 20 years. Methane is responsible for more than a third of global warming, and reducing it would prevent three times more warming at mid-century than cutting carbon dioxide alone.
Among the most significant outcomes at COP28 was agreement by 50 of the world’s largest oil and gas companies to voluntarily limit their methane emissions to near-zero by 2030, an initiative of the UAE host country, and one that confirms deep and fast cuts to this super climate pollutant can be achieved. This, and the reference in the final Dubai decision on accelerating cuts to methane and other non-carbon dioxide pollutants, sets the stage for a mandatory sectoral agreement on methane.
This should be modeled after the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the real workhorse of climate protection, which is quietly on track to avoid 2.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century. With fast follow-up on a mandatory methane agreement for fossil fuels, this could become one of the most important outcomes of the negotiations.
The United States and the European Union have just announced tough new rules to reduce methane, giving them and their industries the incentive to support a global agreement that ensures the rest of the world follows the same rules. China, the world’s largest methane emitter, has agreed to work with the United States to reduce non-carbon dioxide climate pollutants, including implementing their respective national methane action plans.
Yet rogue countries like Russia, also one of the world’s largest methane emitters, have refused to limit their methane. India is starting its methane mitigation efforts at the sub-national level but has yet to join the voluntary Global Methane Pledge, which is now backed by 155 nations promising to reduce total methane emissions from all sources by 30 percent by the end of this decade.
Noting the limits of voluntary promises, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley called for a mandatory global methane agreement in Dubai, and the Global Youth Statement on climate justice supported it as well. Such an agreement should begin with the oil and gas sector, with reductions accounted for and aggregated under the Paris Agreement.
Transitioning from fossil fuels is crucial. But in the meantime, an immediate mandatory agreement to cut methane is the key to limiting near-term temperatures, slowing tipping points, and preventing runaway climate calamity. And as Mottley and the global youth movement have warned, time is running out.
Durwood Zaelke is president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development in Washington, D.C. and Paris, and adjunct professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. Paul Bledsoe is a professorial lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy who served as the communications director for the White House Climate Change Task Force under former president Bill Clinton.