COP28: One More That Will Increase CO₂ Emissions?

By Samuel Furfari

COP28 was seen by many as groundbreaking, with the first appearance of the term ‘energy’ in the conclusions. The mention of a ‘transitioning away’ from fossil fuels’ caused a stir. However, an analysis of the text shows that there are so many loopholes that they have allowed developing countries to sign up because – as with the Paris Agreement – there is no obligation for them to follow the isolated example of the EU. 

China is considered to be a developing country. So it had no problem signing the agreement. Gas-producing countries – Russia and the Gulf States, for example, are even happy because gas is considered a transitional energy. The main losers at COP 28 were the environmental NGOs and the EU, who were left with a non-binding text that is worded in such a way that nuclear power is considered a transitional energy source. They applauded at the end of the conference. But it was no doubt to hide the emptiness of this COP. 

The final days of this 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP) have been full of the usual drama, but they have also been full of the usual clapping, hugging and excitement. Yet global CO₂ emissions continue to rise, despite the 27 previous COPs. By 2022, they have increased by 61 per centthanks to the COVID crisis; otherwise, they would have increased by 65 per cent. 


True, there are two major innovations this time. An agreement on the development of nuclear energy has been signed by 22 countries from the outset (1). Even if it is on the sidelines of the conference, the ecologists will drink to the dregs, because COP28 will be remembered as the year of the return of nuclear power, since these countries have shown their determination to revive it. 

Another major news item was that ‘energy’ was mentioned in the Conclusion document for the first time. In fact, it could be said that COP28 was not about climate, it was about energy. Even in the Paris Agreement, the word ‘energy’ was absent. This time it appears 17 times in the 21-page text. This seems to be a major victory for environmental NGOs aiming to control energy consumption. 

But that is small comfort. In the texts of international institutions, every word counts. Let us analyse paragraphs 28 and 29, the central part of the conclusions of this COP28. 


Point 28. Further recognises the need for deep, early and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions consistent with 1.5 °C trajectories and calls on Parties to contribute to the following global efforts in a nationally determined manner, considering the Paris Agreement and their different national circumstances, trajectories and approaches: 

Efforts must be nationally determined. This means that these conclusions are not binding; each country decides what it wants to do. There is also recognition that developing countries are in ‘different’ situations and should not have to give up growth in their energy consumption. The word ‘developing’ appears 47 times in the text. This shows the determination of developing countries not to follow the measures proposed by the EU. Without this redundancy, there would simply have been no agreement. 

Bear in mind that China is a developing country within the meaning of the United Nations. Nothing therefore applies to it, and even less to India. This is even though these two countries account for 38.6% of global CO₂. 

(a) Triple global renewable energy capacity and double the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvement by 2030;
The word ‘capacity’ is important because the renewable energy sources that activists are willing to toleratewind turbines and solar photovoltaic panelsare intermittent and variable. Their five-year EU average load factor is 23% and 11% respectively. This means that a wind turbine has to be backed up by a controllable power plant for more than three quarters of the time, and a solar farm for 90 per cent of the time. This means that we also need to triple the installed capacity of non-renewable energy if we want to avoid load shedding. African countries do not have this capacity already installed. We cannot expect renewable energy to develop there. Governments are beginning to realise that they should have two electricity systems running in parallel. This is obviously unnecessarily expensive. 

What’s more, the construction and installation of new renewable energy facilities are not made possible by electricity generated from renewable energy sources, but by minerals and other products extracted from the earth, processed, handled and transported using fossil fuels. It is not the electricity generated by wind turbines or solar panels that produces the 2,500 tonnes of concrete that make up the base of a wind turbine and the 900 tonnes of steel in its mast, but fossil fuels. It’s a truism, but any increase in renewable energy infrastructure will be accompanied by an increase in the use of fossil fuels for its production. 

Regarding energy efficiency, my article on the Science, Climate and Energy (2) emphasises its obvious relevance, but let’s not be deluded: with the benefit of hindsight, the parameter of energy intensity, which is the main measure of the relevance of energy efficiency, is in the process of reaching an asymptote. For example, the insulating panel that is going to save energy will have been produced with the use of fossil fuels. We’re in danger of going round and round in circles. I’ve just heard that some environmentalists are against the use of double glazing because it means more sand quarries will have to be exploited. 

(b) Accelerate efforts to phase out coal-fired electricity without abatement;
This is effectively an acceleration of efforts to phase out electricity generated by burning coal without capturing the CO₂ emissions. But again, this will apply to OECD countries, not developing countries, led by China. 

(c) Accelerate global efforts to achieve net-zero energy systems, using carbon-free or low-carbon fuels well before or around the middle of the century;
Whoever wrote this sentence probably had synthetic fuels in mind. These do not exist, as the end of the sentence suggests. What’s more, unless you believe in perpetual motion, you have to use other forms of energy to make them, because free energy doesn’t exist. These synthetic fuels are made from hydrogen, a molecule that does not exist in nature. It has to be made from … energy. If you want to know more about this, I suggest you read my book ‘The Hydrogen illusion’. This hydrogen has to react with CO₂, which is produced from fossil fuels or extracted from the atmosphere with enormous amounts of energy. COP28 enters the realm of science fiction. 

(d) ‘Transitioning away’ from fossil fuels in energy systems in a fair, orderly and equitable way, accelerating action during this critical decade to reach zero by 2050, in line with the science;

This neologism enabled an agreement to be reached between fossil fuel-producing countries and their critics, avoiding the ‘phase out’ that had already been rejected at COP 26 in Glasgow in relation to coal. This verb not only indicates a vague transition, but is tempered by almost superfluous ‘fair, orderly and equitable’ safeguards to ensure that those who cannot afford it do not have to transitioning away. Again, only if the transition is ‘fair and equitable’ will developing countriesespecially Africa, China and Indiabe affected. This loophole is so vague that it could even apply to certain EU member states, for example. 

What has the phrase ‘in accordance with scientific evidence’ got to do with it? To underline the IPCC’s insistence on this transition? To please Saudi Arabia, which has only mildly questioned the IPCC’s theses, as I pointed out in another article? 

(e) Accelerate zero and low-emission technologies, including but not limited to renewables, nuclear, abatement and removal technologies such as carbon capture, use and storage, particularly in sectors where it is difficult to reduce emissions, and low-carbon hydrogen production;
The explicit mention of nuclear power is the other major innovation of this COP. There can be no mention of renewable energies without mentioning the indispensable nuclear power. 

In this paragraph, coal users will find a loophole in the mention of carbon capture, a technology that has no industrial application other than to produce more hydrocarbons by reinjecting them into wells in order to increase pressure and encourage the production of oil and gas. 

(f) Accelerate and significantly reduce global carbon dioxide emissions, including methane emissions, by 2030;
This paragraph has been a truism since the Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted in Rio in 1992. 

(g) Accelerate the reduction of emissions from road transport across a range of pathways, including through infrastructure development and the rapid deployment of zero and low emission vehicles;
This point is not interesting for what it says. It’s interesting for what it doesn’t say. There is no mention of air transport, despite the loathing of environmental NGOs. It will not have escaped you that aviation is increasingly attacked, even though it has profoundly improved family relations between temporarily separated populations. When I teach my students the concept of the external costs of energy, so dear to ecologists, I also talk to them about the internal benefits of energy, illustrating this with the joy of family reunions that air travel brings. 

Is it a coincidence that aviation is not doomed? Two weeks before this UN conference, the Dubai Air Show was held, where aircraft were bought like hotcakes, especially by the airlines of the United Arab Emirates, which hosted this COP (see my article ‘The aviation sector is on cloud nine … it’s flying high’ in PAN.be (3)). 

As far as the mention of the development of road infrastructure is concerned, this is a sign that the fight against CO₂ emissions is not about limiting road transport. 

(h) Phase out as soon as possible inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that do not address energy poverty or ensure equitable transitions;
Because the unquantified word ‘inefficient’ is relative, everyone can find something to defend in this sentence. The effectiveness of subsidising in France cannot be compared with that of subsidising a citizen or haulier in a poor country to help them pay for fuel for their commercial vehicle. What is more, the paragraph insists that if we want to fight against energy poverty, we will have to continue to subsidise fossil fuels. 


Point 29. Recognises that transition fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security; 

‘Transition fuels’ is indeed plural. A few years ago, even the European Parliament considered natural gas to be a ‘bridge energy’ on the way to renewables. I joked at the time that it wasn’t a bridge, but a viaduct, because gas is irreplaceable. So it’s clear that for Russia and the Gulf countriesand perhaps hypocritically for Washingtonit’s all about natural gas. The world cannot do without more and more natural gas. It is clean, abundant, available and cheap. Just look at how the European Union is scrambling to replace Russian gas with gas from a variety of other countries. We know we can’t do without this CO₂-producing energy for a long time to come. 

But for countries with fossil energy reservesincluding coalparticularly in Africa, this paragraph allows them to produce and sell their own fossil energy, giving them the financial means to invest in expensive renewable energy. It’s an inexorable process: we want to be green, but we need money, and we will get it from the sale of fossil fuels! But since there is no definition for this strange term, even China could very well claim that it is using coal to help transition to natural gas, nuclear or renewable energy. 

Most importantly, this paragraph ends with the fundamental priority of energy security. In other words, with the indisputable argument of security, you can do anything you like. 

What’s more, while paragraph 28 on energy has eight subparagraphs, this little sentence alone forms paragraph 29. It is added after the previous paragraph to emphasise its inconsistency with the rest of the text, to make it clear that this is the real conclusion of COP28. 


All these waffle words underline the emptiness of the COPs since 1995. Every one of the 88,000 participants in Dubai can learn something from this, because this is what they have been fighting for, no matter how far apart they are. Sultan Al Jaber, who chaired COP28, made it look like this COP was a success for the anti-fossil fuel crowd by assuring us that nothing will change. Has he read Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, which says: ‘If we want everything to remain as it is, everything must change’ ? 

Baku, where the Nobel and Rothschild families helped create the oil industry in the 19th century, will host COP29. Azerbaijan is still very active in oil. It supplies 2/3 of the oil used by Israel, but it is increasingly active in gas. Serbia has just inaugurated a gas pipeline to Bulgaria in order to import gas from Baku. This Caucasus country will also make the transition to more fossil fuels. Both for itself and for the EU, which is courting it for non-Russian gas. There is every chance that the COP29 will end up in favour of fossil fuels as well. 

When EU citizens realise that the COP wants to interfere in how they live by controlling how much energy they consume, they will express their dissatisfaction in the European elections on 9 June 2024. The end result of EU energy policy is the imposition of expensive energy on them, while the rest of the world continues to have abundant and cheap energy. 

COP or no COP, European elections or no European elections, one thing is certain: global carbon emissions will be on the rise. 

This commentary was first published at European Scientist on January 17, 2024.

Sam Furfari is an engineer, a Professor of Political Science and Applied Science at the University of Brussels. For 36 years he was a senior official in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Energy.

(1) https://factuel.media/blogs/blog-articles/le-retour-du-nucleaire-au-sein-de-l-union-europeenne_ba_20601353 

(2) https://www.science-climat-energie.be/2023/12/15/evolution-of-the-world-fuel-intensities/

(3) https://pan.be/article/le-secteur-de-laviation-est-sur-son-petit-nuage-ca-plane-pour-lui-995

Featured image by Fotografía oficial de la Presidencia de Colombia from Colombia – 20231130_Dubai Transformando el Financiamiento Climático–Alexa Rochi1477, PDM-owner, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=141863954

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