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Fossil fuels phased out, as UK checks out

COP28 entrance
By SEC Newgate team
14 December 2023
Public Affairs
By Jack Olins

COP28 finally reached a conclusion earlier this week as nearly 200 countries pledged to transition away from fossil fuels “in a just, orderly and equitable manner”, making it the first COP to explicitly call for action on fossil fuels, despite the agreement falling short of calling for a “phase out” of fossil fuels.

The UK Government entered the conference against a backdrop of concerns about its climate leadership following recent announcements rowing back on net zero targets and new oil and gas exploration licences in the North Sea receiving the green light. Zac Goldsmith, who resigned as Minister of State for Climate, Environment and Energy earlier in the year over the watering down of climate pledges, said the UK’s standing on climate had been “diminished in recent months.” Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, echoed this by saying the Prime Minister lacks “seriousness” on climate.

Ahead of the conference, Graham Stuart MP, Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero, set out the UK’s priorities in a Written Ministerial Statement. He said the UK wanted to see progress in five priority areas:

  • New commitments and action to keep 1.5 alive,
  • A clean energy package with clear commitments to transition away from fossil fuels
  • An outcome on finance that helps deliver the trillions needed to accelerate the transition
  • Progress on building resilience to climate impacts
  • Real progress towards protecting, restoring, and sustainably managing nature

The UK were among those nations pushing for stronger action against big oil producers who were opposed to a fossil fuel phase-out. The initial draft text was described by the UK as “disappointing and does not go far enough.” The UK were clear about what they wanted to see in the final text - “there must be a phase out of unabated fossil fuels to meet our climate goal.” Many delegates feared the earlier text contained no obligation for countries to cut out fossil fuels and the language needed strengthening.

After the conference went into extra time, the final agreement saw a shift in language from original drafting of the deal that said nations “could” act, instead the agreement now “calls on” countries to take action – a move that the UK was in favour of.  

The UK delegation was not without controversy, as Graham Stuart MP, who was the lead minister at the conference, left Dubai on Tuesday as the conference was nearing its conclusion on a final deal, to return to the House of Commons for the vote on the Rwanda Bill.

This move drew criticism from many and raised further questions about the UK’s climate leadership, particularly at a crucial moment in the conference. This was after the Prime Minister also drew criticism for his brief appearance at COP28. He was only at the conference for half a day, but defended this decision by saying “it is hugely simplistic to measure the impact of our presence here by the hours we spend.”

Minister Stuart did, however, return to the conference after the vote but the Labour Party could not ignore the link between the return flight by Minister Stuart and the policy of flights to Rwanda he was voting on. Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper MP, said "the climate minister called back from the Dubai COP for the vote: well I guess they can say at least one flight has taken off as a result of this legislation."

Mr Stuart was keen to stress the UK’s contribution to the conference as well as its role in the final agreement, saying the UK was “absolutely central to the outcomes and the most notable outcome of all, which is this global stocktake text” and that he was “delighted with the contribution the UK has been able to make to what is an historic agreement today.”