The significance of ‘UAE Consensus’

The significance of ‘UAE Consensus’

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Oil from the UAE to the outside world is shipped starting from the narrow Strait of Hormuz and, from there, to the wider Gulf of Oman, from where it finds its way to the vast ocean to reach various part of the world. Under the Presidency of the UAE, COP28 went through a similar pathway. It started with narrow wins, went through the wider debates and finally transitioned to the much-acclaimed realm of the ‘UAE Consensus’.

In my first article of the protracted editorial campaign on COP28, going as way back as March 2023, I highlighted how a certain section of the media was perpetuating the needless controversy surrounding the appointment of the President of COP28, H.E. Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, who is UAE Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology and is also Managing Director and Group CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). I stated at the time that the UAE is indeed the seventh-largest oil-producing country in the world. I went on to point out that we ought not to forget that the fourth-largest oil-producing country in the world, Canada, and major coal- and gas-producing countries, like Germany, Poland, South Africa and Qatar, have all hosted COPs. Some of the Presidents of COPs in those countries had engaged in promoting the energy from fossil fuels for the benefit of societies.

Since that article, titled ‘COP28: Why the hullabaloo over the UAE hosting the event?’, the following months of 2023 saw political declarations during the G7 and G20 meetings and during the UN SDGs summit. On December 13, 2023, the world witnessed the emergence of the historic ‘UAE Consensus’, which for the first time in the history of COPs included the decision of ‘ transitioning away from fossil fuel’.

Nearly 70,000 participants in COP28 in Dubai, coming from 196 countries, returned home wondering what to make of the consensus. Two questions predominantly arise in this context: What does the outcome of COP28 means to a country. Secondly, what is the message from COP28 for big and small businesses, farmers, workers, researchers, students, homemakers and senior citizens?

As Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) for more than two decades and, earlier, as Technical Advisor to the Government of India for Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs), I had the advantage of understanding the nuances in the debates, shades of intentions in between the lines of the deal reached after the global consensus, and of culling out actionable messages.

Indeed, many criticised the UN gatherings as a waste of time and money. Climate-intellectuals sarcastically said that such global climate conferences, which aim to reduce emissions, should stop, as they emit large volumes of greenhouse gases.

I am of the unwavering opinion, though, that COP is the only ‘game in town’, the only choice, which one must accept for want of a better one. The UN has unparalleled convening power, where all the countries come under one roof to deliberate the global issues that affect the local ecosystem and societies in each of the nations.

Amidst a long list of agenda-issues, COP28 revolved around three prime pillars: Climate Action, Climate Justice and Climate Finance. The bone of contention throughout the negotiations was, “How can a country that has prospered, and continues to make strides, on the back of oil, support the decision to phase out fossil fuels?”

H.E. Dr. Al Jabar is a Chemical Engineer. He knows how to leverage the people-chemistry to engineer a transformational change. He also has a post-graduate degree in Management from Stanford. He understands the Stanfordian motto that there is only one opportunity everyone has – and that is to learn about history from those who are in the process of making it.

The majority of the delegates, and a certain section of the media, were disappointed that the phrase ‘phase-out of fossil fuel’ was not included in the final agreement. Also, the media misinterpreted the statement by the President early on in COP28, that ‘there is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5C’.

The final agreement defies these doubts and skilfully brings forward the three aforementioned main pillars:

On Climate Action, the agreement states that ‘Limiting global warming to 1.5C with no or limited overshoot requires deep, rapid and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions of 43% by 2030 and 60% by 2035 relative to the 2019 level, and reaching net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050’.

Secondly, it sets a quantifiable goal of ‘Tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030’.

Thirdly, it calls for accelerating efforts towards phase down of unabated (ever-rising) coal power, and utilising zero and low-carbon-energy systems, including hydrogen.

Fourthly, it calls for transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net-zero by 2050, in keeping with the science. That not only sums up Climate Action but also clarifies the stand taken by H.E. Dr Al Jabar on science and fossil fuel.

As for Climate Finance, the agreement says that ‘developed country Parties to fully deliver, with urgency, on the USD 100 billion per year goal through to 2025, in the context of meaningful mitigation actions, noting the significant role of public funds’, and calls on developed country Parties to further enhance the coordination of their efforts to deliver on the goal.

There was near unanimity in stating that it was a historic agreement that for the first time included the words ‘transitioning away from fossil fuel’ in the COP agreement.

Apart from the momentous phrase of ‘transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems’, I find the adjectives deployed for energy system transition – that is, ‘in a just, orderly and equitable manner’ more evocative, eloquent and expressive. The entire string of words also depicts the most responsive pathway to address the climate crisis when the world is encircled by multiple crisis. I recall the words of H.E. Dr. Al Jabar six months ago that ‘you can’t unplug the world from the current energy system before you build the new energy system’. It’s a transition – transitions don’t happen overnight, transition takes time’.

Indeed, the world cannot afford ‘jerk-transitions’. The world has seen in the past that changes in the eco- and socio-systems take time for alternative systems, though they can certainly be accelerated.

That’s where we come to the third prime mainstay of the climate issue: “Climate Justice”. The term ‘just-transition’ is not just about the historic climate injustice done to small island countries and other poor developing countries that are not or are minimally responsible for the climate crisis. It speaks of the need for them to be paid for the transition and also for adaptation, and loss and damage. ‘Just transition’ also encompasses a range of social interventions needed to secure the rights and livelihoods of workers working on old systems that need to be now transformed, and of the poor who are dependent on old energy systems. For example, coal workers in coal-dependent developing regions, who will lack employment opportunities beyond coal when renewable energy gets tripled.

The cooling industry is an apt example of ‘just transition of cooling systems’, worldwide. When faced with transitioning away from CFCs and HCFCs, it did so in a phased manner and still succeeded in saving the stratospheric Ozone layer. Indeed, what matters is kicking off the action.

The renewable energy experience is another example. The price of solar energy is 90% lower than what it was a decade ago. That transition took time, in spite of minimal incentives. Today, solar is the cheapest energy – it has beaten even coal and gas in cost! Shifting from fossils is not a loss, it saves money and creates more new jobs. The green revolution will need people participation to bring prices to an affordable level. That is the message for world citizens. The renewable revolution is waiting to happen. Governments can accelerate it with policies and incentives. Businesses can make use of the new opportunities through digitalisation, e-waste management from batteries and through further developing hydrogen energy. And universities can network and become centres of excellence for innovation in climate solutions.

The writer is Former Director of UNEP. He is also the Founder-Director, Green TERRE Foundation; Prime Mover, SCCN; and Coordinating Lead Author, IPCC, which won the Nobel Peace Prize. He may be reached at He writes exclusively for Climate Control Middle East magazine.

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