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Guilbeault hails 'monumental' COP28 deal, others warn of 'dangerous distractions'

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault hailed a "monumental" deal Wednesday to close out COP28, the first time the United Nations climate summit of nearly 200 countries agreed to transition away from fossil fuels.
Steven Guilbeault, Canada environment and climate minister, speaks to members of the media at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Guilbeault is hailing what he called the "monumental" outcome of the United Nations climate summit. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Rafiq Maqbool

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault hailed a "monumental" deal Wednesday to close out COP28, the first time the United Nations climate summit of nearly 200 countries agreed to transition away from fossil fuels. 

The agreement approved in Dubai was welcomed by some observers as a historic turning point in global climate negotiations and stronger than a draft floated earlier in the week. 

But many warned of what they saw as loopholes and distractions in the agreement that could undermine the action needed to meet the global commitment to keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial times.

The final agreement "gives us a fighting chance to meet our climate goals," said Guilbeault, who posted a statement on X describing the outcome as "monumental." 

Canada, he added, played a "leading role" in bringing the final product together. 

Within minutes of opening Wednesday’s session in Dubai, COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber gavelled in approval of the central document — an evaluation of how off-track the world is on climate and how to get back on course — without giving critics a chance to comment. The lead negotiator for a coalition of small island nations said their group was not in the room when al-Jaber claimed the deal was done. 

The 21-page agreement calls on countries to transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, "accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050."

While past COP agreements haven't always been as ambitious as he would like, Guilbeault said the new agreement marks the "first time that we recognize that we need to reduce our dependencies on fossil fuels."

He said he would have preferred stronger language around coal, but noted that for some countries, it was "difficult" to even see coal mentioned in the final version.

Liz McDowell, Vancouver-based senior campaign director with the environmental group, warned the deal fails to commit wealthy countries to financing the energy transition, and is weakened by "dangerous distractions," such as leaving the door open to so-called transitional fuels like natural gas.

"Back home, we're determined to hold the Canadian government accountable to commitments they made here in Dubai to transition our economy away from fossil fuels," McDowell said in a statement. 

The federal government made several announcements during the two-week summit, unveiling its emissions cap for the oil and gas industry and draft regulations to drastically cut methane emissions from the sector.

Wednesday's deal at COP28 went further than a draft agreement that caused an uproar earlier in the week. That draft prepared by the COP presidency made no mention of a fossil fuel phase-down or phase-out, instead calling for countries to reduce "consumption and production of fossil fuels, in a just, orderly and equitable manner." 

Guilbeault said he was "very disappointed" with the first draft, after which Canada worked with a coalition of other countries to prepare a text to present to the presidency. 

"We told them, 'If ambition is what you’re looking for, this is what you should be doing.'"

His role as a co-facilitator allowed him to "meet often" with COP28 president al-Jaber and "gave Canada an important role in these negotiations," he added.

Catherine Abreu, a leading voice in Canadian climate policy circles, said the agreement marked "an extraordinary turning point" for negotiations that had for 30 years focused on emissions but not their cause. 

Two years ago, the draft agreement coming out of the summit in Scotland was the first to mention any fossil fuels, though limited it to coal. Wednesday's agreement is the first negotiated text to grapple with all fossil fuels, after a similar attempt failed at last year's summit in Egypt.

But Abreu also pointed to what she called some of the agreement's loopholes, such as calling only for a phase-out of "inefficient" fossil fuel subsidies.

"We will ensure that those countries like Canada most responsible for the climate crisis, that have benefited most from wrecking our atmosphere with fossil fuel production, pay up for the energy transition," said Abreu, executive director of Destination Zero, a non-profit working on climate justice and renewable energy transitions. 

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, one of only two premiers to attend the talks, said she was encouraged by the success of Alberta and Saskatchewan to push back "against the voices of those obsessed" with phasing out oil and natural gas. She claimed that "extreme position" was defeated at the conference. 

The document agreed to on Wednesday is a central part of the 2015 Paris accord, which mandated countries to periodically assess their commitments to limit warming to the 1.5-degree threshold to avoid some of the most catastrophic climate change impacts. The summit in Dubai marked the end of the first "global stocktake" process under the accord.

So far, the world has warmed by an estimated 1.2 degrees since the mid-1800s and scientists expect this year to be the hottest on record. 

The stocktake agreement notes countries are way off track to reduce emissions in line with the threshold. Under current national commitments, global greenhouse gas emissions were expected to come down by two per cent by 2030, compared to 2019 levels. To have a shot at 1.5 degrees, the agreement recognized the need for emissions cuts of 43 per cent by 2030 and 60 per cent by 2035. 

To accelerate the transition, the agreement calls for a tripling of renewable energy capacity and a doubling of the annual rate of energy efficiency by 2030. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 13, 2023. 

— With files from Anja Karadeglija in Ottawa and The Associated Press

Jordan Omstead, The Canadian Press