Climate and Energy

COP28: Is Latin America ready to move away from fossil fuels?

Dubai climate summit closes with landmark agreement to transition away from fossil fuels, but vague language and loopholes may delay action
<p>Delegates celebrate the final agreement at COP28 in Dubai. The text calls on countries to move away from fossil fuels and triple renewable capacity, but some observers criticised a lack of clear measures to achieve this. (Image: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/unfccc/53394890488/in/album-72177720313353788/">Christopher Pike</a> / <a href="https://www.flickr.com/people/unfccc/">COP28</a>, <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">CC BY NC SA</a>)</p>

Delegates celebrate the final agreement at COP28 in Dubai. The text calls on countries to move away from fossil fuels and triple renewable capacity, but some observers criticised a lack of clear measures to achieve this. (Image: Christopher Pike / COP28, CC BY NC SA)

For the first time, countries have agreed to move away from fossil fuels to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis. The agreement reached at this year’s UN climate change summit, COP28, calls on countries to rapidly change their energy systems in a “fair and orderly” way, but critics have highlighted loopholes that could slow the speed of emissions reductions.

“We have the basis to make transformational change happen. It is a balanced and historic package to accelerate climate action,” said Sultan al Jaber, the COP28 president, on announcing what he called the “UAE Consensus” on Wednesday.

Al Jaber, who is also CEO of the United Arab Emirates state oil company ADNOC, added that the oil and gas sector is “stepping up for the first time” to achieve ambitious emissions goals, though observers have decried the influence of fossil fuel lobbyists over the agreement, and throughout the summit.

Delegates from nearly 200 countries met for two weeks in Dubai to conclude the Global Stocktake, aimed at assessing progress on climate action and outlining what more is needed to limit global warming to 1.5C, the target included in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Global average temperature has already risen by 1.2C since pre-industrial times.

COP28 got off to a good start on its first day, with the agreement to put into operation a long-awaited fund to help compensate vulnerable nations for the impacts of climate change. Developed countries pledged roughly US$700 million to the loss and damage fund – though this is still less than 0.2% of the losses some studies estimate these nations may already experience from such impacts each year.

However, as the summit progressed, negotiations stalled, with countries struggling to agree on the future of fossil fuels. More than 100 countries had pushed for the COP28 final agreement to include strong language on phasing out the use of oil, gas and coal, but met with opposition from others, including the OPEC group of major fossil fuel producing and exporting countries.

These disagreements pushed the summit into overtime, concluding a day later than planned. After a first draft was rejected, seen by many as unambitious, the final text now calls on countries – but not committing them – to transition away from using fossil fuels in their energy systems well before or around 2050, and to phase out “inefficient” subsidies that incentivise their use. However, the text also recognises the role that so-called “transitional fuels”, alluding to natural gas, can play in the energy transition.

The text also calls on countries to triple renewable energy capacity and double the annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030. However, there is no mention of how these targets would be achieved, nor does it clarify the financial support needed for countries to achieve them. Insufficient funding for climate action was one of the main dividing issues at the summit.

The text creates an opportunity for fossil capital to continue to rule
Susana Muhamad, environment minister of Colombia

Fossil fuels were the overwhelming focus of COP28, but the text also “emphasises” the importance of conserving, protecting and restoring nature and ecosystems to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, by taking actions such as halting deforestation and forest degradation by 2030. At COP26 in 2021, countries committed to the same target, but are off course to meet this goal, according to a report published this year.

Susana Muhamad, Colombia’s environment minister, welcomed what she saw as science influencing decisions at a climate conference for the first time. However, she warned of the risks of so-called transition fuels delaying the move away from fossil fuels. “The text creates an opportunity for fossil capital to continue to rule and we will not be able to meet the Paris goals,” she added.

Augusto Duran, an energy specialist at MOCICC, a Peruvian citizen climate action group, said that the “timid and unclear” wording of merely reducing fossil fuel consumption is “irresponsible and insufficient”, and allows countries to choose whether or not to continue their dependence on oil, gas and coal.

Fossil fuels: the focus of COP28

For Latin America, COP28 exposed the differences between countries with ambitious proposals for an accelerated transition to renewables, such as Colombia, and others with plans to continue fossil fuel development, such as Brazil. However, all agreed on the need for more funding to further reduce their emissions.

The region holds around 15% of the world’s oil and natural gas resources, and less than 1% of the world’s coal. Among them are large shale gas reserves, some of which are being actively exploited in Argentina, which is positioning itself as a gas exporter. Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia are among the region’s main fossil fuel exporters.

Plataforma de perforación en Vaca muerta, provincia de Neuquén
Oil drilling at Vaca Muerta, Neuquén province, Argentina. Latin America holds about 15% of the world’s oil and natural gas resources. (Image: Titus Moser / Alamy)

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), oil and gas production in Latin America increased by around 5% in 2022 and is expected to grow again this year. This is despite huge opportunities in solar and wind energy. However, the IEA points to financing as the main barrier to their growth, with this needing to double by 2030 to meet announced climate commitments.

During his visit to COP28, Colombian president Gustavo Petro highlighted the urgency of the transition by joining a bloc promoting a “fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty” that would put an end to exploration and expansion. However, he clarified that in order to move forward with the plan, his country would have to look for alternative sources of financing to offset the loss of oil exports.

“There are already exploitation contracts for several years, and others signed for exploration. But what we don’t want is for it to expand further,” Petro said. “We must replace fossil fuels with other types of activity. And what we find in the short term is the natural diversity of Colombia: from snows, to the Caribbean, to the jungles, the desert and the great Andean mountains.”

At the other extreme was Brazilian president Lula de Silva. While a year ago at COP27, he was welcomed as a leader on climate action shortly after his election victory over Jair Bolsonaro, the reality was quite different in Dubai: Lula was questioned over Brazil’s plans to expand its use of fossil fuels, bidding for 600 new exploration areas and signing up as an observer to OPEC, all while the conference was underway.

Lula da SIlva speaking at COP28
Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at COP28. The South American leader faced scrutiny over Brazil’s oil expansion plans and entry into the OPEC+ group of oil producing nations. (Image: Mahmoud Khaled / COP28, CC BY NC SA)

For Peri Dias, a representative of the NGO 350.org, Brazil could have been the top scorer at COP28, considering Lula’s success in slashing deforestation rates in the Amazon by nearly 50% since his inauguration in January, but the ambiguity of his positions on fossil fuels worked against him. “In the eyes of world public opinion, the result [for Brazil] was a nil-nil or, at best, a lacklustre victory,” Dias added.

Challenges for the transition

A report presented at COP28 by a coalition of environmental organisations and energy experts concluded that most Latin American countries will need to phase out fossil fuels in the next decade in order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Brazil, for example, would have to stop using oil by 2034 and natural gas by 2031, and Mexico by 2037 and 2033, respectively.

This is not necessarily an impossible goal: in the last decade, investment in renewables in Latin America increased by an average of 10% each year, allowing for almost 100 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity to be added in 2022, according to Zero Carbon Analytics. The group reports that there are currently more than 320 wind and solar projects in the pipeline for the region, around 200 of which are in the pre-construction or construction phase.

“The agreement at COP28 shows that fossil fuels are on their way out. Latin America has many opportunities to transform its energy sector, with countries that have already done so, such as Chile and Uruguay,” said Enrique Maurtua Konstantinidis, a climate politics analyst based in Argentina. “The problem is in financing: we are the ones that receive the least in climate funds.”

Meeting Latin America’s climate action commitments will require an investment of between 3.7% and 4.9% of regional GDP per year until 2030, according to a report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean presented at COP28. In 2020, climate finance in the region was only 0.5% of regional GDP.

Latin America has many opportunities to transform its energy sector… The problem is in financing
Enrique Maurtua Konstantinidis, climate analyst

The next UN climate change conference will take place in November 2024 in Azerbaijan – a country that derives two-thirds of its income from oil and gas. Discussions on energy transition are therefore likely to continue to take centre stage. It will then be Latin America’s turn, with Brazil hosting COP30 in the Amazon city of Belém in 2025.

“It is like the world is a middle-aged person discovering they have diabetes, cholesterol and high blood pressure, and the doctor tells them they have to change their habits to improve their quality of life and extend it,” said Manuel Jaramillo, director general of Fundación Vida Silvestre, the Argentine partner of the World Wildlife Fund.

“We have a diagnosis, now we have to address the symptoms.”

This story was produced as part of the 2023 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security