By C40 Executive Director Mark Watts

The era of fossil fuels is coming to an end. This has been obvious to many for some time, but it is now formally and officially recognised in an agreement adopted by nearly 200 countries. The question that remains, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres asks, is whether it comes too late. The final statement from this year’s COP agreeing to ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels is progress. It is a first at a UN Climate Talks, but it is not progress at anywhere near the speed and scale the crisis demands. We are approaching the end of the hottest year ever recorded. This is no time for small, incremental steps, which is why supporting the daily ground-level action of the climate doers will ultimately matter most.

At C40, we took the early decision that fossil fuels had to be the dividing line at COP28. The burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of the extreme temperatures and abnormal weather that increasingly plagues the world’s cities, as well as a major contributor to the air pollution that chokes our streets. One of our key missions as an organisation is to help get the world off fossil fuels by halving fossil fuel use in cities by 2030 and doing so in a fair way. That is why we decided to take a stronger narrative that not only highlighted the climate impacts of fossil fuel expansion and extraction but also the deep injustices associated with it. 

C40 mayors took this message to the heart of COP28. We have supported the UN Secretary General’s call to action, and worked closely with his team over the past year putting forward strong examples of city action that bring to life the idea of the just energy transition that is so often discussed in the abstract. Our participation at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York in September was precisely part of this same strategy.

We also called for serious financial support for inclusive climate action. There is no doubt that a rapid, managed and just phase-out of fossil fuels is needed to protect everyone from the worst of climate breakdown, yet, even now, massive public subsidies are still flowing directly to the cause of the crisis. The scale and urgency of the crisis demands massive investment in renewables, energy efficiency, workforce development and city resilience, especially in the Global South. The issue is not the lack of money but where the money goes. An open letter from our Co-Chairs Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and Mayor of Freetown Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr called on heads of state to move public investment and subsidies away from support for fossil fuels and into a just, clean energy transition. 

C40 Co-Chair Mayor of Freetown Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr at COP28 during the UNSG Roundtable
© Richard King / C40. C40 Co-Chair Mayor of Freetown Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr speaks during COP28.

C40 also worked with the COP Presidency, with the support of our partners at Bloomberg Philanthropies, to call for a restructuring of COP that takes subnational climate action on board and empowers cities as the real “doers” on climate. 75% of C40 cities are reducing emissions faster than their respective national governments. The collective experience and achievements of cities can help catalyse faster, stronger, national climate action. On this basis, this year, for the first time ever, cities had a seat at the table. Not only that, over 70 countries committed to work with local leaders on the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) due in 2025 ahead of COP30 in Brazil, and, agreed at this COP, countries will for the first time be required to deliver National Adaptation Plans alongside them. Across both NDCs and Adaptation Plans, there is now recognition in the COP agreement about the importance of multi-level partnerships in delivering them, while the operationalisation of the loss and damage fund includes recognition of cities as a venue for direct access to funding.

So, where do we go from here? The closing agreement to ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels, has set the correct direction of travel for the first time – after 30 years of negotiations. We cannot overlook the power and influence of the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, who has maintained a laser-like focus on the need for a fossil fuel phase-out. Credit is also due to the negotiators, mayors, governors, business leaders, journalists and millions of activists who applied enough pressure to overcome a fossil fuel lobby that tenaciously attempted to block even these small steps forward and undermine the credibility of COP and multilateral cooperation.

Despite the progress, we are still very far from where we need to be. An agreement to transition away from fossil fuels with no plan, no clear financial commitments and no timescale is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the ‘rapid, managed’ phase-out the science calls for. That is the bottom line. The text also includes ominous references to fantasy solutions such to ‘transition fuels’ – presumed to be fossil gas, which our research shows is neither clean nor green, and ‘abatement technologies’ — aka carbon capture and storage — though thankfully acknowledged to have a limited role. Indeed, there is no “abatement” technology in existence that can extract carbon from the atmosphere at anything like the scale and pace needed to keep up with emissions from today’s oil and gas industry, let alone under its planned expansion.

In positive developments, there is strong momentum behind national governments committing to integrate subnational governments into their climate strategies under the CHAMP (Coalition for High Ambition Multilevel Partnerships) for Climate Action initiative, and C40 is proud to stand in the vanguard of that movement. What we need now is for commitments to become implementation programmes with real finance attached to them and for cities’ seats at the table to become permanent.

The key to turning nuanced language into world-changing action now lies with the “doers” who want to get on with the rapid and just phase-out of fossil fuels. Mayors are delivering decisive actions to reduce the demand for fossil fuels and deliver a just transition. We now need national governments to follow cities’ lead, without delay, and to move the money where it’s most needed. 

As Executive Director of C40, I am proud of what our mayoral delegation, led by our Co-Chair Mayor Aki Sawyerr, together with our partners and other city networks, achieved. At the same time, I remain acutely aware that the real test is not in the agreements but in the daily action away from the spotlight.

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