COP28 climate deal 'pretty historic', says Climate Change Minister Simon Watts

A global climate deal has been struck at the COP28 summit in Dubai, and for the first time it takes direct aim at fossil fuels.

It has taken 28 years of climate negotiations, but world leaders have finally agreed to wean the global economy off the main cause of climate change - the burning of fossil fuels.

But, crucially for small island states like our Pacific neighbours, the agreement didn't include an explicit commitment to phase out, or even phase down fossil fuels.

Although critics said it's been watered down, the deal is being celebrated as a "historic milestone" signalling the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era.

After two weeks of climate talks led by an oil company boss, in a desert kingdom built on oil, the world has agreed to move away from burning oil, gas and coal.

"We have confronted realities. And we have set the world in the right direction," said Dr Sultan Al-Jaber, the president of the COP28 conference.

The announcement comes at the tail end of the hottest year on record.

Nearly 200 countries have committed to "transition 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".

The burning of fossil fuels is the biggest contributor to our warming world - through their emissions which blanket the Earth, trapping the sun's heat.

It's hoped this deal will see emissions peak by 2025 and keep the target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees within reach.

"The fact is that this document sends very strong messages to the world," said John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate.

"First, the document highlights that we have to adhere to keeping 1.5 degrees within reach, that is the north star."

After the first draft of the text was slammed as weak and incoherent the talks nearly collapsed.

But then, at the 11th hour, a dramatic turnaround happened.

You put common interest ahead of self-interest," Dr Al-Jaber said.

"Hearing no objection, it is so decided," he said, to raucous applause.

But there was some objection too - the alliance of small island states say the deal was rushed through while they weren't even in the hall.

"We have made an incremental advancement over business as usual, when what we really needed is an exponential stepchange in our actions and support," said Anne Rasmussen, chair of the Alliance of Small Island States.

These are the countries most at risk from higher sea levels, flooding and deadly temperatures.

Pacific climate leaders say they're disappointed with new COP28 deal.
Pacific climate leaders say they're disappointed with new COP28 deal. Photo credit: Newshub.

"This is significant. However, it's not enough," said Dr Dalila Gharbaoui, a climate crisis post-doctoral research fellow at Canterbury University.

"And more needs to be done for climate equity and climate justice."

For the majority though - it was progress. 

That can't be underestimated," new Climate Change Minister Simon Watts said.

"That consensus has not been in place before, that language around fossil fuels has not been around before, this is pretty historic," he told Newshub.

But Watts is now facing questions over how he plans to meet climate targets, with the new Government having just pledged to axe or delay several emission-cutting policies.

"It shows that they are out of their depth and have no vision and no plan for how to actually move our country, and be leading the world towards a lower emissions future," Greens co-leader Marama Davidson said.

New Zealand's plan to reverse the ban on offshore oil and gas exploration has already drawn ridicule at COP28.

While an open letter from a group of Kiwi climate professionals asks the Government to reconsider its stance, to avoid economic and reputational risk.

Climate scientists hope the COP28 deal will stimulate green investment and prompt moves to finance poorer countries to help them shift to green technologies.

"This is one step along the journey that is not about saving the planet. The planet will be orbiting the sun long after we're gone," climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe said.

"This is a journey towards saving us," she told Newshub.

And the journey to keep 1.5C within grasp will require the words from all world leaders to be turned into actions.