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The Failure of COP28 to Agree a ‘Phase-out’ of Fossil Fuels and its Disproportionate Impact on the Global South

The difference between ‘transitioning away’ and ‘phasing-out’ fossil fuels is significant, writes Stuart Spray

Photo: Khatawut Chaemchamras/EyeEm/Alamy

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COP28 has been hailed by its organisers as a success with the last-minute declaration to “transition away” from fossil fuels included in the summit’s final agreement, now referred to as the UAE Consensus. 

But words are very important and, in this instance, they have been chosen very carefully.

Some say it’s a step in the right direction, but the difference between ‘transitioning away’ and ‘phasing-out’ fossil fuels, which was the preferred wording for the text at the start of negotiations, is huge. 

Despite universal recognition that limiting warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels requires greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced by 43% by 2030, the new deal does not include a timetable or legal framework to compel countries to transition away from fossil fuels any time soon. 

The UAE Consensus also offers no assistance for or legislation to protect subsistence farming communities which are unlucky enough find themselves in the way of a fossil fuel project. And there is an understandable fear among climate change activists that the weak wording will be seen as a green light for the world’s coal, oil and gas producers to expand their operations in the Global South, with the human rights violations that typically go hand-in-hand with fossil fuel extraction, transportation and processing. 

Historically, Africa is responsible for less than 10% of global greenhouse gases. But that could be about to change as the big corporations, un-hampered by the COP28 agreement, queue up to buy licenses to exploit oil and gas resources across the continent.  

Dr Oulie Keita, executive director of Greenpeace Africa, described the fossil fuel industry’s current land grab in Africa as a form of neocolonialism and accused African governments of being addicted to oil and gas at COP28.

She said the “scramble for oil and gas” is not working for Africa and is not something that is welcomed by the people. “We have seen how oil and gas have actually destroyed communities, whether it’s through public health issues, whether it’s through food insecurity, because farmers don’t have land to farm anymore.”

Dr Keita called for African governments to “resist the temptation of profits over people” and encouraged them to not be tempted by any “under the table deals”.  

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She added: “We need to put an end to this fossil fuel addiction and the people are ready to do whatever it takes for our governments to listen to us so that we are not continuing in this vicious cycle of poverty, of conflict. So stop it. We are saying no more.” 

And her message to the big oil and gas companies was unambiguous: “Stop drilling and start paying. We are going to be holding you accountable so that you pay for the damage that you’ve done in Africa.”

The East African Cude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) – a $5 billion project joint venture between the Uganda National Oil Company, TotalEnergies, China National Offshore Oil Corporation and the Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation – is one of the largest fossil fuel infrastructure projects in the world and an example of how successive COPs have failed to protect the Global South.  

When operational, the pipeline will transport oil 1443 km across east Africa from two newly established Ugandan oilfields – one on the shores of Lake Albert and the other in Murchison Falls National Park – to an oil terminal being built at Tanga on the coast Tanzania. Discussions are already underway to connect the pipeline to oil fields in other parts of the East African Community.

The project, according to the Human Rights Watch, will displace more than 100,000 people and has been linked to several accusations of human right violations

Eighteen families along the route of the pipeline in Uganda and Tanzania described how their homes had been destroyed and their land seized to make way for the pipeline. Those that opted for financial recompense told how the compensation they received was not enough replace the land they had lost. Some were still waiting for payments years after their land had been taken. Others were relocated to houses too small to accommodate their families, miles away from their communities, schools and churches and with plots of land so small there was no way of making a living, feeding their families or affording to send their children to school. 

Zaki Mamdoo, StopEACOP campaign coordinator for 360 Africa, travelled from South Africa to represent communities affected by the pipeline at COP28. He claims people who were living along the pipeline route have been driven off their land and says the EACOP compensation has been “unfair and entirely inadequate”, resulting in the loss of productive land for rural communities already living in extreme poverty. 

“Within the context of Uganda and Tanzania,” he said, “where people live in subsistence modes of existence, communities are largely rural and cultivate their own crops and food produce both to generate an income but also to feed themselves and their families.  PAPs [Project Affected People] have been moved to lands which are not fertile, where they are unable to yield the crop that they were once able to yield.”

As with many similar sized infrastructure projects, EACOP brings with it the promise of jobs and economic prosperity for the local area. However, most of the affected community members do not qualify for those jobs. 


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“For those that do,” said Mamdoo, “the vast majority [of jobs] will be realised within the construction phase of the pipeline, meaning that they will be incredibly short term and they will force people into conditions of what is effectively modern-day wage slavery, where people earn enough simply to reproduce the labour for the next day, but certainly not enough to meaningfully transform their material conditions.”

It has been well documented that women are disproportionally affected by the effects of climate change. Zimbabwean activist and Coordinator of the Don’t Gas Africa campaign, Lorraine Chiponda, says the same is true of women who are displaced to make way for gas and oil projects. 

“In sub-Saharan Africa, around 60% of communities and grassroot groups depend on land-based activities to survive.” she said. “And a large percentage of this is women, who till the land, who produce food for their family because of our colonial systems that allow men to go to work in the urban areas and leaves women in the rural areas.” 

Women who have been moved by the government to pave way for gas projects in Mozambique, not only didn’t receive much compensation, which was generally paid to the men, but often they had to travel further for daily supplies, leaving less time for paid work and were often exposed to greater risks to their personal safety, according to Chiponda.

On COP28’s decision not to phase-out fossil fuels, Chiponda said: “It will only increase future emissions, leave Africa with stranded assets and perpetuate the same system whereby energy extracted from Africa does not benefit African communities. 

“We need to actively develop a Pan-African narrative whereby transition is about access to energy itself. It’s about having democratic processes that allow people to have control and have their voices heard with regard to energy issues and ensuring that the plight of women is made better because of energy access.”

COP29 in 2024 will be held in oil-rich Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s economy relies almost entirely on oil and gas, which represents 90% of its exports.

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