At COP28, Countries Debate If They Should Phase Out Fossil Fuels

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Attendees inside pollution pods, geodesic domes simulating air pollution levels from Beijing, London and New Delhi, on day two of the COP28 climate conference at Expo City in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023. More than 70,000 politicians, diplomats, campaigners, financiers and business leaders will fly to Dubai to talk about arresting the world’s slide toward environmental catastrophe.

The COP28 climate talks in Dubai are entering their second and final week with delegations positioning themselves on either side of a clearly drawn battle line: whether or not they can commit to phasing out fossil fuels.

The issue has become the most contentious at the largest-ever annual United Nations summit. The approval on the first day of a Loss and Damage fund to help poor countries recover from climate disasters was an early victory that lifted negotiators’ moods — and left them able to focus on hashing out language about the future of fossil fuels.

“These successes over past week have given us a great boost going into this week, but this is where the hard part starts,” COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber said at a press conference on Friday. “We have the potential to deliver a paradigm shift, based on the science that keeps 1.5 degrees within reach,” he said, referring to the Paris Agreement’s target for limiting global warming.

Over 100 countries want an agreement to phase out the use of coal, oil and gas. That would mark the first time fossil fuels are specifically mentioned in a COP decision and send a united signal from global leaders to businesses and local communities. Top producing countries including Saudi Arabia vehemently oppose the language while others, including Al Jaber himself, remain open to different variations.

The latest draft negotiation text released on Friday evening offered four options. The weakest is to drop any reference to dirty energy altogether, while the strongest calls for a "phase out of fossil fuels in line with the best available science.” Heads of delegations are due to discuss the proposal later on Friday.

“The phase down of fossil fuels is essential, the decline of fossil fuel consumption is going to happen for sure over time,” Al Jaber told journalists. “I certainly hope the parties will agree on presenting a recommendation to the presidency at this COP on language on fossil fuels that includes renewable energy and efficiency.”

An attendee inside a panel session at COP28.Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

The discussions are happening within a broader stocktake of global progress on climate change, almost a decade after leaders signed the Paris pact. A number of countries are hoping the conclusions of the stocktake will include a global target to triple renewable power capacity and double energy efficiency by the end of this decade.

Listen: Tripling Renewables Is Difficult But Completely Doable

Mariam Almheiri, the United Arab Emirates minister for climate change and the environment, said fossil fuel-based energy systems should be used to build future, clean energy systems. Once renewables are present on a country’s power grid, decarbonization can start, she said in an interview.

“It’s up to us as a global community to help each other to focus on the ramping up of renewables and clean energy to decarbonize our current fossil fuel energy systems,” she said. “Once we get it up to a level, then we can start saying, let’s now talk about phasing out.”

The hundreds of scientists behind the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which produces the scientific reports that inform decisions at COP, say this decade is decisive. Greenhouse gas emissions need to fall by at least 43% by 2030 from 2019 levels to keep global warming within the 1.5C threshold. The planet is currently on track to warm by 3C at the end of this century, which would be catastrophic for humans and ecosystems.

Just the fact that phasing out fossil fuels is on the table is seen as a victory by civil society groups after decades of advocating for an open discussion on what causes greenhouse gas emissions, said David Tong, a campaign manager at non-profit Oil Change International. That change started with the mention of a need to “phase down unabated coal” on the final decision at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021.

“For 25 years oil, gas and coal were the fossilized elephant in this room going unmentioned in formal decision texts,” he told journalists on Friday. “Over the last two years there’s been incredible momentum — the outcomes we’re seeking would have been unthinkable three years ago.”

Still, the negotiating progress is always painful and delegations have started horse-trading to secure their priorities. Progress on a plan for setting a global goal on adaptation has been stalled by some nations, raising concerns it is a strategic maneuver to exert leverage over the separate global stocktake negotiations, according to one person close to the talks. Negotiating is harder because ministers have not yet seen the text on the issue, said Chile’s Environment Minister Maisa Rojas, one of two leaders spearheading adaptation negotiations.

Simon Stiell, the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change executive secretary, said he doesn’t want to see “diversions and political tactics that hold climate ambitions hostage.”“If we want to save lives and keep 1.5C within reach, the highest-ambition outcomes must stay front and center of these negotiations,” he said.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.

By Laura Millan , John Ainger


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