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The debate over one word that has dominated climate talks for years takes center stage at Cop28

One little phrase is set to spark fraught debate over the next two weeks in Dubai. Stuti Mishra reports on what it means for dialling down the world’s reliance on fossil fuels

Thursday 30 November 2023 10:40 GMT
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The stage is set for the UN climate negotiations, Cop28, to start in Dubai this week where the fight over cutting coal, oil and gas will once again heat up.

At the heart of the debate is one phrase: whether the final text - the Dubai climate pact that countries will be signing - will include a call for the “phase down” or “phase out” of fossil fuels.

To the outside world, this may seem a linguistic nuance but at negotiating tables, it has been one of the most hotly-debated issues in recent years and a reflection of the ideological tug-of-war among the nearly 200 countries who take part.

“Language and symbolism is the most important part of geopolitics,” says Aarti Khosla, director of Delhi-based climate think-tank Climate Trends.

Cop28 is already facing a tense geopolitical backdrop with the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict further exacerbating energy security concerns.

But the summit also comes after months of yet more climate extremes. 2023 is on track to be the hottest year in human history with devastating storms and wildfires around the world, indicating that the climate crisis is already worse than what scientists predicted.

The message is clear: countries must stop burning fossil fuels which are responsible for most of the carbon pollution heating the planet.

But the question is, how soon?

“Phase down” suggests a gradual, measured transition - a cautious step towards reducing fossil fuels that have been fulfilling the world’s energy needs since the Industrial era, without an immediate severance.

On the other hand, “phase out” signals an abrupt departure, a decisive break from the status quo.

In general, small islands and developing countries facing the worst of the climate crisis have called for a “phase out” - while large economies, dependent on oil and gas, remain wary.

At the last two Cops, this dilemma has led to intense standoffs, laying bare the deep divides among nations.

The world temporarily breached 2 degrees Celsius on Friday November 17. 2023 is on track to be the hottest year on record (European Union, Copernicus Climate Change Service Data)

At Cop26 in Glasgow two years ago, the final agreement included“phasing down” coal-powered power plants for the first time. The fraught negotiations over these words were part of the reason that Cop26 ran almost 24 hours overtimeand created last-moment drama including having the Cop26 president Alok Sharma break down in tears.

Last year at Cop27, more than 80 countries, including India, backed a deal to phase down all fossil fuels, attempting to put a ticking clock over not just coal but oil and gas too.

However, the proposal was blocked by many countries and did not make it to the final deal.

The Cop27 presidency said the agreement was in line with what came out of the Glasgow meeting, to accelerate “efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”.

However, critics say it fell short of strengthening the climate pact by excluding phasing down fossil fuels.

Britain's President for Cop26 Alok Sharma reacts as he makes his concluding remarks after a tense discussions over fossil fuel language in Glasgow in 2021 (AFP via Getty Images)

Before the negotiations begin at Cop28 this year, there is already a renewed push for getting rid of coal - a vital fuel for developing nations like India and China, but something the Western world, having reaped benefits for centuries, has shifted away from.

Fifteen countries, including the UK, Canada and Germany, have written a letter urging that Cop28 must deliver an agreement that will end public and private finance for new coal power projects.

Ms Khosla says given the discussions in previous years, a push by developed countries to have a strong outcome on coal phase-out “won’t ever be taken by India in good faith” given their own gas expansion plans.

As the impending drama unfolds once more, some climate experts believe the emphasis on these two phrases is overblown.

“We will always get caught up in phase out, phase down... but what is important is systemic and time-bound decrease [of fossil fuels] in our economy,” said Dr Ani Dasgupta, president and CEO of the nonprofit World Resources Institute (WRI).

However, humanity continues to produce and burn through vastly more fossil fuels than a liveable future allows.

Countries are on track to produce double the amount of fossil fuels this decade than safe under the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement, a recent report found.

But the debate over cutting out fossil fuels has also taken some positive steps in the past two years.

In April, G7 nations agreed to accelerate the “phase-out of unabated fossil fuels”. However, adding “unabated” means it only applies to those power plants that are using these fuels without the technology to capture their carbon emissions.

Carbon removal and storage technologies (CCS) remain controversial as have not been proven effective at scale, the UN’s top scientific body found. Climate campaigners claim CCS is a distraction and an excuse for countries to continue burning fossil fuels.

Jonathan Noronha Gant, senior campaigner with Global Witness, described CCS as a “dangerous red herring”.

When it comes to the Dubai conference, Cop28 president Dr Sultan al Jaber has said that “phasing down demand for, and supply of, all fossil fuels is inevitable and essential” but as part of a thought-out energy transition plan that takes the circumstances of each country into account.

“One size fits all will not work, so we need to be flexible and agile,” he told Reuters in October.

But many have questioned the commitment of Dr al Jaber, who is also the chief executive of UAE’s national oil company Adnoc, calling out the conflict of interest.

In May, more than 100 members of the US Congress and the European Parliament called for Mr Jaber to step down.

But the push for the strongest of all possible terms to end the fossil fuel era is being led again by the small islands and underdeveloped countries - those most at risk from climate impacts but responsible for very little contribution in creating the problem.

Ministers from six Pacific island nations facing sea level rise issued a joint call in May for the world to back a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty - a proposal to stop new fossil fuel explorations and phase out existing production.

“We need both domestic action and international cooperation to explicitly stop the expansion of fossil fuel emissions and production in order to fulfil the aims of the Paris Agreement,” Vanuatu’s prime minister, Alatoi Ishmael Kalsakau, said in May.

This call has been backed by some rich and developing countries as well. In October, 15 countries including France, Spain, Ireland and Kenya – called for a “phase-out fossil fuel production and use”.

Last week, the European Parliament also called for the final Cop28 agreement to include a call for the “phase out” of fossil fuels “to keep 1.5C within reach”. The body also called for halting all new investments in fossil fuel extraction.

But the issue is still bound to cause friction as oil and gas-producing countries and those dependent on it without sufficient renewable energy infrastructure continue to resist.

Despite the growing momentum, the issue is bound to create friction.

Oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia, who opposed India’s proposal to phase down fossil fuels at the G20, are expected to resist strong language. While developing countries will demand more time to use fossil fuels for development needs.

However, experts say what matters more at the end of the day despite the verbal clashes is what actions countries take.

“Regardless of the exact wording that negotiators land on, the most important work will begin when countries go home and have to back up their words with real action,” Melanie Robinson, director of the global climate programme at WRI, said.

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