Fraught battle over fossil fuels at centre of Cop28 as we enter second week

Some countries are poles apart on the phasing out of oil and gas, which need to be cut rapidly for any hope of the global temperature rise remaining at 1.5C this century

Louise Boyle
at Cop28 in Dubai
,Stuti Mishra
Wednesday 06 December 2023 14:01 GMT
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COP28: Activists say frustration levels are high

As the first week of Cop28 draws to a close, battle lines have been drawn over the central issue of the summit: the future of fossil fuels.

Divisions have emerged between countries calling for a phase-out of fossil fuels, the root cause of the climate crisis, and those set against it.

At the heart of negotiations is the “Global Stocktake” where countries take an inventory of their collective progress to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C this century – a goal that remains far off track.

On Wednesday, a lengthy “work-in-progress” draft text gave few clues as to what will emerge from Cop28. Options on the table included:

  • An “orderly and just phase-out” of fossil fuels
  • Rapid phase-out of unabated coal power this decade
  • No mention of phase-out of fossil fuels.

But United Nations climate secretary, Simon Stiell, made clear just how difficult it will be to get the first of those options agreed, warning that the highest ambitions must stay front and centre. He called the current draft “a grab bag of wish lists and heavy on posturing”.

“At the end of next week, we need Cop to deliver a bullet train to speed up climate action. We currently have an old caboose chugging over rickety tracks,” he said.

“All governments must give their negotiators clear marching orders. We need highest ambition, not point-scoring or lowest common denominator politics,” he added.

Whatever is agreed between the 197 countries, it will act as a critical signpost not only to governments and civil society but energy and financial markets on climate ambition.

“Language and symbolism is the most important part of geopolitics,” Aarti Khosla, director of think tank Climate Trends told The Independent. “It decides where we are headed.”

As it stands, some countries are poles apart on fossil fuels, which need rapid cuts for any hope of remaining at 1.5C.

Instead, still-rising emissions have the world on track for 3C – a heat bomb that could trigger irreversible tipping points, more catastrophic weather, and sea-level rise.

On Tuesday, the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, a group of more than a dozen countries and states, said that Cop28 would be unsuccessful if the final agreement did not include a call for fossil fuel phase-out.

Wopke Hoekstra, a former oil executive who is the European Union’s new climate commissioner, also said that all fossil fuels must be phased out.

Small islands, facing existential threats from sea level rise and other climate issues, were also calling for greater ambition.

Samoan minister Toeolesulusulu Cedric Schuster, who chairs the Association of Small Island States, said without a call for a fossil fuel phase-out it would “make it significantly more difficult to leave this Cop saying we can achieve the 1.5C limit”.

However these calls were coming up against a hard-no from others.

Cop28 president Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber and US climate envoy John Kerry join other officials at the Global Cooling Pledge on Tuesday

“Absolutely not,” said Abdulaziz bin Salman, the energy minister of petro-state Saudi Arabia, when he was asked by Bloomberg if he was on board with a fossil fuel phase-out. Russia has also rejected language for phasing out fossil fuels.

Many of the world’s largest polluters have expressed hesitation. India is expected to reject any language that only targets coal and not oil and gas.

China’s position is unclear and Brazil’s lead negotiator said there was a “need for clarity” on what is meant by a phase-out.

However, John Kerry, president Joe Biden’s special envoy on climate, said Wednesday in Dubai that we must follow climate science – which calls for cutting emissions nearly in half by 2030 – before appearing to say that the United States supported a phase-out.

The first week at Cop28 saw flashy announcements including the finalising of the Loss and Damage fund to support vulnerable nations and a pledge by 110 countries to triple renewable energy this decade. The summit pauses for a rest day on Thursday before countries’ top negotiators gear up for round-the-clock talks to try to reach consensus.

But with so many decisions still in play, it looks increasingly likely that the summit will overrun beyond the 12 December deadline.

Only half of the money for a fund to help developing countries adapt to more extreme climate impacts from wealthy countries has been delivered, which is a major sticking point.

It is now down to the United Arab Emirates, the oil-rich nation leading the conference, to get a final package of agreements over the line.

But how they will wrangle the rest of the world towards an ambitious outcome is unclear following a spate of controversies.

Earlier this week, Cop28 president Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, who also leads the UAE’s national oil company, was forced to insist that he and the UAE “very much respect science” to quell a backlash over comments questioning the need to phase out fossil fuels. Mr Jaber said that his comments had been taken “out of context” and that he has been “quite surprised with the constant and repeated attempts to undermine the work of the Cop28 presidency”.

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