COP28 talks to save the planet could fall at first fence as oil producers and some rich countries call only for “phase down” of fossil fuels.

COP28 talks to save the planet could fall at first fence as oil producers and some rich countries call only for “phase down” of fossil fuels.
Rich countries that produce most of the world's emissions and oil producing nations are sidetracking the debate at COP28 by calling for a "phasing down" or fossil fuels, rather than a "phasing out" and trying to focus the debate on "unabated" fuel use rather than all fossil fuel use. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin December 2, 2023

The COP28 talks in Dubai to save the planet from a climate catastrophe look like they are going to fall at the first fence as the oil lobby and some big economies push for a “phasing down” of fossil fuels, rather than the “phasing out” that is needed to prevent temperatures rising above the 1.5C agreed at the 2015 Paris summit.

Leaders from developed countries that are responsible for just under half of all global emissions, joined by the leading oil producers, have also muddied the waters by trying to narrow the debate to “unabated” fossil fuel use, which suggests that fossil fuels can still be used if their CO2 is removed from the atmosphere using carbon capture technology. The problem with this line of argument is that technology does not yet exist and time to deal with global warming is rapidly running out, according to a swath of recent scientific studies.

A global deal on ending the use of fossil fuels was mired in division as UN climate talks opened on November 30. Major polluters like the US, China and UK, as well as the oil-rich United Arab Emirates (UAE) host country said they weren’t on board with a plan to end the use of fossil fuels that are causing global warming to accelerate, Politico reported on December 2.

Deciding how to describe the shift away from coal, oil and gas — the primary drivers of climate change — is one of the top political issues at this year’s talks – possibly the last change to prevent a Climate Crisis from happening.

According to the UN’s recent global stocktake report, the most comprehensive study of climate change that is the scientific basis of the COP28 meeting, it was specific that there are two years left to act. Trillions of dollars need to be invested to prevent temperatures rising further and that money is missing, said the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in a blog released on the second day to the summit.

The Climate Crisis is here and the chances of averting a disaster are dwindling rapidly – although they have not disappeared entirely. Report after report issued by multinational development banks, government’s and NGOs conclude that unless an enormous effort is made in the next few years the world will sail past the 1.5C maximum temperature increases and hit 2C within the next decade. Some even more pessimistic predictions say the world is already on course to see temperatures increase by more than 3C by 2050 at which point the Amazon forest dies and large swaths of the global become uninhabitable, as bne IntelliNews reported in a deep dive into the planet’s problems released on the eve of the conference.

The debate in Dubai largely fixates on whether to phase those fuels “out” versus “down,” whether the word choice makes a practical difference, and whether nations should set deadlines for ditching their polluting energy sources. Some take the argument a step further: Does a phaseout mean eliminating all fossil fuels, or just those whose planet-warming pollution isn’t being captured before it hits the atmosphere?

“Words matter. And it sends signals,” EU special climate envoy Anthony Agotha said in November at an event at Chatham House in London, Politico reports. “It sends signals to people. It sends signals to markets.”

UN climate chief Simon Steill offered a warning at the opening of COP28 on November 30. “If we do not signal the terminal decline of the fossil fuel era as we know it, we welcome our own terminal decline. And we choose to pay with people’s lives,” he said.

But the UAE COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber, the Emirati official who also heads the UAE’s state-run oil company, opened the conference by arguing for a much more modest approach that would allow the UAE, the world’s third largest oil producer, to continue pumping oil. He said it was “diplomatically impractical” to call for the complete end of fossil fuel use from the almost 200 countries present — including major oil and gas producers like the UAE.

Observers worry that instead of working to thrash out a workable plan to halt global warming, valuable political capital will be wasted in quibbling about the language defining the goals and will gut any effort to head off a catastrophe. Platitudes will have little effect, as countries that attended previous COP meetings have routinely ignored all non-binding resolutions.

“I know there are strong views about including language on fossil fuels. … We collectively have the power to do something unprecedented,” Sultan al-Jaber said at the opening of the conference, before qualifying that commitment. “I ask you all to work together. Be flexible. Find common ground.”

In a “watch what I do, not what I say” moment, Al-Jaber refused to join the EU in calling for a “phaseout” of fossil fuels during a bilateral meeting in Brussels before the start of COP28, according to a European Commission official cited by Politico.

The scientific evidence that the world is on course to miss the Paris goals is now overwhelming, but in the eight years since the Paris summit little has been done. One recent report said that innovation and investment equivalent to the entire industrial revolution needs to be put in place – but it has to be done in under a decade to save the situation. Moreover, the UN report says that the current basic economic model of endless growth and consumption needs to be abandoned and replaced with a more sustainable model. Put in simple terms: the world needs to abandon capitalism and become vegetarian – something that is very unlikely to happen.

In a sign of the reluctance to change tracks, following 2015, subsequent climate talks have generally veered away from mentioning fossil fuels that are primarily responsible for the problem. The first time they were explicitly mentioned was only in 2021, when talks at the Glasgow COP21 summit ended with an agreement to phase “down” coal.

One official cited by Politico said as of last week, more than 80 countries had expressed support for the EU’s three-target approach: tripling renewable energy capacity, doubling energy efficiency and phasing out fossil fuels.

But the “phaseout” language is expected to face stiff opposition from the world’s biggest oil producers and polluters that include the US, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluter, is a pivotal actor at the climate talks and has already said that a more “balanced” approach is needed.

China’s climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, said in September that “completely eliminating fossil energy is not realistic,” as cited by Politico. A submission to the UN that same month indicates China’s support for increasing the world’s share of non-fossil energy while recognizing “the significant role of fossil fuels in ensuring energy supply security” — a major sticking point for Beijing as it seeks to meet rising energy demands.

The US and UK — both major greenhouse gas producers and the traditional EU allies — have also questioned whether the “phaseout” wording is worth the diplomatic effort.

US President Joe Biden decided to skip the COP28 summit, widely taken as a bad sign, and sent US climate envoy John Kerry instead, who told reporters on the eve of the summit that he unequivocally supported “language requiring the phaseout of unabated fossil fuels.”

In climate circles, “unabated” means pollution that isn’t captured and removed from the atmosphere. That suggests that the US is advocating for continued fossil fuel use but suggesting that technologies like carbon capture can be used to remove the CO2 emissions. The problem is that technology doesn’t exist yet on any scale and there is not enough time to build it to have a noticeable impact on the climate; investment programmes to even attempt this task are non-existent.

Kerry said: “We still have people who have not signed up to that. They are, some of them, among the major producers of fossil fuel and they need to immediately step up and be part of the solution.”

Reminiscent of call on Israel to impose a “humanitarian pause” in the Gaza conflict rather than a “ceasefire”, reducing the use of only “unabated fossil fuels” has already emerged at COP28 as the term to side track the summit from a focus on the goal of ending the use of fossil fuels completely.

The UK is formally backing the same broad “phaseout of unabated fossil fuels” language that the EU advocates. But its positioning at COP28 was called into question when the head of the country’s delegation, Energy Minister Graham Stuart, suggested to a parliamentary committee that he wasn’t fixated on the precise terminology, Politico reports.

“Our belief is that we should focus on phasing down, phasing out — whatever it does, as long as it translates into real action — of unabated fossil fuels,” Stuart told MPs less than a month before the summit.

Many scientists and vulnerable countries worry the introduction of “unabated fossil fuels” will distract from the actual work of slashing emissions and give rich countries and oil producers cover to keep polluting with impunity.

“The fate of the world is resting on a distinction between phaseout and phase-down,” former UK Energy Minister and Conservative party member Chris Skidmore said. “But the UK finds itself now [unable] to argue for phaseout because it’s joined the phase-down club.”

The UK had a good record of fighting climate change, but recently squandered it after UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that he was scaling back efforts. The UK has since expanded considerable diplomatic effort on cementing language calling for a “phase-down” of coal power when it hosted the 2021 talks in Glasgow, said Kaveh Guilanpour, who has led negotiating teams at climate talks from the EU, UK and island nations. Only a few weeks after Glasgow, the UK government opened a new coal mine. Thanks to the energy crisis and the soaring cost of oil and gas, the world burned more coal than ever before in 2023.

After dipping in 2021 due to the pandemic lockdowns, emissions are currently at a new all-time high. When world leaders huddled in Paris to strike their climate deal in 2015, levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were near 402 parts per million - already enough to start causing problems. Today they’re approaching 420 parts per million, levels that scientists say the planet hasn’t seen since more than 4 million years ago, when seas were 25m higher.

"On the basis of year-to-date statistics for 2023, three important greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide—are all at record levels,” Oxford University said in a recent paper. “The global average carbon dioxide concentration is now approximately 420 parts per million, which is far above the proposed planetary boundary of 350 parts per million.”