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The fight to end fossil fuels leads COP28 climate summit to all-or-nothing situation

A new draft of the final agreement released Monday called for countries to reduce ‘consumption and production of fossil fuels, in a just, orderly and equitable manner,’ drawing criticism over what some described as a watered-down deal

Combustibles fosiles
Sultan al Jaber, president of COP28, during a press conference this Sunday in Dubai.AMR ALFIKY (REUTERS)

Climate summits are largely about a story, and the story associated with the COP28 in Dubai is so clear and focused that it is difficult for anyone to pull a rabbit out of a hat to hide behind in order to hide a failure. The line separating success from defeat is drawn: knowing if, for the first time, it will be possible for the almost 200 countries present at the talks to make a direct call for a progressive end to the production and use of all fossil fuels, something that should mark the path for the climate plans that nations must present to the United Nations.

The final stretch of this conference, which began on November 30 and should conclude on Tuesday, has been reached with a lively debate on the end of these fuels, which are chiefly responsible for the climate crisis that is already hitting humanity. This goal has the support of the EU and many other countries that want an ambitious summit closure, but has been met with public and resounding rejection of oil nations such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The possibility of fuels being openly mentioned has set off alarms in these countries, as well as in OPEC, the organization that brings together the largest oil exporters on the planet.

Coal, oil and gas are mainly responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, the massive burning of which since the Industrial Revolution is behind global warming. But during many years of climate negotiations, the focus has been on bullets and not on guns, that is, on gases (for which cutback targets are set) and not on the fuels that generate them. But at this COP28 the focus is absolutely on the emission sources, something that is certainly paradoxical, because the person leading the negotiations is Sultan al-Jaber, the Minister of Industry of the United Arab Emirates, a country in which 30% of revenues come directly from oil and gas. In addition, he is the head of the public hydrocarbon company, ADNOC.

But al-Jaber — under pressure precisely for these reasons, and following the leak of some controversial statements prior to the summit in which he objected to the end of the use of hydrocarbons — has acknowledged on several occasions that he considers it “essential” to progressively reduce or eliminate all fossil fuels. In the drafts that have been released in recent days, all the options were kept open. Then, on Monday, countries moved closer to reaching what critics called a watered-down final deal. A new draft released Monday afternoon called for countries to reduce “consumption and production of fossil fuels, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.”

Many of these negotiators faced the final hours with a feeling of all or nothing, as explained in the European Union delegation, whose members act as a bloc. Bilateral and group meetings between the countries took place throughout Sunday to try to bring positions closer together and reach a language that was acceptable to all in the final text. Sultan al-Jaber, before bringing together all the negotiators at once, asked them for “flexibility” and recalled that it is the only presidency of a COP that has put fossil fuels on the table until the end, as the majority had asked. “The Emirates can talk to everyone, because it has friendly relations with everyone, with Russia, with China, with the EU, with Arabia…” sources in the negotiation highlighted. The problem is that decisions at COPs have to be made by consensus, not by majorities.

The EU came to this COP28 with a mandate: to achieve a call to progressively end fossil fuels, while leaving the door open to carbon dioxide capture and storage systems for some industrial activities, another unfinished battle. Along with the EU, other ambitious nations have aligned themselves with these positions, such as Chile, Colombia, Norway and the small island-states that are threatened by rising sea levels.

Low profile of the largest global emitters

The United States and China, the world’s two largest economies and the world’s two largest emitters, are maintaining a much lower public profile at the summit, but without abandoning negotiations. The U.S. is the world’s leading producer of oil; just as China is in the case of coal. But both nations signed a joint declaration a few days before COP28 that gives clues about their position: they committed to tripling the world’s renewable energy capacity to “accelerate the substitution of coal, oil and gas generation.” Tripling renewable power is another of the calls that is expected to come out of the summit, and many believe that it is in that context that the elimination or reduction of fuels should be requested. That is, urging the replacement of some energy sources with others.

But neither Saudi Arabia nor the OPEC nor other oil countries like Iraq want to hear direct mentions of fossil fuels. Publicly, Saudi Arabia has made it clear that references should be to greenhouse gases and not to the sources that cause them. The representative of Iraq expressed the same idea on Sunday, rejecting any request to reduce or eliminate hydrocarbons. In a silent but similar position, in its case due to the importance of natural gas, is Russia.

“Let us make the decision here in Dubai to phase out all fossil fuels by mid-century, with measures starting now. If we do so, the United Arab Emirates and COP28 will be crowned as the country and people that mitigated climate wars, avoided catastrophes and saved countless lives,” said Shady Khalil, a member of Greenpeace in the Middle East area, this Sunday.

In the 21-page document released on Monday, the words oil and natural gas did not appear, and the word coal appeared twice. It also had a single mention of carbon capture, a technology touted by some to reduce emissions, although it’s untested at scale. The COP presidency, in a statement, countered that the text was a “huge step forward” and was now “in the hands of the parties, who we trust to do what is best for humanity and the planet.”

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