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UN chief says fossil fuels ‘incompatible with human survival,’ calls for credible exit strategy

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also dismissed suggestions by some oil executives that fossil fuel firms can keep up production if they find a way to capture carbon emissions

crude oil refinery in Kochi, Kerala
FILE - Steam emits from a crude oil refinery in Kochi, Kerala state, India, in 2022.R S Iyer (AP)

The head of the United Nations launched a tirade against fossil fuel companies Thursday, accusing them of betraying future generations and undermining efforts to phase out a product he called “incompatible with human survival.” Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also dismissed suggestions by some oil executives — including the man tapped to chair this year’s international climate talks in Dubai — that fossil fuel firms can keep up production if they find a way to capture planet-warming carbon emissions. He warned that this would just make them “more efficient planet-wreckers.”

It’s not the first time the U.N. chief has called out Big Oil over its role in causing global warming, but the blunt attack reflects growing frustration at the industry’s recent profit bonanza despite warnings from scientists that burning fossil fuels will push the world far beyond any safe climate threshold.

“Last year, the oil and gas industry reaped a record $4 trillion windfall in net income,” Guterres said after a meeting with civil society groups. “Yet for every dollar it spends on oil and gas drilling and exploration, only 4 cents went to clean energy and carbon capture — combined.”

“Trading the future for thirty pieces of silver is immoral,” he said.

Guterres called on the industry to put forward a credible plan for shifting to clean energy “and away from a product incompatible with human survival.”

Investing their massive profits instead in renewable energy would allow the industry “to survive the transition and remain very important and relevant actors in the world economy,” he said.

Fossil fuel companies have lately pushed the idea that they should be allowed to keep pumping oil and gas out of the ground as long as they remove greenhouse gas emissions in the process, a suggestion experts reject as too complicated and costly to deliver the urgent cuts of greenhouse gas needed.

“The problem is not simply fossil fuel emissions,” Guterres said, a nod to recent comments made by Sultan al-Jaber, the United Arab Emirates official who will lead the next U.N. climate summit. “It’s fossil fuels – period.”

Al-Jaber, who is also the UAE’s minister of industry and chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, has come under fire from environmentalists and Western lawmakers for his close ties to the fossil fuel industry. He was chosen by the UAE to lead the COP28 talks, and any criticism by the U.N. chief — albeit veiled — is highly unusual.

Asked whether there needs to be a firewall between fossil fuel interests and the U.N. climate talks, Guterres tried to strike a positive note, however.

“What I learned in politics was that sometimes some of the most daring progressive reforms were done by conservatives or so-called conservatives,” the Socialist former Prime Minister of Portugal said. “And some of the most daring conservative changes were done by so-called progressives.”

In a statement, al-Jaber’s office noted that he has backed ramping up of renewable energy, recently called the phasedown of fossil fuels “inevitable” and urged the industry to up its game when it comes to cutting emissions.

Guterres’ comments Thursday came as negotiators from almost 200 countries wrapped up two weeks of talks in Bonn, Germany, in preparation for COP28. The U.N. climate office confirmed Thursday that it will require delegates attending the summit in Dubai to disclose their affiliation in an effort to clamp down on undue influence by fossil fuel companies and others.

Participants will also be asked to provide optional information on their relationship with the government agency or organization that’s nominated them and those declining to do so will be flagged accordingly.

Civil society groups welcomed the decision, which will apply to them too, but said participants should also have to disclose who is funding their attendance.

Guterres echoed their concerns, warning that fossil fuel companies are undermining climate measures and said they must “cease and desist influence-peddling and legal threats designed to kneecap progress.”

“I am thinking particularly of recent attempts to subvert net-zero alliances, invoking antitrust legislation,” Guterres said, referring to efforts in some U.S. states aimed at preventing insurance companies from setting environmental standards for the companies they invest in.

He urged rich countries to commit to phasing out coal, the most polluting fossil fuel, by 2030, and for others to follow suit a decade later. Governments should also switch subsidies from fossil fuels to clean energy projects, end licensing or funding of new oil and gas projects and put a price on carbon emissions, he said.

Guterres asked financial institutions to stop financing fossil fuel projects and encouraged those already doing so “not (to) relent in the face of attacks on progress.”

“You are doing the right thing,” he said. “Keep going.”

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