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COP28 Comes to its Crescendo in Drive for Fossil Phase-out

  • Throughout the day Monday, hopes seemed to rise for something historic.
  • At the press conference of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, high level ministers from a half dozen countries called for “ambitious and clear language on fossil fuels,”
  • Commenting on the draft text, activists asserted that most countries support the stronger phase-out language, and that a small group is opposed.

The UN’s COP28 conclave, based in an enormous exhibition centre in Dubai Expo City, with small daily protests permitted on the premises, is coming to a denouement.

Many of the almost 200 nations in the negotiations, and the environmental groups observing the negotiations, are pleading for language in the final ‘Global Stocktake’ document – the primary document of the summit – that calls for a clear end to fossil fuels, while big players appear to be jockeying for position and control over the outcome.

It opened last week with a slew of major announcements and pledges in the first few days. Now, it appears a few nations are resisting strong ‘phase out’ language in the final communique.

Inflection point or tipping point?

In the initial euphoria of major announcements, COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber saw unique momentum. Although speaking defensively at a press conference, in which he reiterated his commitment to “keeping 1.5 within reach,” Al Jaber said the Dubai event will be historic, marking a “major inflection point…our opportunity to deliver a real, tangible paradigm shift,” as he announced over $57 billion in new commitments.  

Eleven pledges and declarations were announced, including the Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter endorsed by 52 companies, the centerpiece of which is a voluntary commitment to cap methane leaks and flaring by 2030.

John Kerry, the top US climate envoy, speaking to reporters last Wednesday, dismissed the sudden visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Saudi Arabia and the UAE as inconsequential to the UN summit.

Instead, he was upbeat, saying he felt a new urgency at the talks. He listed numerous accomplishments, including some 120 countries pledging to triple renewables and double energy efficiency by 2030, and the US and five other countries (including the UAE) pledging to triple nuclear energy by 2050.   Related: COP28 Summit Approves Proposal to Hold COP29 in Azerbaijan

Still, Putin’s brief presence in the region during the summit, to strengthen ties and reaffirm his commitment to the OPEC+ group, added a disruptive current. Meanwhile, OPEC Secretary General Haitham Al-Ghais, in a letter to top ministers in all OPEC+ countries, called upon them to resist any agreement to phase out fossil fuels. In the letter, Al-Ghais expressed the fear of reaching an irreversible "tipping point" in the world’s climate talks.   

Five minutes to midnight

By end of week, committed funds had grown to $83 billion and Al Jaber announced eight top officials who would oversee negotiations in four main tracks: adaptation, mitigation, implementation, and global stocktake.

On Sunday afternoon, he said the talks were making slow progress, while he also said that the final agreement should have language that, for the first time, directly addresses fossil fuel consumption. Later on Sunday, Al Jaber hosted a ‘Majlis’, a gathering of ministers from all countries to convene in a circle, to hold an open conversation behind closed doors.  

Reports from observers of the Majlis were optimistic about an historic outcome.

But after the weekend, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres appeared on Monday morning, acknowledging that large gaps remain among the parties and calling for them to move beyond entrenched positions. He warned that it’s “five minutes to midnight” for this round of climate talks.

Guterres made clear the outcomes he wants to see in the ‘Global Stocktake’ document, including commitments to triple renewables, double energy efficiency, and focus on what he called, “the root cause of the climate crisis,” namely fossil fuel production and consumption.

The need is to phase out all fossil fuels, “on a time frame consistent with 1.5 degree limit…in a just, equitable, and orderly energy transition,” he said.

Focused on phase-out

Throughout the day Monday, hopes seemed to rise for something historic. Delegates, observers and the press were focused on the phase-out language and the closely related issue of funding.

At the press conference of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, high level ministers from a half dozen countries called for “ambitious and clear language on fossil fuels,” in the words of Agnes Pannier, the French Minister of Energy.

“Abatement cannot be used to delay action,” she said. “We need to phase out fossil fuel production and consumption.”

A minister from Colombia supported the call for phase-out while saying that countries such as hers, which exports coal and oil, would need multilateral financial support for such a transition.  

An even more forceful call for keeping fossil fuels in the ground came at a press conference hosted by the US-based Oil Change International group, where three activists spoke out strongly against carbon capture strategies in Norway, in the Canadian Tar Sands, and throughout the world.  

“We know there is an army of some 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists flooding the halls here, and included among them are 475 focused on carbon capture and storage,” said Nikki Reisch of the Center for International Environmental Law.

“The fossil fuel industry is trying to position itself as part of the solution rather than the core of the problem.”

Ms. Reisch gave a litany of what she terms “false solutions” and “code words for inaction and fossil fuel subsidies” deployed by the industry, including ‘carbon management’, ‘carbon removal’, ‘carbon capture’, ‘low carbon energy’, ‘low carbon hydrogen’, and ‘net-zero fuels’.  

Evening let-down

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At 5 pm on Monday, a draft text of the final stocktake document was released. In its key section on mitigation it used the word ‘reduce’, calling for a reduction of fossil fuel production and consumption by 2050 rather than a phase-out.

Commenting on the draft text, activists asserted that most countries support the stronger phase-out language, and that a small group is opposed.

“I was not expecting this weak of a text,” said Catherine Abreu of the non-profit Destination Zero group, who has been observing the talks closely.  

“It seems that a compromise was made for a small minority of countries.”

Ms. Abreu speculated that the holdouts include Saudi Arabia, Iraq, perhaps some of the so-called ‘like-minded developing countries’ concerned about the lack of finance for a transition, and, possibly, the United States playing a conciliator role.

The parties will enter a plenary session Monday night, then return to closed-door meetings, presumably producing a final document on Tuesday.

It will soon be known whether what Sultan Al Jaber has called “a unique sense of momentum” in this year’s UN climate summit continues through to its end.

By Alan Mammoser for Oilprice.com

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