World divided at COP28 over whether to end fossil fuel era


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World divided at COP28 over whether to end fossil fuel era

COP28. A person attends the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 4, 2023.

Amr Alfliky/Reuters

Diplomats say opposition to a full fossil fuel phaseout is led by Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China, which is the world's biggest carbon emitter

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – It’s the issue at the core of COP28: will this year’s United Nations climate talks, held in major oil producer the United Arab Emirates, produce the first global agreement to phase out fossil fuel use?

Burning fossil fuels for energy is by far the biggest cause of climate change. It is also the engine of modern life – even with the growth of renewables, fossil fuels produce around 80% of the world’s energy.

UN climate negotiations over the last three decades, however, have yet to address the issue head on.

The COP26 summit in Glasgow in 2021 made the first tangible progress toward a fossil fuel exit deal with an agreement to reduce coal use, but without mentioning oil and gas.

At COP28 in Dubai, more than 80 countries are pushing for a broader pact to phase out all CO2-emitting fossil fuels.

“The ‘phaseout’ is a tool to reach the goal. And the goal is an energy system that has no emissions,” Norway’s Foreign Minister Espen Barthe Eide told Reuters at COP28.

“Not low emissions, but emissions-free.”

Aside from Norway, Europe’s biggest oil and gas producer, excluding Russia, this position is also backed by western producers the United States and Canada, the 27-country European Union, climate-vulnerable small island states, some African nations including Kenya and Ethiopia, and Latin American countries Chile and Colombia.

Opposition to a full fossil fuel phaseout, diplomats told Reuters, is led by Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China, which is the world’s biggest carbon emitter.

Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman told Bloomberg TV on Tuesday, December 5, that his country would “absolutely not” agree to a deal that calls for a phasedown.

Sultan al-Jaber, the United Arab Emirates’ COP28 president, said on Monday, December 4, he was calling on countries to propose language on fossil fuels for the COP deal.

“The phasedown and the phaseout of fossil fuels is inevitable,” said Jaber, who is also chief executive officer of the UAE’s state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

Countries’ negotiators have only days to find agreement before the summit’s scheduled end on Tuesday, December 12.

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Some representatives of African nations have said they could support a phaseout deal if wealthy countries, who have long produced and used fossil fuels, agree to quit first.

“To tell Uganda to stop fossil fuels, it is really, really an insult. It’s like you are telling Uganda to stay in poverty,” Uganda’s Energy Minister Ruth Nankabirwa said.

Uganda, Mozambique, and others on the continent with low electricity access rates plan to develop or expand their oil and gas production. Uganda began drilling its first production well this year.

Nankabirwa told Reuters the country could accept a long-term phaseout, if it made clear that developing nations can exploit their resources in the near term, while wealthy longtime producers quit first.

“First in, first out – and we will be happy to be the last one to exit from fossil fuels,” she said.

Diplomats and observers told Reuters a group of countries including China and Saudi Arabia have consistently raised the issue of “equity” during COP28 talks, emphasizing wealthy industrialized nations’ high historical contribution to climate change.

Some said they doubted whether these nations would support a phaseout, however, even if the issue of equity was addressed.

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Emissions tech

Another sticking point in the talks around the future of fossil fuels is whether the deal should allow for continued consumption on condition that their planet-warming CO2 emissions are captured, or “abated.”

The vast majority of the world’s power plants are unabated.

Diplomats say that Saudi Arabia wants a COP28 deal that includes a focus on carbon capture technologies, which remain expensive and not used at scale.

The UN’s climate science panel – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – has said steep fossil fuel cuts are needed to avert more severe climate change. Alongside this, it sees a limited role for carbon capture to zero out the world’s emissions by 2050.

The US and EU support a COP28 deal that recognizes these technologies, which can help polluting sectors such as cement or steel to bring down their emissions. But they want caveats in the deal to prevent carbon capture promises from being used to excuse business as usual.

Overall, European nations say the COP deal must clearly ask countries to cut their fossil fuel use enough to stop global warming exceeding 1.5°C (2.7°F) and unleashing far more severe impacts.

“That is what 1.5°C means. You can’t keep burning fossil fuels,” Irish Climate Minister Eamon Ryan told Reuters.

“There will be a small amount, abated, in hard-to-reach sectors…but that can’t be a get-out-of-jail card for international fossil fuel companies.”

Some negotiators told Reuters they and other phaseout advocates could agree to something short of a full phaseout, provided the world’s direction of travel is clear.

Oil consumption is going to go down. It’s inevitable in my view,” Canadian Climate Minister Steven Guilbeault told Reuters.

“Whether it’s in the text or not, it’s happening,” he said. –

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