On the same day as Biden Administration ‘climate czar’ John Kerry warned of out of control global warming at the UN climate conference in Dubai, the entirety of Europe is experiencing an unprecedented deep freeze.
Kerry called on the world to “judge with our own eyes what science is telling us” and warned that the arctic, the antarctic and the permafrost are in danger of melting.
UAE officials running the talks are warning it may be impractical to call for the complete death of fossil fuels — infuriating activists and vulnerable countries.
A global deal on ending the use of fossil fuels was mired in division as U.N. climate talks opened on Thursday in Dubai, with major polluters and the oil-rich host country signaling they weren’t on board.
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 known as COP28. The debate 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?
The European Union and an alliance of vulnerable countries have staked the success of the conference on a deal to “phase out” fossil fuels, ending centuries of reliance on them.
U.N. climate chief Simon Steill offered a warning at the opening of the conference on Thursday.
“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 United Arab Emirates’ conference officials have warned it may be 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. Some observers warned that such a push could expend much-needed political capital in a fight over wording that may not actually compel nations to do anything differently. What matters is the actions countries take outside the conference, they say.
“I know there are strong views about including language on fossil fuels. … We collectively have the power to do something unprecedented,” COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber, the Emirati official who also heads the UAE’s state-run oil company, said at the opening of the conference. “I ask you all to work together. Be flexible. Find common ground.”
Calls for a fossil fuel phaseout put the UAE in a tough spot — left to choose between going against its own interests and being seen as undercutting the talks.
Al-Jaber refused to join the EU in calling for a “phaseout” of fossil fuels during a bilateral meeting in Brussels this month, according to a European Commission official who was granted anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Talking points ostensibly prepared for al-Jaber, which the BBC and the Centre for Climate Reporting published this week, suggested the COP28 presidency supports a “phase-down” instead. “Phase down gives us greater scope to align climate policy with real-world inclusive policy, finance and technology solutions,” the document says. Al-Jaber called the documents “false” in a press briefing Wednesday, saying, “Never, ever did I see these talking points.”
Out vs. down
The pressure is on countries to emerge from COP28 with a roadmap of actions to set the world on a safer course. Current national policies doom the planet to warm well beyond the limit that all governments agreed to in Paris in 2015 — no more than 2 degrees Celsius, and if possible less than 1.5 degrees. (The planet has already warmed by around 1.3 degrees.)
One option, calling to phase out fossil fuels, would be a historic first. Climate talks have generally steered away from mentioning the fuels that are primarily responsible for the problem. The first mention was only in 2021, when talks in Glasgow ended with an agreement to phase “down” coal.
A phasing out of fossil fuels indicates a shift away from coal, oil and gas until their use is eliminated. Other countries have suggested using the term “phasing down,” which they understand to mean a reduction in use but not a complete end.
An official from Spain, the country that will head the EU’s negotiating team at this conference, described getting language on fossil fuels into the final COP decision as “the most important battle,” but also the “trickiest aspect,” acknowledging: “We know we need to negotiate.”
The official, who held a briefing with reporters last Friday on the condition that they not be named, contended that 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.
The “phaseout” language was already expected to face stiff opposition from economies dependent on fossil fuel production, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia — these countries typically filibuster and obfuscate at climate talks, watering down commitments to a lower bar. But it has also drawn criticism from China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluter and a pivotal actor at the climate talks.
China’s climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, said in September that “completely eliminating fossil energy is not realistic.” A submission to the U.N. 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.
For China, a secure transition away from fossil fuels means building the new before ditching the old, said Li Shuo, director of the China Climate Hub at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
“What we need at the COP may not necessarily be the perfect language but we need language that can trigger the best possible national response,” said Shuo. “How [do] you craft that language so it speaks to the national capitals? One way you do that is to make sure you have phase-in first and then you do the phaseout.”