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Climate talks eye compromise on fossil fuels, drawing doubts

AFP . Dubai
11 Dec 2023 21:35:03 | Update: 11 Dec 2023 21:35:03
Climate talks eye compromise on fossil fuels, drawing doubts
Activists protest against fossil fuels on the sidelines of the COP28 United Nations climate summit in Dubai on December 5, 2023 — AFP Photo

The head of the Dubai climate summit on Monday proposed a compromise on historic language on fossil fuels, calling for a major reduction but not an explicit phase-out, in an 11th-hour bid to reach a deal.

With hours to go before the official end to the 13-day UN summit, COP28's Emirati president released a new draft agreement aimed at bringing onboard the nearly 200 countries, which include Saudi Arabia and other producers seeking to preserve their economic lifeblood.

After an earlier draft listed an option of a "phase-out" of oil, gas and coal, the new text draft focuses on "reducing" their production and consumption in order to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

COP28's Emirati president, Sultan Al Jaber, has voiced hope for a historic agreement, even though his role as president of the UAE national oil company has triggered scepticism among environmentalists.

"The COP28 presidency has been clear from the beginning about our ambitions. This text reflects those ambitions and is a huge step forward," a spokesperson for the presidency said.

But Harjeet Singh, of Climate Action Network International, called the text "a significant regression from previous versions".

"Astonishingly, it has dropped explicit language on phasing out fossil fuels, opting instead for a vague commitment," he said.

He noted that the world was already on the brink of warming 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels -- the increasingly elusive goal blessed by the 2015 Paris accord to avoid the worst ravages of climate change including worsening storms and droughts and rising sea levels.

"Such a scenario would unleash catastrophic consequences globally, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable communities," Singh said.

Jaber has urged negotiators to seal a deal by the summit's official close on Tuesday, although climate summits routinely run into extra hours or days.

No 'phasing out'

The agreement would call on all countries to take action that could include "reducing both consumption and production of fossil fuels, in a just, orderly and equitable manner so as to achieve net zero by, before, or around 2050 in keeping with the science".

On coal, the dirtiest major form of energy, the text calls for limitations on "new and unabated coal power" -- meaning going ahead with potential projects that use new carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.

The text does call for "phasing out" of "inefficient fossil fuel subsidies" that encourage "wasteful consumption".

Spurred by pleas by low-lying island nations that fear for their very existence, the conference in the glitzy metropolis built by petrodollars is for the first time considering global calls to exit fossil fuels.

Paying his second visit to the Dubai summit, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called earlier Monday for negotiators to show "maximum ambition and maximum flexibility".

"We are in a race against time," Guterres told reporters. "It's time to go into overdrive to negotiate in good faith."

Guterres called on negotiators to have a "single-minded focus on tackling the root cause of the climate crisis -- fossil fuel production and consumption".

Offering a way to compromise, Guterres said that the call for action "doesn't mean that all countries must phase out fossil fuels at the same time".

COP28 is taking place at the end of the hottest year on record with scientists believing it may be the warmest in more than 100,000 years.

Climate-related disasters in 2023 have included drought in the Horn of Africa and severe wildfires in Canada, Greece and Hawaii.

US-China unity

In a rare display of unity between rival powers, China and the United States, the world's two largest emitters, have largely been cooperating to advance language on a phase-out, with veteran US negotiator John Kerry pushing for a success as he celebrated his 80th birthday.

The latest draft deal includes language similar to a joint US-China statement released last month.

The COP28 deal calls for accelerating the deployment of zero and low-emissions technologies, including renewables, nuclear power and CCS "so as to enhance efforts towards substitution of unabated fossil fuels in energy systems".

But both the United States and China support the use of carbon capture technologies, which others see as offering wiggle room to preserve fossil fuels.

"Abatement cannot be used to delay action. We need to phase out fossil fuel production and consumption," France's minister of energy transition, Agnes Pannier-Runacher, said before the latest text was publicly released.