Disagreements over the phasing out of fossil fuels look set to dominate the two-week COP28 climate meeting in Dubai, after the summit president used his opening speech to argue against a full ban on the use of coal, oil and gas.
More than 70,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries are taking part in the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which got underway Thursday in the United Arab Emirates, a major exporter of hydrocarbons.
Scientists say greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by some 43% by 2030 if the world is to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the target agreed under the Paris climate deal seen as a crucial threshold to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. However, current trajectories suggest greenhouse gas emissions will actually rise by 9% by 2030.
Central to the talks in Dubai is the tackling of a major source of those emissions: the burning of fossil fuels.
Phasedown or phaseout?
COP28 President Sultan Al-Jaber, who is also the head of the UAE's state oil company, opened the meeting with his vision: not a phasing out of fossil fuels, but a phasing down.
"We must look for ways and ensure the inclusion of the role of fossil fuels. I know there are strong views about the idea of including language on fossil fuels and renewables in the negotiating text. We collectively have the power to do something unprecedented, in fact, we have no choice but to go the very unconventional way. I ask you all to work together. Be flexible. Find common ground," Al-Jaber told delegates, adding that it was right that oil and gas firms had been invited to COP28.
"Let history reflect the fact that this is the presidency that made a bold choice to proactively engage with oil and gas companies. We had many hard discussions, let me tell you, that wasn't easy, but today many of these companies are committing to zero methane emissions by 2030 for the first time," Al-Jaber said.
Al-Jaber's speech prompted immediate condemnation from environmental groups. "The Emirates is pushing very hard for recognition of fossil fuel phasedown rather than phaseout. And I think that the COP president is going to have to be much more flexible on that because we know that a fossil fuel phase out was needed, not a phase down. We know that what he's pushing for on the phase down is simply window dressing increased oil and gas production," said Bill Hare, the CEO of Climate Analytics.
Alden Meyer, of the climate think-tank E3G, also was skeptical.
"The larger issue is the inconsistency between [Al-Jaber's] acknowledgment that we need to cut emissions from fossil fuels by some 40% in the next six years, and the plans that his country has to expand oil and gas production to the tune of $150 billion investment over that same time frame," Meyer told The Associated Press.
While divisions over the phase out of fossil fuels appear likely to dominate much of the summit, there was progress in other key areas.
The COP28 parties agreed to a new $420 million fund to help poorer, vulnerable nations cope with the cost of disasters caused by climate change, such as droughts, floods and rising sea levels, with the UAE hosts' $100 million pledge making them among the most generous of the donors.
"[The] fact that we have been able to achieve such significant milestone in the first day of this COP is unprecedented," Al-Jaber said at a Thursday evening press conference. "This is historic, the fact that we are able to get the agenda voted and agreed on without any delay."
The United States pledged a smaller $17.5 million, with funding subject to approval by Congress. "We are obviously pleased with everybody by the early adoption by the parties, which is a great way to start this COP… we also expect this fund to be up and running quickly," U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry told reporters Thursday.
The day one deal could pave the way for further agreements at COP28, said Tom Rivett-Carnac, a former strategist at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. "That will provide developing countries with the confidence that they can now step forward and implement mitigation measures as well," he told VOA.
Delegates hope the momentum continues into the rest of the summit, as marathon negotiations loom over the future use of fossil fuels.