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COP28 Climate Talks Enter Last Day with No Agreement In Sight On Fossil Fuels

Activists demonstrate with a sign that reads "Don't fail us phase out fossil fuels" at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Dec. 12, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Activists demonstrate with a sign that reads "Don't fail us phase out fossil fuels" at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Dec. 12, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

A stark standoff between countries that want a dramatic phase-out to fossil fuels causing damaging warming and those that don't crushed hopes for an on-time finish to a critical climate summit Tuesday.

The United Nations-led summit known as COP28 was scheduled to end around midday after nearly two weeks of speeches, demonstrations and negotiations. But the climate talks almost always run long, and Monday's release of a draft agreement angered countries that insist on a commitment for rapid phase-out of coal, oil and gas.

Instead, the draft called for countries to reduce “consumption and production of fossil fuels, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.”

Majid al-Suwaidi, COP28 Director-General, said Monday night's draft was meant to get countries to start talking and presenting what are deal-killers for them, which are called “red lines.”

“The text we released was a starting point for discussions,” he said at a news conference midday on Tuesday. “When we released it, we knew opinions were polarized, but what we didn’t know was where each country’s red lines were.”

“We spent last night talking, taking in that feedback, and that has put us in a position to draft a new text,” he said.

COP28 Director-General Ambassador Majid Al Suwaidi speaks during a news conference at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Dec. 12, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
COP28 Director-General Ambassador Majid Al Suwaidi speaks during a news conference at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Dec. 12, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

A new draft was promised to come out on Tuesday, but much of the critical work in the Dubai-based talks keeps getting delayed.

A senior negotiator for a developing nation who did not want to be named so as to not impact negotiations said the fossil fuel phase-out language would not be in the next version.

Al-Suwaidi gave conflicting comments about the future of the fossil fuel phase-out language, which at one point he said “doesn't work.”

“It’s important that we have the right language when it comes to fossil fuels. It’s important that we think about how we get that balance. There are those who want phased out. There are those who want phased down,” al-Suwaidi said. “The point is, is to get a consensus.”

“We’ve said as a presidency, we think fossil fuel language needs to be part of that,'' al-Suwaidi said. ”Now we need the parties to say, how do they land? We’ve spent a year knowing that that language doesn’t work."

On one side are countries such as Saudi Arabia that won't accept phase-out language, while European countries and small island nations say it is unacceptable to leave those words out. Countries wanting phase-out are in a tough position because they may have to accept either a weak deal or no deal, neither of which is good for them, said Alden Meyer, a veteran climate negotiations observer for European think-tank E3G.

But Meyer thinks the blowback from phase-out supporters may be the start of strengthening a proposed deal, leaving Saudi Arabia and a few other Gulf states “as the last ones standing in the way of a more ambitious deal. We're not there yet. There's more work to be done.”

The key is finding language that won't make someone block a deal because a final agreement has to be by consensus.

“It's a game of chicken,” said CEO of Climate Analytics and longtime climate talks observer Bill Hare. He said the European countries and Pacific Island nations are threatening to walk out if there aren't changes to the text.

Tina Stege, climate envoy for the Marshall Islands, ridiculed the document as “a meaningless wish list” that “questions the science" and said it doesn’t address the Paris agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) to stave off the worst effects of climate change. Earth is on its way to smashing the record for hottest year, endangering human health and leading to ever more costly and deadly extreme weather.

“There is no justice in a result from this COP that condemns my country's future,” said Stege, whose country is one of the many island nations most at risk from rising seas.

Joseph Sikulu of Pacific Climate Warriors teared up while trying to express his emotions over the draft text.

“We didn’t come here to sign our death sentence,” he said.

Europeans also pushed for a stronger document.

“We have been working overnight within the EU and with our partners to drive up the ambition of the text in a balanced way,” German climate envoy Jennifer Morgan said. “We need to work intensively together to find a text the world can coalesce around — one that gives everyone clarity on the direction of travel: away from the fossil fuel era.”

Veteran COP observer Meena Raman of environmental activism group Friends of the Earth’s Malaysia chapter blasted industrialized nations, which caused the problem with historical emissions that stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. And countries like the United States, Canada and Norway are expanding oil production, she said.

“They don’t want to talk about historical responsibility but talk about keeping 1.5 alive," Raman said. "It’s really playing to the gallery. Fossil fuel expansion is already happening in the global north.”

Activists said they feared that potential objections from major oil producers, such as Saudi Arabia, had watered down the text. The head of OPEC, the powerful oil cartel, was reported to have written to member countries last week urging them to block any language to phase out or phase down fossil fuels.

“This text that we saw yesterday is sinking the lifeboat of humanity,” activist Vanessa Nakate said.

“I think there’s a lot of work that the COP28 presidency needs to do to make this better because the first attempt was really bad,” said activist Romain Ioualalen of Oil Change International. “If there isn’t an outcome on ... phasing out fossil fuels, this COP will be a failure and the COP President will not be seen as the hero.”

In the 21-page document, the words oil and natural gas did not appear, and the word coal appeared twice. It also had a single mention of carbon capture, a technology touted by some to reduce emissions although it's untested at scale.

COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber told a plenary session on Monday that “the time to decide is now.”

“We must still close many gaps. We don’t have time to waste," he said.

On that point, critics agreed. Rachel Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists urged negotiators to keep working.

“Please do not shut down this COP before we get the job done,” she said.