Could a feud over fossil fuels derail COP28?

Cop28 Fossil
8 min read
Dubai, UAE
06 December, 2023

At first, COP28 seemed off to a dazzling start. On the first day on November 30, world leaders at the summit unveiled a hard-earned agreement on loss and damage, creating a new fund to compensate the most vulnerable nations for the impacts of climate change.

A flurry of pledges ensued to bank this fund and others, totalling $57 billion in new climate finance according to the COP Presidency, which is led this year by the United Arab Emirates Climate Envoy Sultan al-Jaber.

In their wake, al-Jaber unveiled eight new declarations, supported by dozens of states, making new commitments on various topics ranging from renewable energy to food and health.

But just as the conference started to gather momentum for climate action, one remark by its president shattered it all.

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“There is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5C,” al-Jaber stated live during an online event, rebuffing a question from Mary Robinson, the chair of the Elders group, adding that a complete phase-out threatened to “take the world back into caves.”

The comment sparked unease and heavy criticism at COP, where over a hundred countries have rallied to a call to phase out fossil fuels.

"If we miss this opportunity to get a reference to all fossil fuels in the GST outcome, then we won’t have this opportunity for another five years"

Despite a speedy communiqué from al-Jaber’s team the following day to reaffirm intentions to stick to climate science, the incident revealed deep rifts under the shiny varnish of earlier COP announcements.

For states most severely affected by climate change, the success of this COP will be measured not by the number of declarations and commitments hashed out at press conferences, but by a single achievement: a decision to curtail fossil fuel use and production within the coming years.

But what exactly should be written down in the final text adopted at COP is a deeply contentious matter.

A critical juncture

Many nations already bearing the brunt of climate change’s impacts, such as small island states threatened by rising water levels, see COP28 as a critical juncture for their very survival.

This year’s COP is more important than others because parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are expected to carry out a “Global Stocktake”, meaning they will be looking into what progress (if any) has been made since the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international agreement adopted by 196 countries in 2015 to limit global warming to an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius in average temperatures, to avoid some of the most devastating impacts of climate change.

To do so, all parties have to commit to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. These commitments are made voluntarily and are known as Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC).

“This year’s Global Stocktake is the Paris Agreement’s reality check,” Dr Natalie Jones, a policy adviser on energy at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), told The New Arab.

“Legally, under the Paris Agreement, it has to inform the next round of NDCs, which are countries’ voluntary bottom-up pledges under the Paris Agreement, and those pledges are for the period 2030 to either 2035 or 2040. Therefore, what is in the GST outcome at this COP will affect climate policies in 2040," Jones continued. 

“If we miss this opportunity to get a reference to all fossil fuels in the GST outcome, then we won’t have this opportunity for another five years. And given that the science tells us that by this decade, in 2030, we need a rapid phase-down of fossil fuels, if we wait for the next GST in 2028, then we’ve missed a large chunk of the window that we had to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.”

This explains why civil society organisations and climate-vulnerable groups are adamant about getting all countries to reduce and eventually end their production and consumption of fossil fuels, which cause global warming.

But what that process should look like is subject to heated debate.

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A glossary of fossil fuel phase-out

Since COP26 in Glasgow, COP parties have been divided over what language to use when talking about the end of fossil fuels.

The most ambitious countries call for a “phase-out”, which means setting a target year when the world will stop using fossil fuels. Others call for a more pragmatic approach and aim for “phase-down”, meaning a structured decline in fossil fuel use.

This phrasing has long been eyed with suspicion by climate activists, who warn that fossil-fuel-producing states are trying to buy time by watering down the decisions taken at COP.

“A phase down (…) lacks any specificity, in that you can say you will phase something down if you cut it by 50%, which is close to what we need to do by 2030, not 2050,” David Tong, Global Industry campaign manager at Oil Change International, told The New Arab.

“Abatement” is another contentious term often thrown around at COP, usually put forward by fossil-fuel-reliant countries who argue that a degree of emissions is acceptable, as long as efforts are made to reduce or “abate” their impact on global warming.

These players would be willing to support a gradual phase-down or even phase-out as long as it targets only “unabated emissions”. But what exactly is an unabated emission is also a matter of controversy.

"There is no agreed definition in the UNFCCC process for the word unabated,” Tong added. “There is a narrow definition adopted by the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an expert body), which requires the abatement to be on-site, capture a high percentage of emissions, et cetera. However, several countries have their definitions of unabated, which allow for just about anything – from carbon capture and storage hundreds of miles away to buying credits for planting a forest in another country.”

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Under pressure

In the lead-up to COP, the UAE has faced intense criticism from civil society, activist groups and world leaders alike for selecting al-Jaber, who heads the UAE’s national oil company ADNOC, to broker the talks.

Comparing Al-Jaber to the CEO of a tobacco company chairing a conference on lung cancer, critics of the COP presidency argued that an oil executive would be the most ill-suited candidate to wean the world from oil. The fact that a record number of fossil fuel lobbyists (over 2,400) attended this COP stoked their concerns.

“Much of the progress we’ve made on climate has been due to the sweat and tears of Pacific Island negotiators,” a climate activist from Fiji said at a press conference on fossil fuels. “But in Glasgow, fossil fuel lobbyists outnumbered Pacific Islanders twelve to one, last year it was almost fifty to one. And the number this year is expected to be even higher.”

Despite this unfavourable context, several observers said they were surprised by the pace taken on fossil fuels.

“Up until just last week, almost all that countries had said about the phase-out or phase-down came without a timeline,” Tong said. “What was interesting last week though, was a new bit of language that came from the UAE Presidency and the International Energy Agency director Fatih Birol: a phase-down in the next decade, meaning by 2030. And that is a phase-down ambition that in some ways, is more ambitious than previous phase-out formulations because it has that crucial 2030 date.”

In the history of climate negotiations, the UAE and other oil-dependent Gulf states have long trodden an ambiguous path. Although they systematically obstructed any attempt to include a fossil fuel phase-out or phase-down in COP decisions, they welcomed efforts to develop renewable energy and heavily invested in diversifying their national energy mix.

A recent report from Zero Carbon Analytics reveals that the UAE, Jordan, Oman, Qatar and Lebanon are all frontrunners in solar and wind energy investments. Between 2015 and 2022, the Middle East witnessed a thirty-fold increase in installed solar capacity, compared to a 4.6 times increase globally.

But on fossil fuels, regional heavyweights like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have generally stuck to a common vision, which focuses on ending only “unabated” fossil fuels and emphasises the role of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to “abate” emissions.

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However, scientists say CCS is not a realistic solution to the climate crisis. Currently, around 30 CCS projects worldwide capture less than 0.2% of emissions needed to stay on track to 1.5, and most additional CCS units that were planned to operate by 2020 “have been cancelled or put on hold because of incredibly high costs and technological challenges,” according to the IISD.

So, what could have prompted such a turnaround on fossil fuels from the COP president, who reaffirmed on December 4 that the scientific path to 1.5 lies in “reducing emissions by 43% by 2030, and reaching net zero by 2050,” without even mentioning abated fuels?

Like oil from the ground, this surprising compromise was likely extracted under intense pressure.

“We have never seen a COP president under this much scrutiny,” Jones said. “When COP24 was in Poland, I remember some scrutiny because Poland was, at the time, still heavily reliant on coal and building new coal plants. But that pales in comparison to the level of intense pressure that this COP president has been under. “

“The UAE does have an opportunity here to secure a historic outcome, and they will be watching out hard for what they need to do to make this a success,” Tong concluded. “They do not want this COP to be seen as a failure.”

The New Arab will have continuous coverage of COP28 from Dubai. Click here for more

Lyse Mauvais is a freelance journalist based in Amman, Jordan. She covers environmental issues in the Middle East, with a focus on Syria and Jordan.

Follow her on Twitter: @lyse_mauvais