Banning fossil fuels is now a make-or-break issue at climate talks

Source: By Chico Harlan, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, December 11, 2023

Many countries want a rapid phaseout of oil, gas and coal, but major powers — notably Saudi Arabia — are strongly resisting

Activists participate in a “die-in” protesting fossil fuels on Saturday at the U.N. climate summit in Dubai. (Peter Dejong/AP)

DUBAI — For 30 years, with temperatures and sea levels rising, global negotiators have managed to discuss the health of the planet without addressing the root cause of the problem. In meeting after meeting, document after document, even in the landmark 2015 Paris agreement, one phrase has been conspicuously absent: any mention of fossil fuels.

But that could be on the verge of changing.

At this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Dubai, known as COP28, nations have at last turned their attention to this highly contested driver of planetary warming and are considering historic language pledging to close out the era of coal, oil and gas. COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber, who runs both the state-run oil company and renewable energy arm of the United Arab Emirates, has vowed the summit will conclude with some form of agreement on fossil fuels.

There are many camps in this debate. Some oil-rich nations want no language at all. Some, such as the United States, support a “phasedown” of fossil fuels. Others see that as far too weak, and are demanding a clear timeline for a “phaseout” of fossil fuels.

Such a move would mark a belated recognition that the past strategy — of pledging to reduce emissions without overtly saying how — has not been sufficient. And while a strong fossil-fuel phaseout statement may not be enough to keep warming below the target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, it would improve the odds that humanity could avoid the worst expected impacts of climate change.

After more than a week of talks in Dubai, countries have just a few days — and sleepless nights — left to figure out the language of a potential agreement. In so doing, they are confronting many of the sticking points that stymied talk about fossil fuels in past years, even with the clear-cut science. There are influential lobbying groups, vast financial interests, and plenty of contradictions: Some countries advocating for a reduction in fossil fuels, such as the United States, continue to ramp up their oil and gas production.

But even if COP28 were to collectively advocate a rapid end to burning of fossil fuels, the real-world results are less than clear. Would nations made wealthy by oil and gas suddenly leave it in the ground?

“This is really difficult stuff. We are talking about the future of humanity, the future of economic structures and geopolitics,” said Hana AlHashimi, the lead negotiator for the United Arab Emirates.

Year by year, the annual U.N. climate talks evolve to take on their own personality, with one particular issue rising as a priority. Last year’s climate conference, in Egypt, used its political capital to approve a fund that would help poorer countries with climate-related crises. This year’s event, with the backdrop of Dubai’s oil wealth, and during the world’s hottest year on record, has become the fossil fuel COP.

Next year’s COP will be hosted by Azerbaijan, where oil and gas production accounts for nearly half of the gross domestic product.

In Dubai on Saturday, activists held a “die-in” protesting fossil fuels, as negotiators from many countries continued to prioritize that issue above all others.

Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s minister of environment and climate change, said that island nations have insisted that the climate summit end with strong language on fossil fuels.

“If we don’t — we could have the best COP ever and agree on everything else — it’s going to be viewed as a failure by the environmental movement and some countries,” he said.

Even if such a pledge does come to fruition, there will be much work ahead to make the language transformative. Globally, countries are spending a record $7 trillion on fossil fuel subsidies. There is still not enough financing for renewables, which would have to come online with significantly more speed to give the world the energy it needs. And some past COP agreements, even those celebrated at the time, have not led to the desired results.

Two years ago in Glasgow, Scotland, nations called for a “phasedown of unabated coal power” — the closest they have come to date to pulling back from fossil fuels, though in this instance without mentioning oil and gas. Still, China is steadily approving new coal projects.

“We need stringent language that doesn’t have any loopholes,” said Rachel Cleetus, the policy director with the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The issue is far from resolved. While some climate issues put the poorest or politically weakest nations at the center, the fossil fuel debate at COP28 hinges on the interests of the world’s biggest powers — namely the United States, China, the European Union and the Gulf nations. At the venue in Dubai — a vast complex of showy architecture, shaded walkways and food trucks — the main parlor game has been trying to theorize how those heavyweights might trade favors, compromise and bargain into the final days.

The biggest sticking point, by all accounts, is Saudi Arabia, the second-largest oil producer behind the United States. Their negotiators hold the power to scuttle any deal under U.N. rules requiring unanimity.

The kingdom’s energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, told Bloomberg TV several days ago that his country would “absolutely not” endorse language calling for a phasedown — a position consistent with Saudi Arabia’s stance at earlier COPs. Several news agencies reported that the OPEC oil cartel had recently warned its member countries, along with a handful of other oil-friendly nations, to reject any text that addresses fossil fuels.

Separate from the “die-in” on Saturday, a group of climate activists sat down in front of the exhibition booth for the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries at COP28 and raised their hands, painted with the message that “Your time … is over.”

“We will not let you water down the final text of the negotiations,” one activist said, as the OPEC representatives looked on silently.

As it stands now, the text leaves almost all possibilities open. The working draft is made public at intervals throughout the two-week talks, and the latest iteration includes five options, ranging from a fossil fuel phaseout “in line with best available science” to having no mention of fossil fuels whatsoever.

Another option, which the United States has publicly backed, calls for a phaseout of unabated fossil fuels. This qualifier might seem like a technicality, but it speaks to a significantly different path than an outright phaseout, as it would allow for oil and gas to still be used in tandem with technology that captures and stores their greenhouse gas emissions.

The technology has had an uneven track record so far — Al Gore recently called it a “research project” in an interview with Reuters — but many fossil fuel companies are investing heavily in it and using it as the basis to project cleaner operations for decades to come.

U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry has said that Washington supports language “requiring the phaseout of unabated fossil fuels, and we will continue to support that language.”

Many climate experts say a long-range target for a fossil fuel phasedown — say, mid-century — won’t be as meaningful as a pledge to wean off dirty fuel more quickly. Climate science shows that the next several years are crucial. One recent projection showed that the world has seven years remaining at current emissionsbefore it might heat beyond the 1.5-degree threshold written into the Paris agreement. Carbon capture technology will not be constructed quickly enough to lead to meaningful emissions reductions during that time frame.

In an interview with The Post, Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, said the “story of carbon capture and storage is one of disappointment.”

It should play a supporting — not central — role in the future, he said.

His agency recently released a report on the oil and gas industry showing the risk of putting too much stock in the technology: If oil and gas production continued as planned into the mid-century, with the idea that all emissions would be captured, the electricity needed just to power that process would be as great as the electricity used by the world in 2022.

European officials said this is one of the most challenging sticking points for negotiators in Dubai. Many heavy industries rely on technology that needs fossil fuels — especially to provide enough heat to make things such as cement and steel. Continued use of fossil fuels — paired with carbon capture and storage, or CCS — is probably necessary for those industries to operate, but that is not a panacea, said officials including Wopke Hoekstra, the European commissioner for climate action.

“The reality we need to face and actually embrace is that we have to phase out fossil fuels, period. And that we do our utmost, that we come up with very ambitious language at this COP,” Hoekstra said at a news conference on Friday.

The notion of pledging for a fossil fuel phaseout or phasedown might seem fanciful given the setting: a nation that grew fabulously wealthy because of oil. The UAE’s Al Jaber said before COP28 that there is “no science” showing that a phaseout is necessary for the world to meet its 1.5-degree goal. But he drew fierce backlash from scientists and subsequently called a phaseout and phasedown “inevitable” and “essential.” He has also called for a “historic package of outcomes” — something that can only be possible if his country brokers some kind of fossil fuel agreement.

“It looked like they were not playing an honest broker role at first,” said one energy expert at COP28, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak openly about the process. “But I think they have realized and responded to that.”

On Sunday, Al Jaber emphasized his country’s commitment to ensure that this COP would be the first to conclude with an agreement on fossil fuels. And at times, he has personalized the ongoing talks. “I want them to know failure, or lack of progress, or watering down my ambition is not an option,” he said.

Video from a nonprofit group, shared with journalists who are not allowed inside the meeting rooms, showed a Saudi negotiator saying there were still “key divergences.”

“We have raised our consistent concerns with attempts to attack energy sources instead of emissions,” he said.

Experts who follow negotiations and who support a phasedown hope that the major economies can find common ground and then work on Saudi Arabia, which might feel precariously isolated. But even getting to that point would require China’s support, something it hasn’t offered at previous COPs. China and the United States struck a note of optimism several weeks before the climate summit, when they agreed to ramp up renewable energy “so as to accelerate the substitution for coal, oil and gas generation.”

Still, two months ago, the Group of 20 — which includes China, India and Saudi Arabia — failed to commit to language on reducing fossil fuels.

Asked on Saturday whether China would accept the call for a phaseout, Xie Zhenhua, the special envoy on climate change, said the options could still evolve beyond the ones in the working document. China, he said, hopes to find wording that is “maximally inclusive and acceptable to all parties, even if it’s not totally satisfactory to any one party.”

Christian Shepherd in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.