After U.N. meeting, countries brace for COP28 fossil fuel fight


  • Global tensions grow over future of fossil fuels
  • Some countries seek phase-out deal at COP28
  • Splits emerge over role of tech to capture emissions
  • COP28 to be held in Dubai Nov. 30-Dec. 12

Sept 25 (Reuters) – With two months left until the U.N.’s COP28 summit, countries are far from bridging the gap between those demanding a deal to phase out planet-warming fossil fuels and nations insisting on preserving a role for coal, oil and natural gas.

The COP28 conference in Dubai scheduled between Nov. 30 and Dec. 12 is seen as a crucial opportunity for governments to accelerate action to limit global warming, yet countries remain split over the future of fossil fuels – the burning of which is the main cause of climate change.

Meetings at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last week reignited the long-rumbling debate, with climate-vulnerable nations like the Marshall Islands pleading for wealthier ones to quit polluting fuels and to invest in renewable alternatives.

“Humanity has opened the gates to hell” by heating the planet, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres told a one-day climate summit held alongside the general assembly, where he lamented the “naked greed” of fossil fuel interests.

Other countries that produce or rely on fossil fuels emphasised the potential use of technologies to “abate” – meaning capture – their emissions, rather than ending the use of such fuels completely.

Saying that “the phase down of fossil fuels is inevitable,” the United Arab Emirates’ incoming COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber told the summit: “As we build an energy system free of all unabated fossil fuels, including coal, we must rapidly and comprehensively decarbonize the energies we use today.”

China, the world’s biggest fossil fuel consumer, is among those signalling that it intends to keep using them for decades.

The United States has said it supports a phase out of unabated fossil fuels – while acknowledging some developing countries’ plans to invest in them in the near term – though U.S. climate envoy John Kerry has questioned whether emissions capturing technologies can be scaled up fast enough.

While a COP28 pact to reduce fossil fuel use would not prompt an immediate exit from oil and gas, the European Union and other supporters say it is vital for guiding national policies and investments away from polluting energy.

“It’s not that this is going to happen tomorrow,” Spain’s Climate Minister Teresa Ribera told Reuters. “But we need to ensure that we are creating the conditions to make this possible.”

WAR OF WORDS

Given the divisions over the future of fossil fuels since more than 80 countries unsuccessfully pushed for a deal on a phase-down at last year’s COP27 summit, negotiators are turning to new terminologies in search of a compromise.

In what appeared in April to be a possible breakthrough, the Group of Seven industrialised nations agreed to speed up the “phase-out of unabated fossil fuels”.

By inserting “unabated” before fossil fuels, the pledge targeted only fuels burned without emissions-capturing technology.

But by July, the pledge faltered as the larger G20 – which includes oil and gas producers like Saudi Arabia and Russia – failed to reach consensus on the issue.

Ireland’s Climate Minister Eamon Ryan said the question of phasing out all fossil fuels or just the emissions would likely be the trickiest issue at COP28.

“Some people are rightly fearful that that could just be a carte blanche to continue the exploration of oil and gas and coal,” Ryan told Reuters, of the debate around emissions capturing technology.

A group of 17 countries including France, Kenya, Chile, Colombia and the Pacific island nations of Tuvalu and Vanuatu last week called for a fossil fuel phase-out that limits the use of carbon-capture technology.

“We cannot use it to green-light fossil fuel expansion,” the countries said in a joint statement.

Oil and gas industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute have said the world will need emissions abatement technologies in order to provide “more energy with fewer emissions.”

Some developing countries are also resisting a phase-out, saying they need fossil fuels to expand their electricity capacity for economic development – in the same way nations like Japan and the United States have done.

Within the African Union, some governments have accused the West of hypocrisy for using climate arguments to refuse financing for gas projects in developing nations, while continuing to burn gas at home.

KEEPING 1.5 ALIVE

Without a rapid decrease in fossil fuel use, the Earth will heat up beyond the global target of 1.5 degrees Celsius – compared with pre-industrial levels – within 10-15 years, said climate scientist Peter Cox at the University of Exeter.

“You can’t have it both ways. We can’t say we want to avoid 1.5 C … and not say anything about phasing out fossil fuels,” Cox said.

The head of the International Energy Agency this month said that demand for coal, gas and oil would peak by 2030 as renewable energy capacity grows.

“Leave aside the climate risk. There is now a business risk,” Fatih Birol told an event hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation. He urged countries to stop making new investments in coal, oil and gas.

The comments drew ire from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which disputed Birol’s projections for not including emissions-capturing possibilities and described his call for an end to new investments “dangerous.”

The Alliance of Small Island States, whose members face climate-fuelled storms and land loss to rising seas, wants a fossil fuel phase-out and an end to the $7 trillion governments spend annually on subsidising fossil fuels.

(This story has been refiled to fix a typo in paragraph 1)

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici in the United Nations and Washington, D.C., and Kate Abnett in Brussels; Editing by Katy Daigle and Emelia Sithole-Matarise

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Valerie Volcovici covers U.S. environment and energy policy from Washington, DC. She is focused on climate and environmental regulations at federal agencies and in Congress. She also covers the impact of these regulatory changes across the United States. Other areas of coverage include plastic pollution and international climate negotiations.



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