CLIMATEWIRE | DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Climate talks in Dubai ended with a deal to curb the use of fossil fuels that was both historic and 30 years too late.
The two-week conference, held in the oil-rich desert kingdom of the United Arab Emirates and presided over by an oil CEO, brought two competing realities into a painful collision. The planet is overheating, yet humanity remains inextricably reliant on coal, oil and natural gas.
The talks ended Wednesday with a deal among almost 200 countries that committed to “transitioning away from fossil fuels,” notably by speeding up that shift before 2030. But the agreement also appeased oil-rich Gulf states by explicitly sanctioning those fuels’ use during the transition. And organizers gaveled it through so hastily that representatives for vulnerable island nations, who had a series of misgivings about the text, had yet to enter the room.
Still, leaders of the U.N. summit and representatives of major governments were quick to endorse the nonbinding pact as a historic acknowledgment that the world needs to move quickly to cleaner energy sources.
“This document sends very strong messages to the world,” said U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, who had placed his personal credibility on the line by backing the controversial choice of oil CEO Sultan al-Jaber to oversee the conference.
“This is much stronger and clearer as a call” for halting global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius — the ambitious, increasingly out-of-reach goal of global climate negotiators — “than we have ever heard before,” he said.
Kerry also announced that China and the U.S. had agreed to update their long-term plans for tackling climate change in light of the progress made at the talks.
“This is historic progress,” said Danish Climate Minister Dan Jørgensen. “I can totally understand if our populations think that it’s a disgrace that it had to take 28 years. But now we’re here. We’re in an oil country surrounded by oil countries that are now signing a piece of paper saying we need to move away from oil. It is historic.”
Others said the COP28 deal was just a start.
“We also needed to signal a hard stop to humanity’s core climate problem, fossil fuels and their planet burning pollution,” said Simon Stiell, the United Nations’ climate chief. “Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end.”
Spanish Ecological Transition Minister Teresa Ribera said that “there are many things we miss in this text, but we sincerely believe that this is an important step forward.”
And still others said the agreement falls short of what the warming world needs.
“The influence of petrostates is still evident in the half measures and loopholes included in the final agreement,” former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said in a statement. “Fossil fuel interests went all out to control the outcome.”
Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, a senior official with the World Wildlife Fund who was president of the 2014’s COP20 climate conference in Peru, said: “For a livable planet we need a full phase out of all fossil fuels.”
Fossil fuels take the spotlight
Yet none of the U.N.’s 27 preceding annual climate conferences had directly addressed the use of fossil fuels, which are largely responsible for having heated the planet by around 1.3 degrees since the preindustrial era.
Getting that language into this closing text was a mark of success for the Dubai talks, al-Jaber told the summit delegates Wednesday.
“We have language on fossil fuel in our agreement for the first time ever,” said al-Jaber, who heads the United Arab Emirates’ Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. That company plans to oversee $150 billion in spending that includes an effort to expand its oil production capacity by 2027.
Gore also noted the “milestone” of including the fossil fuel language. But he added that “it is also the bare minimum we need and is long overdue.”
The European Union and small island nations whose physical existence is threatened by the continued use of fossil fuels had mounted a push for a deal that would categorically end their use by the middle of this century — unless they are attached to machines that can remove and bury their dangerous carbon. The U.S., Australia, Canada and Norway — all heavy fossil fuel producers — belatedly joined the call.
The final result reflected other progress in the fight to end global warming. Clean energy technologies such as wind are becoming cheaper than dirty alternatives in many cases. Countries were more prepared than ever to commit to submitting new voluntary plans that delve deep into their economies and cover every greenhouse gas emitting sector with more detail than before.
The final deal also included a pact to triple global renewable energy capacity and double the rate of energy savings through efficiency measures by 2030. And for the first time, it included a clear benchmark for reducing greenhouse gas emissions during this decade, which supporters view as a crucial guidepost for staying on track for hitting global climate goals.
But fossil fuels still supply more than 80 percent of global energy. And for those islanders who had come to Dubai hoping, if not perhaps expecting, that COP28 would show a willingness to break that chokehold, the final deal was a cold postscript.
Tina Stege, the climate envoy for the coral-fringed Marshall Islands, who was out of the room as al-Jaber gaveled the deal through, walked in stiffly as the oil boss proclaimed that his “UAE consensus” was a “paradigm shift.”
Anne Rasmussen, the lead negotiator for the Pacific nation of Samoa, drew her own applause after lamenting that al-Jaber had pushed through the agreement before she and other representatives for endangered island communities had had a chance to outline the text’s shortcomings.
“This is not an approach we should be asked to defend,” Rasmussen said.
The presidency thanked the delegate for her comments and then continued with proceedings. Later, Kerry called the applause a “clarion call” highlighting countries’ obligations and responsibility to reach “as far as we can, as fast as we can.”
While the outcome might not have fully met the calls of the Pacific Island countries, “their voices are being heard,” said Chris Bowne, Australia’s minister for climate change and energy.
Fierce resistance to the deal had come from Saudi Arabia, India, China, Nigeria and other countries that see fossil fuels as a way to build, or maintain, their prosperity. Acknowledging that some fossil fuels would be needed as the world moved to cleaner energy was critical in bringing them on board.
Albara Tawfiq, a Saudi official who leads a group of Arab countries, emphasized the room the deal allowed for countries to use non-renewable approaches to cutting climate pollution. Throughout the talks, Saudi Arabia pushed hard for the use of carbon capture technology, even though scientists have warned that it cannot substitute for moving toward cleaner energy sources.
“We must use every opportunity to reduce emissions regardless of the source and use all technologies to this effect,” he said.
Some resource-rich countries say a shift away from fossil fuels needs to come with adequate money and resources that don’t force them to forgo development and the ability to meet growing energy needs.
Many developing nations, in Africa and elsewhere, pointed to what they called the hypocrisy of Western countries that are continuing to expand their extraction of oil and gas while calling on others to consign those fuels to history.
“The developed countries that are leading the expansion of fossil fuel production across the globe are now the champions of the 1.5C North Star,” Bolivian representative Diego Pacheco Balanza said. Those countries, he said, “are running counter to science themselves.”
In the U.S., already the world’s top oil producer, President Joe Biden’s administration has approved a new oil and gas project in Alaska and is holding offshore lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico. The United Kingdom has licensed new drilling operations in the North Sea. The EU has stormed Africa to sign deals to secure gas from the continent, seeking to plug gaps in its supply after the bloc ditched Russian fuel following Moscow’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
“None of the policies they have in place right now are leading us to phasing out,” Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta, a Cuban diplomat who chairs a large bloc of developing countries and China, told POLITICO. “So how do you reconcile that with then a statement here on phasing out? That is quite contradictory, to say the least.”
These countries also noted that rich countries have consistently failed to deliver on financial pledges to help poorer countries to build clean energy systems. They directed that charge most forcefully at the U.S., where Congress has declined to sanction new spending.
The final text nods in that direction, noting that favorable lending terms and non-debt financing such as grants can assist the transition off fossil fuels. But the agreement did not commit nations to any new assistance, while noting with “deep regret” that rich nations failed to deliver a promised $100 billion in annual climate finance by 2020.
“Nigeria is committed to tripling renewable energy. But we know that tripling renewable energy also requires resources,” said Nigerian environment minister Ishak Kunle Salako. “We cannot just commit to one, and not commit to the other.”
‘Ambition and pragmatism’
For al-Jaber, whose role as the summit’s president has drawn steady criticism since the UAE tapped him for the job in January, COP28 brought tremendous scrutiny over whether he would allow fossil fuel interests to dominate the summit, as green activists feared. Those concerns included skepticism about his initial focus on tackling greenhouse gas emissions through means such as expensive carbon-capture technology, rather than addressing them at their source. Under growing pressure, he eventually declared that a phaseout of fossil fuels was “inevitable.”
“In the end, this COP is going to be remembered for what it achieves on fossil fuels,” Brazilian lead negotiator André Corrêa do Lago told POLITICO earlier this week. “Which I think was not the original intention, but it’s an interesting evolution.”
The summit started off on a positive note. In the opening plenary on Nov. 30, countries signed off on the creation of a new fund to help developing nations rebuild after climate disasters, a historic agreement island nations had spent decades campaigning for.
Promises to inject the fund with cash immediately followed. The UAE and Germany announced contributions of $100 million each; in total, countries pledged nearly $800 million toward the new fund by the end of the summit. Countries and activists welcomed the early agreement, though the U.S. came under fire for pledging only $17.5 million.
Once the excitement over the new fund settled, the COP28 presidency set off a firework of announcements and declarations, some more consequential than others.
The vast majority of countries signed non-binding declarations focused on making the world’s food supply and health care systems more resilient against climate impacts, though those documents barely mentioned fossil fuels. Dozens supported a pledge to slash planet-warming emissions from air-conditioning. Some countries joined France in signing pledges to scale up nuclear power and accelerate the end of coal.
The presidency’s “oil and gas decarbonization charter” — which saw 50 oil and gas companies promise to eliminate methane leaks by 2030 and production-related greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century — came in for significant criticism. Vulnerable countries and green groups described it as “greenwashing,” and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned that “the promises made clearly fall short of what is required.”
Halfway through the conference, the IEA summarized the energy-related pledges as “positive steps” but said they would “not be nearly enough to move the world onto a path to reaching international climate targets.”
As delegates ended the conference with speeches on Wednesday, before heading out into the smog of Dubai, a representative from China — by far the world’s largest carbon polluter — spoke up. Throughout the talks, Beijing had resisted the deal to end fossil fuels. But now Zhao Yingmin, a vice minister in the country’s environmental department, summed up the clash of hopes and reality expressed in the deal.
“It is China’s view that climate action must feature both ambition and pragmatism,” he said.
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.