Climate Talks Enter Last Day with No Agreement in Sight on Fossil Fuels

AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili
Activists protest against the use of fossil fuels and climate justice at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — 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.”

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.

“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 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.

Europeans also pushed for a stronger document.

“It is difficult to come to a result here by midday (Tuesday),” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said. “This is not a problem for the European delegation. We have time and we are prepared to stay a little longer.”

Bangladesh climate envoy Saber Chowdhury said a revised text would be presented Tuesday morning that takes into account the comments from the many participants .

“It’ll be new. To what extent it’s improved remains to be seen,” he said shortly after discussions ended at around 2 a.m. on Tuesday.

Final decisions by COPs have to be by consensus. 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.

“The draft that we saw yesterday does not reflect science, it does not reflect the demands of the entire global climate justice movement,” said activist Romain Ioualalen of Oil Change International. “It’s a sort of text that tries to please everyone and is very carefully making a lot of people unhappy, including a very large number of parties. And it seems to be primarily designed to appease the fossil fuel industry.”

Saudi Arabia’s Noura Alissa said the deal “must work for all.”

“It must be relevant, it must make to sense to accelerate action for every single country in this room, not some over others,” she said.

Some developing nations resisted a fossil-fuel phaseout on the grounds that it was unfair for wealthy nations, after centuries of using and profiting from coal, oil and gas, to deny them the same.

That included Botswana, whose environment minister, Philda Nani Kereng, said her country is “still, you know, exploiting natural resources for economic development, for livelihood improvement, for job creation and so forth.”

It’s important that any agreement is “not going to sort of stop us from developing our people,” she said.

China and U.S., the world’s two biggest sources of planet-warming emissions, both spoke against the draft text.

Zhao Yingmin, China’s vice minister for Ecology and Environment, said at the meeting that “the draft fails to address the concerns of developing countries on some key issues” and in particular the idea that greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025.

United States climate envoy John Kerry said the language on fossil fuels in the text “does not meet the test” of keeping 1.5 alive.

“I, like most of you here, refuse to be part of a charade” of not phasing out fossil fuels, Kerry said. “This is a war for survival.”

Kerry’s remarks received a round of applause from the room. But he was confronted as he left by climate activists who called for more action, saying their future is at stake.

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.