As I write this COP28, this year’s UN climate talks in Dubai, are looking likely to fail, for the first time since COP6 in 2000. Tuesday morning’s deadline has passed, an improved draft agreement is due and there will clearly be many more hours of discussion before the final gavel might come down.
While progress has been made in some areas, most noticeably the establishment of the loss and damage fund to help countries deal with irreversible changes brought about by climate change, the core issue of phasing out fossil fuels has proved as difficult as expected, with the phrase disappearing from the draft text on Monday.
In the final hours of COP26 in Glasgow two years ago an agreement was reached that there should be a ‘phase down’ of coal and fossil fuel subsidies. Very weak language but it was the first time in 26 UN climate talks that fossil fuels actually got mentioned in the final agreement.
As global temperatures continue to smash records there is a very urgent need to act together to reduce emissions, but expectations for COP28 were always low. The COP is being hosted by the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s largest oil producers, and they chose as the leader of the process Sultan Al Jaber – also chair of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. His company plans to expand oil production by as much as 42% by the end of this decade.
In the run-up to the COP it was revealed that UAE negotiators had been briefed to pursue new oil deals during climate negotiations, targeting 15 specific countries. Al Jaber himself was quoted as saying there was no scientific evidence that phasing out fossil fuels was essential to keeping below the 1.5ºC temperature threshold, a sentiment immediately condemned by climate scientists. During the COP a leaked letters from oil cartel OPEC urged its members to resist any moves to phase out fossil fuels.
Next year’s COP will be in Azerbaijan. Nearly half of their GDP comes from fossil fuels…
The oil industry has turned up to lobby in a big way. With a record 2,500 there were more fossil fuel lobbyists than delegates from any single country except the hosts UAE and Brazil, who are hoping to host COP30. As well as trying to keep any mention of phase outs out of the text, they are also telling delegates that they needn’t worry about those pesky carbon emissions because carbon capture and storage will take care of them all. The head of the International Energy Agency recently added his voice to those opposing this strategy, saying that planning to use carbon capture to cover business-as-usual emissions is a ‘fantasy.’
There are at least 100 countries arguing for a phase out of fossil fuels. The EU, Australia and the grouping of small island states have been leading the charge, also calling for global emissions to peak by 2025. Even the UK is saying some of the right things (despite its plans to open 100 new oilfields in the North Sea). Saudi Arabia and Iraq are the main visible blockers.
The world needs to urgently get off its fossil fuel addiction. While oil industry interests continue to skew the debate and oil producing countries hold power there is little chance of change.
A version of this article appeared in the Scotsman newspaper on 13th December 2023.
Image: Friends of the Earth International