Governments are split over whether to call for a phase-out of fossil fuels and the role of carbon capture in the energy transition, as battle lines are drawn ahead of Cop28 in November.
Ministers from around 40 countries gathered in Berlin this week to kick-start negotiations ahead of this year’s climate summit.
The head of Cop28, the UAE’s Sultan Al Jaber, set the tone of the discussions by backing the phase-out of “fossil fuel emissions”. The wording has been interpreted as creating a loophole. The inclusion of “emissions” leaves the door open to the continuing use of fossil fuels if their emissions are kept out of the atmosphere with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.
During the ensuing talks, several countries underlined the need to “phase out fossil fuels as a major source of emissions”, according to an official summary. The document does not name specific representatives, but two sources with knowledge of the talks said these included the European Union, Chile, Colombia and small island nations.
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They faced opposition from other governments claiming that “fossil fuels currently are the most affordable form of energy”, the summary said.
Oil-producing countries led by Saudi Arabia showed the biggest resistance to an outright phase out of fossil fuels, the two sources said.
While taking a more moderate position, sources said the United States also failed to come out in support of that pledge, underscoring Al Jaber’s focus on “fossil fuel emissions” rather than fossil fuels.
These governments argued this is especially true in developing countries, where the rollout of renewable energy has a “high up-front cost”.
The International Energy Agency says utility-scale solar and onshore wind are the cheapest options for new electricity generation in a significant majority of countries worldwide.
Phase out battle
A broad coalition of nations has been pushing for an agreement to “phase out fossil fuels” at Cop28. They are keen to avoid a repeat of last year’s climate summit in Egypt.
An alliance of more than 80 countries wanted that commitment to be included in the final joint declaration. But a small group of fossil fuel-producing states like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia opposed the motion.
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Saudi Arabia’s lead negotiator Albara Tawfiq told the plenary that the UN climate convention “needs to address emissions and not the origins of the emissions”.
Agreements need to be signed off by every country so the language did not appear in the final text.
Al Jaber’s agenda
This week, the UAE’s Cop28 head used the platform of the Petersberg Climate Dialogues to set out his agenda for the summit at the end of November.
In the closing press conference, Sultan Al Jaber said that he sees a role for fossil fuels “in the foreseeable future in helping meet global energy requirements”.
His remarks have added to some observers’ concerns over the appointment of Al Jaber, who heads the UAE’s state fossil fuels giant Adnoc, alongside his Cop28 gig. Adnoc plans to boost investment in oil and gas capacity over the next five years.
The debate in Berlin also revolved around the role of “technical solutions” for reducing carbon emissions.
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“Some representatives saw the need to support broader deployment of carbon management technologies for existing fossil fuel facilities”, the chair’s summary of the talks said.
But other governments urged caution “due to concerns about the cost, unclear timescales, potential to delay the transition, and environmental impacts”.
Last week, one European official told Climate Home that the “strongest voices” in favour of CCS “are currently coming from fossil exporting countries”.
The official said that CCS “will play a key role” in some sectors that are hard to clean up. “But for now, it’s an expensive option, a luxury technology”, they said, and renewables and energy efficiency “are the most affordable and readily available mitigation technologies”.
CCS remains expensive and unproven at large scale.
According to the IPCC’s scientists, stopping a tonne of carbon dioxide with CCUS costs between $50 and $200. Replacing fossil fuels with renewables usually saves money.
Many climate campaigners have called it a “distraction” that gives fossil fuel companies a licence to keep extracting more climate-harming coal, oil and gas.
But the IEA’s head Fatih Birol disagrees, calling it “critical for ensuring our transitions to clean energy are secure and sustainable”.