The United Nations chief has said fossil fuels, not just their emissions, are the problem in the climate crisis, in an apparent rebuke to the United Arab Emirates Cop28 presidency.
Speaking after a meeting with civil society, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged countries to “progressively phase [fossil fuels] out, moving to leave oil, gas and coal in the ground where they belong”, and boost investment in renewable energy.
“We are hurtling towards disaster, eyes wide open,” he said, “with far too many willing to bet it all on wishful thinking, unproven technologies and silver bullet solutions”.
In response to Guterres’ statement, a Cop28 spokesperson told Climate Home News the presidency “has been explicit about the need for a rapid, well managed and just energy transition”. They added that “we need to find a way to hold back emissions, not progress” and that the world cannot be unplugged from the energy system of today overnight.
Guterres’ statements take aim at countries calling for the phase out of fossil fuel emissions rather than the fuels themselves and for the large-scale deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.
Al Jaber’s signals
This includes Cop28’s host, the United Arab Emirates. In an agenda-setting speech last month, the climate summit’s president-designate Sultan Al Jaber backed a “phase out of fossil fuel emissions”.
His words were interpreted as leaving a loophole for continuing to use such fuels if their emissions are kept out of the atmosphere with CCS.
Several oil-producing countries and fossil fuel companies are betting heavily on CCS, but the technology 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.
Cop28 battle lines
At the Bonn climate talks last week, Al Jaber made stronger remarks, saying the “phasedown of fossil fuels is inevitable”. But he stopped short of calling for a “phase out” or indicating the pace at which that the phase down needs to happen.
A broad coalition of nations has been pushing for an agreement to “phase out fossil fuels” at Cop28 after failing to reach that at last year’s summit in Egypt.
Asked if he supported a fossil fuel phase-out yesterday, the Egyptian Cop27 presidency’s ambassador Wael Aboulmagd told Climate Home that “there is no one size fits all” and that wealthy fossil fuel producers like Norway shouldn’t be treated like poorer producers like Guyana.
Several Western lawmakers and campaigners have accused the Cop host of being soft on fossil fuels, given Al Jaber’s role as the head of Adnoc, the UAE’s national oil company, which has plans to ramp up its oil extraction capacity.
Although climate talks are part of the UN, the Cop president is chosen by the host country and Guterres has no say on who they choose.
‘Immoral’ industry commitment
Guterres said the climate agenda is being “undermined”, with countries backtracking “at a time when we should be accelerating action”. He previously urged countries in the G20 to significantly bring forward their net zero targets – a call they have largely ignored.
He has also hit out directly at the fossil fuel industry, which he described as “the polluted heart of the climate crisis”. He has urged companies to invest their record windfall from high oil and gas prices into renewable energies.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), oil and gas companies invested less than 5% of their spending on clean electricity and carbon capture. Guterres has called such a level of investment “immoral”.
The UN chief has said transition plans need to show a move towards clean energy. “Otherwise, they are just proposals to become more efficient planet-wreckers,” he added.
The article has been updated after publication to include a comment from the Cop28 team