Phasing down fossil fuels is “inevitable” and “essential”. It is hard to imagine the CEO of an oil major saying that 10 years, five years, even one year ago.
It’s a measure of how far the discourse has moved since the Paris Agreement that Sultan Al Jaber has taken that line in the run-up to Cop28.
As president of the UN climate summit starting in Dubai on 30 November, Al Jaber could not ignore mounting calls to quit coal, oil and gas.
“We cannot address climate catastrophe without addressing its root cause: fossil fuel dependence,” said UN chief Antonio Guterres last week. “Cop28 must send a clear signal that the fossil fuel age is out of gas – that its end is inevitable.”
But Al Jaber has not quit the day job as chief of Emirati state-owned oil company Adnoc, which is increasing production. The conflict of interest is writ large.
And despite the longstanding scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels is the main driver of the climate crisis, there was no political consensus to name them in UN climate decisions until very recently.
At the 2021 climate summit in Glasgow, UK, countries made a breakthrough agreement to phase down coal power generation. A group of around 80 countries pushed to extend that to oil and gas in Sharm-el-Sheik last year, but were stonewalled. Will Al Jaber’s rhetoric translate into an international agreement?
Phasing down or cashing in?
The science is clear: we need to substantially reduce the use of fossil fuels to stand a realistic chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said. There is no room for new oil and gas fields, the International Energy Agency agreed.
While there is money to be made, though, mining and drilling continue. Buoyant oil prices since Russia invaded Ukraine last year have spurred development.
The top 20 fossil fuel-producing nations plan to extract twice as much by 2030 as the level consistent with meeting the Paris Agreement goals, according to the UN’s 2023 Production Gap report.
The first global stocktake of the Paris Agreement is due to conclude at Cop28 – a prime opportunity for a course correction. Two elements of the energy package under negotiation have broad support: a tripling of renewable energy capacity and a doubling of energy efficiency by 2030. But on a third plank – the fossil fuel phase-out – divisions remain stark.
“We are not going to solve the problem by scaling up renewables alone,” says Ploy Achakulwisut, a research fellow at SEI and one of the UN report’s authors. “Governments need to step up and commit to stronger language on fossil fuels now. Accepting a phase-out is the first step towards coordinating and implementing a well-managed and equitable transition.”
A fractured field
On one end of the spectrum, fifteen countries under the banner “high ambition coalition” are calling for a phase-out of fossil fuels production and use: no ifs, no buts. The group includes rich Western countries like France and Spain, African states, including Kenya and Ethiopia, and Pacific island nations.
On the opposite end, Russia says nyet to any proposal of cutting the oil and gas production that makes up most of its revenues. “We oppose any provisions or outcomes that somehow discriminate or call for phase-out of any specific energy source or fossil fuel type,” the country’s recent submission to the UNFCCC said.
In between are developed countries justifying continued oil and gas development on energy security grounds and emerging economies resistant to any check on their growth.
One word is likely to dominate discussions: unabated.
A universally-recognised definition of “unabated” does not exist – and that is a big part of the problem. Fossil fuel abatement generally refers to efforts to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emitted throughout their life cycle, chiefly by using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.
But what percentage of emissions needs to be captured and how countries ensure this is not a delaying tactic are open questions.
“Differing views on abatement are causing hostages to fortune and allowing fractures to appear that are not helpful in terms of actually achieving fossil fuel phaseout,” Camilla Fenning, a fossil fuel transition expert at E3G, told Climate Home. “A clear definition is something that would be very useful.”
Rich countries all call for some form of phase-out of unabated fossil fuels, in line with what was agreed at a G7 meeting in Hiroshima last May.
Their interpretation is not univocal, however.
The EU wants to designate some clear boundaries around the use of technofixes. “Exaggerated expectations from CCS should not be a pretext to delay climate action now,” an EU negotiator told Climate Home. “It will not deliver what we need before 2030. In the longer term, we will need it in hard-to-abate sectors, but we need to see what is possible.”
Meanwhile, the US is betting big on CCS and curbs on methane leakage to limit the climate damage of oil and gas operations. It is a position that brings it closer to petrostates like Saudi Arabia and Cop28 hosts UAE.
China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua has also come out in favour of CCS while calling a global fossil fuel phase-out “unrealistic”.
The country, which is expanding both coal power capacity and renewables, risks being a major blocker to an agreement. Highlighting “the significant role of fossil fuels in ensuring energy supply security”, its latest submission said the transition needs to be achieved by “establishing the new before abolishing the old”.
For Cuban Ambassador Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta, chair of the G77 group of developing countries, development needs take priority over a fossil fuel phase-out. “The most important thing for developing countries is eradicating poverty and guaranteeing a right to development within a sustainability framework,” he told Climate Home.
Equity and money questions
For many developing countries, equity concerns will need to be addressed before signing on to any deal.
Negotiators from Africa and India are planning to push rich nations to commit to phasing out fossil fuels faster than the rest of the world. Their position is based on the “common but differentiated responsibilities” principle, where the wealthy countries who are most responsible for causing climate change take the lead in tackling it.
They will highlight the contradictions between what some developed countries advocate for in climate talks and what they do at home. For example, the US is responsible for more than one-third of the expansion of global oil and gas production planned by mid-century, followed by Canada and Russia, according to Oil Change International.
Cuba’s Pedroso Cuesta called this a “severe contradiction”. “Those who are proposing these initiatives [fossil fuel phase out] should lead by example. I don’t think they are currently,” he added.
Another sticking point is money. A huge amount of it will be required for developing countries to wean themselves off fossil fuels while investing heavily in renewables and energy efficiency, the other elements of the COP28 energy package. “Developing countries need to be given assurances about more financial support to encourage confidence in signing up for those commitments”, says E3G’s Fenning
It is not yet clear who is going to provide finance and on what terms. Energy transition partnerships between rich countries and South Africa, Indonesia and Vietnam have stuttered over the last year. Promises of significantly higher levels of support from development banks and the private sector still need to materialize.
Activists gearing up
While country delegates refine their rhetoric, activists are also gearing up their campaigning firepower to make sure a fossil fuel phase-out remains top of the agenda in Dubai.
Demonstrations and protests are expected to be limited to the UN-designated zones, given the harsh rules clamping down on dissent in the UAE, campaigners told Climate Home. But more creativity and better coordination will ensure impact, they promise.
Campaigners are planning to target anyone blocking a deal on fossil fuels. Not only governments but also industry lobbyists expected to descend onto the petrostate in vast numbers.
“The fact that we’re closer than ever to a decision on fossil fuel phase-out in a UN space means that the industry is mobilising more strongly to oppose this,” says Collin Rees, an activist at Oil Change International. “The industry has been forced to come out and show its face. Having that fight in full public view will be very important”.