How fossil fuels went from sidelines to headlines in climate talks

For a quarter-century, fossil fuels were absent from Cop climate agreements – so how had they become so ubiquitous at Cop28?

A protester at Cop28 (Photos: Kiara Worth/UNFCCC)


When Romain Ioualalen started a new campaigning job at Oil Change International, he was tasked with putting fossil fuels on the agenda of international climate talks.

That was in April 2020, just after the start of the pandemic. He told Climate Home recently that “it seemed like a pretty distant dream” at the time.

In fact, he used to joke that he had “found the only international climate policy job that didn’t require going to Cop because fossil fuels would never be a thing there”.

But become a thing they have. When Cop18 was held in Gulf oil and gas producer Qatar in 2012, the IISD think tank’s 28,000-word summary only mentioned fossil fuels once.

Those two words pop up 46 times in the same report produced after Cop28 where governments agreed for the first time to transition away from all fossil fuels in energy systems.

Asked why fossil fuels had gone from the fringes to the centre of negotiations, experts cited numerous reasons, which all worked together to build momentum over the years.

They referred to the falling cost of renewables, the mounting climate impacts, the interventions from authoritative mainstream voices, the tireless campaigning of the Pacific islands and civil society, and a healthy dose of good fortune.

Fossil fuels weren’t always absent though. Right at the start of climate talks, in 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), mentions them. Although it does not condemn them, it implies they have got to go or, at least, be reduced.

It does this by recognising the “special difficulties of those countries, especially developing countries, whose economies are particularly dependent on fossil fuel production, use and exportation, as a consequence of action taken on limiting greenhouse gas emissions”.

Then Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello makes a toast to world leaders at the Rio Earth Summit (Photos: United Nations)

Kept outside

But after governments signed this landmark text, they gathered every year at a Cop for a quarter of a century without any of their agreements mentioning the need to reduce fossil fuels again.

Asked why, Joanna Depledge, who studies climate talks at Cambridge University, said fossil fuels had been actively kept outside the process, predominately by the Opec cartel of oil producers – Saudi Arabia, in particular – and by the USA.

She said Opec, the Saudis and others wanted, as they still do, to talk about emissions in general rather than particular sources of emissions like fossil fuels. 

For a long time “there wasn’t much questioning of that,” she said, “because the so-called comprehensive approach was seen as a good thing”. “There’s also an aversion to policy prescription in the climate change regime,” she added, “apart from the EU and the vulnerables, countries don’t like an international regime telling them what to do in particular sectors”. 

For decades, all the negotiations were focussed on signing an agreement that would commit all countries to take action to limit global warming. After several time and hope-depleting failures, they eventually succeeded in Paris in 2015.

Diplomats celebrate as the Paris Agreement is agreed in 2015 (Photos: UNFCCC)

Having agreed on the headline goal, they could discuss how to go about meeting it. That’s when one particular fossil fuel rose up the agenda – the most polluting one, coal.

Depledge says that it was Poland that unwittingly put coal in the crosshairs. The country is Europe’s biggest defender of coal and hosted the talks in 2008, 2013 and 2018.

In 2018, Cop24 was held in the heart of Poland’s coal country in Katowice, where delegates choked on polluted air and gazed at adverts from the Cop’s partners in the coal industry. 

The next year, the UK was announced as host of Cop26. Its coal record couldn’t be more different to Poland’s. Between 1990 and 2019, it reduced its coal use for electricity by 96% – replacing it mainly with gas and later wind.

Its government was keen to export this strategy to other countries, co-founding the Powering Past Coal Alliance in 2017. The work of launching this alliance “built momentum around having coal as the main outcome of Cop26”, said Center for Climate and Energy Solutions vice-president Kaveh Guilanpour.

A protester covers her mouth as she marches through Katowice during Cop24 (Photos: Greenpeace)

Then UK prime minister Boris Johnson confirmed this focus, saying Cop26 should be about “coal, car, cash and trees” and Cop president Alok Sharma said the summit should “consign coal to history”.

It was not just the UK with coal in the crosshairs though. The head of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres had been calling for an end to new coal power plants since 2019 and in August 2021 said the latest IPCC scientific report must “must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet.”

The same year, China, Japan and South Korea all said they would stop financing new foreign coal-fired power plants – a decision most Western nations and multilateral development banks had already taken.

With this momentum, the UK was able to convince governments to agree to “phase down” coal – the first-ever mention of a fossil fuel in a Cop agreement.

Not every country agreed to this enthusiastically though. Between them, China and India use two-thirds of the world’s coal and they teamed up to water down the language at the last minute from “phase out” to “phase down”, sparking tears from Sharma.

India’s environment minister Bhupender Yadav speaks to Sharma at Cop26 (Photos: Kiara Worth/UNFCCC)

The next year, Cop delegates gathered in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. For the first week, the Cop looked set to be about one issue only. Not fossil fuels but rich countries paying for the loss and damage poorer ones are suffering from as a result of climate change.

That changed at the end of the first week of negotiations when Bloomberg reported that India had called on the Cop president to target all fossil fuels in the Cop27 agreement. Depledge said India was angered that the fossil fuel the country relies on – coal- was being singled out while the oil and gas that rich nations favour went unchallenged.

By that point, oil and gas had already started to feel some of the heat that coal was under.  Guterres’ rhetoric was broadening to all fossil fuels and Denmark and Costa Rica had co-founded at Cop26 a coalition of countries pledging to stop pumping oil and gas.

Ioualalen, who was involved in the initiative, said that was a “big, big thing” as it “put the notion that you could actually take measures to constrain the development of fossil fuel production on the map”.

So when India made their intervention in Egypt, they were pushing at a more open door. A significant minority of countries – including the European Union, small islands, Chile and Colombia – seized on the proposal.

Ministers from the “high ambition coalition” hold a press conference at Cop27 (Photos: Kiara Worth/UNFCCC)

But oil and gas-reliant states like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia voiced their opposition. The Egyptian presidency left it out and, at 4am on the day many negotiators were flying home, governments from the “high-ambition coalition” accepted defeat

After it was agreed, these ministers showed their displeasure. Tuvalu called it a “missed opportunity”, Chile said they were “very disappointed” and the EU said it was “not enough on [emissions reduction]”.

They had lost the battle but sounded determined to win the war and the decision to make Sultan Al-Jaber, the CEO of oil and gas firm Adnoc, the next Cop president only ramped up the focus on fossil fuels.

“The Cop28 presidency, as being a petro state, was initially a major concern”, recalled Harjeet Singh, Climate Action Network’s head of global political strategy. “However, it ironically served as a unique opportunity to exert significant pressure, leading to substantial discussions on curtailing all three fossil fuels.”

Singh said “this momentum transformed what was once a fleeting mention of fossil fuels at Cop26 in 2021 into a robust debate within the UN climate change dialogues” and allowed campaigners to highlight the “hypocrisy of rich nations targeting coal use in the developing world while simultaneously expanding oil and gas production”.

Al Jaber himself responded to criticism by saying that a fossil phase out was both “essential” and “inevitable” despite his company’s plans to increase production. Guilanpour said that the UAE’s status as an oil and gas producer and ally of Saudi Arabia gave them “credibility” with potential opponents of the fossil fuel phase out.

Sultan Al Jaber and Simon Stiell celebrate as the Cop28 agreement is passed (Photos: Cop28/Mahmoud Khaled)

By the time India hosted the G20 summit in Delhi last September, fossil fuels were at the very top of the climate agenda. India tried but failed to get 20 of the world’s biggest economies to agree to phase out fossil fuels.

The battleground was set for Cop28, where fossil fuels came to dominate the talks after the loss and damage fund had been agreed on the first day. But the Saudis and others wouldn’t agree to “phase out” or “phase down”, preferring the eventual compromise of “transitioning away from fossil fuels”.

After Cop28, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister downplayed the significance of this agreement, calling it just an “option” on an “a la carte menu” and stressing the difference from “phase out” – an interpretation that E3G analyst Tom Evans called “incredibly misleading”.

Despite the Saudi dismissal, the head of the UNFCCC Simon Stiell called it the “beginning of the end” for the fossil fuel era. Guilanpour celebrated the decision too, saying that if that had been offered at the start of the year, “most people would have bitten your hand off”.

With that now agreed, fossil fuels are likely to take a back seat in the negotiations. Depledge predicted they would “move away from words and on to hard cash and the dollars”, with a new post-2025 climate finance target set to be agreed at Cop29.

Outside of negotiations, governments’ plans to keep producing fossil fuels are likely to come under ever more scrutiny in the media and public discourse, 

That became clear just hours after the Cop28 agreement was signed. In the room next door, Brazilian environment minister Marina Silva and then German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock held back-to-back press conferences at which they were both grilled on how their governments’ production plans fit with the deal they’d just agreed.

Ioualalen said that how climate leadership is judged has now changed. "You cannot just say that you are going to be a climate leader, that you're going to reach net zero, if you're going to continue increasing your oil and gas production - that's become very clear," he said.

And when governments release their next round of climate plans in 2025, the role of fossil fuels will be closely watched. That year's Cop presidency will be Brazil - whose competing desires to pump more oil and gas and to save the Amazon rainforest and planet are sure to be noted.

While investment into the supply of fossil fuels is still rising, the IEA predicts that demand will soon peak. Whether supply is restrained and whether demand plateaus or falls sharply are two of the key climate questions of the decade.

Climate Home asked Ioualalen whether all the years of work getting fossil fuels on the agenda will help with that. "It's too early to say", he replied. "I'm seeing a lot of debate on the outcomes [of Cop28] on whether it's historic or an absolute catastrophe or greenwash etcetera - the reality is that it's probably a bit of both".

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