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COP28 agenda: Could the world finally agree to phase out fossil fuels at the climate summit?


Neurath power station in Germany burns lignite, a form of coal

REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

The COP28 climate summit is set to begin on 30 November in Dubai, a city largely built on the United Arab Emirates’ immense oil wealth. But the meeting could see the world acknowledge for the first time that addressing climate change will mean ending the use of fossil fuels.

A number of countries and many civil society groups are campaigning to include language on “phasing out” fossil fuels in any agreement at COP28. Others are pushing for weaker language to “phase down” fossil fuels, or to limit the scope of the statement in other ways.

The UAE, COP28’s host country, is a major oil producer, and observers have been sceptical of its support for ambitious action on fossil fuels. The country has even planned to use the summit to discuss fossil fuel deals, according to documents obtained by the Centre for Climate Reporting.

The question of what to do about fossil fuels, which are by far the largest source of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, is shaping up to be a central issue at the summit.

“It’s important to send the signal about fossil fuels,” says Michael Lazarus at the Stockholm Environment Institute, a research nonprofit organisation. “We can’t dance around it.”

Haven’t countries pledged to phase out fossil fuels already?

Burning fossil fuels is responsible for more than 70 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. But countries did not explicitly call out the role of fossil fuels in any official declaration at UN climate summits until COP26 in Glasgow in 2021.

Then, countries nearly agreed to “phase out” coal power, which is more emissions-intensive than oil or gas. But this language was weakened at the last minute, resulting in a pledge to “phase down” coal power following objections from coal-rich India and China. The agreement also referred only to “unabated” coal power, suggesting burning coal could continue as long as carbon capture and storage systems were put in place.

The issue surfaced again at COP27 last year in Egypt, but the declaration did not advance beyond what had been agreed in Glasgow. There is now substantial momentum for any agreement at COP28 in Dubai to include stronger language on reducing fossil fuels.

Who is backing a phase-out?

Since COP26, a group of 11 countries called the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance led by Denmark and Costa Rica have lobbied for a fossil fuel phase-out. Many other countries and civil society groups have called for some version of phasing out fossil fuels. Last month, the 20-member High Ambition Coalition group of countries including France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Kenya and Spain called for a plan at COP28 that would “phase-out fossil fuel production and use.”

Others support stronger language on fossil fuels than in past summits, but with caveats. The European Union has said it supports a phase-out of “unabated” fossil fuels. The UK and the US, along with other G7 countries, have used the same language.

The COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber, who also run’s the UAE’s main oil company Adnoc, has signalled support for language on reducing fossil fuels, albeit not a full phase-out. In a letter to countries attending the summit, he called for an outcome that “accelerates the inevitable and responsible phase-down of all fossil fuels”.

Who is pushing back?

The anti-fossil fuel movement has met opposition from other countries, including major fossil fuel producers like Russia and Saudi Arabia and other oil-exporting members of OPEC. Some low-income countries have pushed back as well, arguing that a phase-out would unfairly limit their ability to use their fossil fuels resources, and that high-income countries should stop fossil fuel development first.

“A blanket ban on investment in new fossil fuel projects is NOT equitable or just, and cannot be the basis for a just transition,” a group of African countries, led by Zambia, wrote in a submission to the UN.

Can the world meet its climate targets while still using fossil fuels?

António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, recently said the path to keep global warming below 1.5°C is clear: “It requires tearing out the poisoned root of the climate crisis: fossil fuels.”

He was referring to the findings of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) influential 2021 Net-Zero Roadmap, which found any new development of oil and gas fields was incompatible with Paris Agreement targets. It found meeting the targets without substantial reliance on carbon capture technology required a scenario where fossil fuels provided just 5 per cent of the total energy supply by 2050.

Another report from the UN Environment Programme and other environmental organisations found meeting climate targets would require a “near total” phase-out of coal production by 2040 and a three-quarters reduction in oil and gas production by 2050, assuming only a limited reliance on carbon capture technology.

Can we keep burning fossil fuels if we capture the carbon?

Along with scuffles over “phase out” versus “phase down”, the role carbon capture and storage systems will play in reducing fossil fuel emissions will also be hotly contested at COP28. An agreement to only phase out “unabated” fuels would imply burning fossil fuels can continue as long as any emissions are captured, but Carl Schleussner at Climate Analytics, a German-based NGO, says this is a false solution.

“In the energy sector we know we can replace fossil fuels,” he says, adding that carbon capture technology is expensive and largely unproven at scale. There are also substantial emissions associated with extracting fossil fuels that wouldn’t be addressed by capturing emissions when they are burned.

Is the world making progress on reducing fossil fuel use?

Current plans for fossil fuel production remain far above what would be required to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C, the primary goal of the Paris Agreement. “We see plans to increase production, while we know that no new fossil fuel infrastructure can be built in line with 1.5,” says Schleussner.

Lazarus and his colleagues recently found governments’ fossil fuel production plans would see coal production increase until 2030 and oil and gas production increase until 2050. If those plans were realised, fossil fuel production in 2030 would be double the level required to meet the Paris target.

“This is the wrong course for governments to be setting,” says Lazarus, pointing out many countries’ production targets are not in line with their emissions pledges nor with anticipated demand for fossil fuels.

Despite countries’ production plans, the IEA recently forecast that global demand for fossil fuels will peak by 2030, driven by the unprecedented boom in renewable energy and other clean energy development, as well as the accelerating shift to electric vehicles and appliances.

Alongside the momentum for stronger language on fossil fuels, there is growing support for an agreement to triple renewable energy capacity and double rates of energy efficiency gains at COP28. Daniel Jasper at the nonprofit Project Drawdown says the targets on fossil fuels and renewables are complementary. “If we’re going to be phasing out fossil fuels, we’re going to need something to replace that,” he says.

Fossil fuel companies have expertise and resources that could help with this, but they are not yet doing much to speed this transition to clean energy. A recent report from the IEA found just 1 per cent of global investment in clean energy has come from fossil fuel companies.

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