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Updated Dec 11, 2023, 12:36pm EST
net zero

COP28 drops fossil fuel “phase out”

THOMAS MUKOYA/Reuters
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The News

COP28’s most high-profile decision — whether to call for a phase out of fossil fuels — appears to have been decided, and not in the way many delegates were hoping.

The latest draft of the summit’s final agreement, released at around 5 p.m. local time Monday, removes any reference to either a “phase out” or “phase down” of fossil fuels. Instead, it “calls upon” countries to “reduce both consumption and production of fossil fuels.”

“The phase out has been phased out,” Li Shuo, director of the Asia Society think tank’s China Climate Hub, told reporters. Li also noted that the draft is free of bracketed text or alternative options, suggesting that the presidency may intend for it to be a “take it or leave it” deal. But the fight isn’t over yet. Cedric Shuster, Samoa’s environment minister and the lead negotiator for the Small Island States alliance, told reporters that the group is planning to spend the night working to block the draft, which requires the unanimous consent of all countries to be adopted.

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“Any text that compromises on 1.5 C will be rejected,” he said. “If we do not have strong mitigation outcomes at this COP, then this will be the COP where 1.5 would have died. We will not sign our death certificate.”

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Tim’s view

It’s worth noting that the language, as it stands, would make this the first COP agreement to call for any kind of reduction of all fossil fuels; COP27 in Egypt last year called merely for the “phase down of unabated coal power.” Still, with 2023 ranking as the warmest year on record, the current draft would batter COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber’s hopes of an ambitious deal.

In addition to axing the phase out language, the draft agreement also includes relatively vague and weak assertions on the phase out of fossil-fuel subsidies, limiting that call only to spending deemed “inefficient.” And it calls for the acceleration of emissions-abatement technologies, which many watchdogs see as code for the continued use of fossil fuels with still under-developed carbon-capture technology.

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Altogether, the draft is not internally consistent, analysts said: The document “emphasizes the need for urgent action and support to keep 1.5C within reach to address the climate crisis in this critical decade,” yet fails to specify sufficient steps to achieve that target. The section that deals directly with changes to the energy market lists a range of technologies that the transition “could include,” including renewables and nuclear, but doesn’t provide guidance on the role they should play or place any guardrails on the extent to which carbon-capture can or should be used.

“What we have here is a menu of compromises, rather than the solid energy-transition package that parties and every corner of civil society have been calling for,” said Catherine Abreu, executive director of the advocacy group Destination Zero.

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Know More

The draft language came as a surprise to many here in Dubai. In a large gathering with the heads of most delegations last night, only Saudi Arabia and Iraq registered objections to “phase out” language. The process by which the presidency staff arrive at compromise drafts is opaque, with a lot of horse-trading behind closed doors on minutiae. Al-Jaber — the head not only of COP28 but also of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, as well as the biggest Emirati renewables company — has faced significant criticism for his ties to the oil and gas industry, but was nevertheless seen by many delegates as a competent diplomat capable of driving parties toward a consensus. The next 24 hours will put that to the test.

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“The process at this time is not in the spirit of multilateralism,” Samoa’s Shuster said. “We feel our voices are not being heard.”

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Room for Disagreement

In their final hours, COP summits have a tendency to descend into a kind of life-or-death hysteria, but it’s important to take these agreements with a grain of salt. They’re not legally binding, and although they do send a high-profile signal about what the world’s politicians would like to see happen, on their own they are far from the most important factor driving the energy transition. Domestic policy matters — tax credits, emissions regulation, permitting reform — and the opportunities that financiers can find in emergent technologies, among other factors, will ultimately be the forces that “phase out” fossil fuels, not agreements taken by the United Nations.

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The View From the U.S.

Washington is divided over the draft: A State Department spokesman called for “substantially strengthened” language on fossil fuels, but Congressional Republicans visiting Dubai for COP28 told me they were against even phasing down fossil fuels, let alone phasing them out. “Top line, I think it’s stupid,” Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), told me of the goal that for many negotiators here is the deciding factor for the summit’s success or failure. Graves was one of about a dozen members of Congress from both parties to visit the summit this weekend, whose views on fossil fuels ranged from stalwart industry defenders like Graves and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to longtime climate hawks like Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

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