COP28: Last-minute change at climate talks, draft omits ‘fossil fuel phaseout’

The draft recognises the need for tripling renewable energy capacity globally

COP28 fossil fuel phaseout COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber speaks during a plenary stocktaking session at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit | AP

As the climate talks in Dubai spinned into the final hours, negotiators Monday published the latest draft on global stocktake, considered the most important document of COP28, and it does not include the "phase out of fossil fuels".

However, it suggested that countries could agree on slashing "production and consumption of fossil fuels" for the first time in the history of UN climate conferences.

Several countries and the EU had earlier said a deal to "phase out all fossil fuels" will be the benchmark of success for COP28. However, this could still make it to the final text.

"The COP28 Presidency has been clear from the beginning about our ambitions. This text reflects those ambitions and is a huge step forward. Now, it is in the hands of the Parties, who we trust to do what is best for humanity and the planet, the COP28 Presidency said in a statement.

The latest draft of the Global Stocktake (GST), based on which countries' will announce their new action plan to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius next year, suggests there has been a massive push from fossil-fuel reliant economies, including Saudi Arabia and Iraq, against a phase out of all fossil fuels, which until now seemed very much possible at this year's climate conference.

The document, which will be the centrepiece of COP28's final deal, talks about "reducing both consumption and production of fossil fuels, in a just, orderly and equitable manner so as to achieve net zero by, before, or around 2050 in keeping with the science".

The earlier draft contained four options about a fossil fuel phase out but none made it to the newest version released on Monday evening, triggering speculation about the intent of the presidency, the UAE, which has been calling for a phase out of fossil fuels all along.

To the disadvantage of heavily coal-reliant countries like India and China, the text contains strict language on coal.

It calls for "rapidly phasing down unabated coal and limitations on permitting new and unabated coal power generation". However, this is optional.

Coal is responsible for approximately 40 per cent of global CO2 emissions, oil and gas account for the rest.

India, dependent on coal for around 70 per cent of power generation, aims to add 17 gigawatts of coal-based power generation capacity in the next 16 months.

The draft recognises the need for tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the energy efficiency rate by 2030, but without any specifics.

The International Energy Agency says doing so is a must if the world has to avoid the breaching of the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold.

It encouraged scaling up technologies, including the under-delivering ones, to capture CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere.

The text has references to equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.

These principles recognise that countries' efforts to combat climate change should be viewed in light of their contributions to total emissions and that richer nations should shoulder primary responsibilities, given their significant historical emissions.

There's no language in the adaptation section that points to the obligation of developed countries to provide finance.

The mitigation section in the last version of the GST text referred to the obligation of developed countries to take the lead in securing finance. That is gone, said Brandon Wu from ActionAid USA.

Until now, statements from a large number of countries suggested a consensus on the need to phase out fossil fuels at COP28, but a small minority of countries have been blocking this text, observers said.

"Strong language on a support package for the energy transition and scaling up of renewable energy in developing countries could help these countries come on board. However, there's a lack of strong acknowledgement of the need for differentiation," said Catherine Abreu, the executive director of Destination Zero.

Earth's global surface temperature has risen by around 1.15 degrees Celsius as compared to pre-industrial levels (1850-1900), and the CO2 spewed into the atmosphere, largely due to the burning of fossil fuels since the start of the Industrial Revolution, is closely tied to it.

Phasing out all fossil fuels is easier said than done. This requires rich countries to rapidly deliver trillions of dollars in grants and newest technologies to help emerging economies like India and small countries like Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka to leapfrog to renewables.

An energy transition without this will only deepen the existing gaps between the Global North and the Global South, climate experts said.

John Silk, Minister of Natural Resources and Commerce, Republic of Marshall Islands, expressed disappointment over the text.

"The Republic of the Marshall Islands did not come here to sign our death warrant. We came here to fight for 1.5 (degrees Celsius) and for the only way to achieve that: a fossil fuel phase out. What we have seen today is unacceptable. We will not go silently to our watery graves, he said.

The new GST draft is a "watered down menu of compromises", Abreu said.

Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International, said the latest GST text has dropped explicit language on phasing out fossil fuels, opting instead for a vague commitment to 'reduce both consumption and production' by 2050.

"This is a clear indication of the fossil fuel industry's lobbying power, influencing global policies to favor prolonged fossil fuel use," he said.

"If we fail to issue a decisive and strong directive from COP28, we stand at the precipice of crossing the crucial 1.5 degree Celsius warming threshold. Such a scenario would unleash catastrophic consequences globally, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable communities," Singh added.

Asked if the "phase out fossil fuels" language could be reintroduced, Li Shuo, director of China Climate Hub at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said: "If parties push hard for it. Absolutely. There is an opportunity for that to happen." 

Join our WhatsApp Channel to get the latest news, exclusives and videos on WhatsApp