Environment

'Death certificate': Why COP28 climate summit is hanging by a thread over fossil fuel deadlock

COP28 talks are on the verge of collapse after a deal to end fossil fuels was dropped from the summit’s draft final agreement

COP28 hangs in the balance as negotiations overrun. Left: canva. Right: wiki commons Fotografía oficial de la Presidencia de Colombia from Colombia

The world’s most crucial climate summit is in jeopardy.  

COP28 talks – slated to conclude today (12 December) – are on the verge of collapse after a deal to end fossil fuels was dropped from the summit’s draft final agreement. The omission is a “death sentence” for vulnerable countries, diplomats have warned.

All 198 countries at the summit must agree to the draft or there is no deal – yet several have threatened to walk away over the glaring omission.

“We will not sign our death certificate,” said Cedric Schuster, the Samoan chair of the Alliance of Small Island States. “We cannot sign on to text that does not have strong commitments on phasing out fossil fuels.”

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EU negotiator Eamon Ryan has said that the bloc “cannot accept” the draft text. “We can’t have a get-out-of-jail card for the fossil fuel industry,” he declared. “The current text would give them that and that’s not acceptable.”

Advocates were similarly unimpressed: campaign group Friends of the Earth described it the draft “a garbled list of half-measures”.

Even the UK – which recently shredded many of its net zero commitments – said that the draft text “does not go far enough”.

“There must be a phase out of unabated fossil fuels to meet our climate goals,” warned energy security minister Graham Stuart. Stuart has since left the conference, to the fury of campaigners, returning home to vote on Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda legislation.

Yet oil states have blocked stronger wording. Sultan Al Jaber – host country United Arab Emirates’ choice of COP28 president – described the draft as a “positive step.” He also happens to be the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

With negotiations set to overrun, an agreement is hanging by a thread. So why was the fossil fuel text dropped, and what could it mean for the planet?

Why we need to phase out fossil fuels?

The latest draft text, published on Monday (12 December), urges countries to “reduce consumption and production of fossil fuels in a just, orderly and equitable manner”.

This is much less ambitious than an earlier version, which included an option to “phase out of fossil fuels in line with best available science”.

The science is clear – ‘fossil fuels’ are the single biggest driver of global heating.

Burning coal, oil, and natural gas releases vast amounts of carbon dioxide, trapping heat in the atmosphere. If we are to limit heating to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – the threshold agreed at the Paris COP21 in 2015 – we must halve fossil fuel emissions within 11 years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has decreed.

Yet we are not on track to meet these goals. Current pledges will see the globe warm by a “hellish” 3°C this century, a recent UN report warned. Such intense heating could trigger any number of climate ‘tipping points’, planetary thresholds that, once crossed, trigger cascading and irreversible ecological impacts. Take permafrost, for example. This massive slab of tundra in the Arctic holds twice as much carbon as currently exists in the atmosphere. But much of this CO2 could be released if the permafrost thaws beyond a certin point.

Yet emissions are going up, not down. The annual Global Carbon Budget report, published 5 December 2023, shows global emissions have risen 1.1% since 2022.

Who is blocking stronger wording in the COP28 draft deal?

Fossil fuels currently provide around 80% of global energy supply – and for many countries, they are an economic backbone. This lobby is immensely powerful; it took until COP26 for a UN climate deal to even mention fossil fuels.  

Saudi Arabia, India and China are among the main fossil fuel countries blocking the phase-out. They are buoyed by the thousands of industry lobbyists who descend upon the climate conference every year.

Petrostates dismiss decarbonisation in favour of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology that removes emissions directly from the air.

“If we are serious about curbing industrial emissions,” COP28 president Al Jaber said earlier this year, “we need to get serious about carbon capture technologies.”

But this tech is expensive and unproven at scale. The International Energy Agency has described it as an ‘illusion.’

Heavily reliant on CCS, the draft text now reads like it has been dictated by fossil fuel producing countries, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said.

“The world desperately needs to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible, but this obsequious draft reads as if OPEC dictated it word for word,” Gore wrote in a post on X. “It is even worse than many had feared.”

What happens at COP28 now?

Another draft agreement will be published today.

Michael Jacobs – professor of political economy at University of Sheffield – said that it would be “more or less impossible” to get “phase-out” wording in the draft.

This leaves two options. Either the parties reach agreement by manipulating the wording, he said, or the summit ends without agreement. It would be the first UN climate summit to do so.

But it could be a better result for the planet than a “fudged agreement” that won’t “materially affect country’s immediate behaviour”, Jacobs said.

“It would be a much bigger global media story than a fudge. Front page news. The story: that climate change is now a battle between a fossil future and a non-fossil one,” he posted.

What else is in the COP28 draft text?

The fossil fuel phase-out isn’t the only issue on the agenda at COP28.

The draft text contained a variety of other voluntary measures that signatories should pursue. These include doubling the rate of energy savings through efficiency measures, “rapidly phasing down unabated coal” and limiting licenses for new power plants, and tripling global renewable capacity by 2030.

Significantly, an agreement on a ‘loss and damage’ fund was reached on the first day. This fund – which will be paid for by rich countries – will compensate poor states for the effects of climate change. The initial funding is around US$429m, provided by the UAE and the EU.

But the science is clear – only rapid decarbonisation can prevent catastrophic global heating.

“The 1.5°C limit is only possible if we ultimately stop burning all fossil fuels,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said. “Not reduce, not abate—phase out, with a clear timeframe.”

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