Sep 21, 2023 - Energy & Environment

In a shift, fossil fuels take center stage at UN Climate Summit

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

The U.N. Climate Ambition Summit on Wednesday marked a potential turning point in the global effort to limit the severity of climate change.

The big picture: For more than three decades, world leaders have gathered to discuss the increasing urgency of this issue. Yet there has been staunch resistance to centering those conversations around the biggest cause of climate change: burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas for energy.

Driving the news: That changed on Wednesday in New York, when U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres used his convening power to put fossil fuels in the spotlight of a one-day gathering.

  • In an unusual move, he instituted strict criteria in order for leaders to get a speaking slot, which led to a showcase of outspoken first-movers on climate action.
  • This also excluded heads of state from nations previously recognized as climate leaders, including President Joe Biden and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, for failing to bring new actions to the table.

Zoom in: In vivid terms, Guterres warned that "humanity has opened the gates of hell," in the form of extreme weather-related events, citing recent wildfires, floods and searing heat.

  • He zeroed in on fossil fuels as the key culprit behind these developments, urging leaders to move faster toward renewables, while seeking to cut emissions and fossil fuel production.
  • "The move from fossil fuels to renewables is happening — but we are decades behind," Guterres said.
  • "We must make up time lost to foot-dragging, arm-twisting and the naked greed of entrenched interests raking in billions from fossil fuels," he said.

What they're saying: “There is no bigger threat than fossil fuels," Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano said at the summit.

  • “This climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), to a round of applause. “It’s not complicated."

Between the lines: The summit did not yield policy breakthroughs, but rather was intended to galvanize action and debate leading into the next round of global climate talks, happening in Dubai later this year.

  • In that sense, the new focus around phasing out fossil fuels may help reframe the possible outcomes from COP28.

Unlike previous climate summits, "I think it's really clear that a fossil fuel phaseout is a major topic on the table here in New York and at COP28," said Camilla Fenning, a program lead on the fossil fuel transition team at the think tank E3G.

  • Activists celebrated how fossil fuels were put front and center on Wednesday, saying it marked an inflection point in the climate fight.
  • "There is no question today was a turning point," said Tzeporah Berman, chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative.

Reality check: The contradictions embodied by the U.S. and the U.K. illustrate why reaching consensus on fossil fuel provisions at COP28 or a future COP will be so difficult.

  • On Wednesday, Sunak walked back some elements of his government's pioneering net zero emissions commitments.

The intrigue: The president-designate of COP28, Sultan al-Jaber, told leaders at the summit that a phase-down the use of fossil fuels is "inevitable," and that COP28 will be about tackling greenhouse gas emissions in large quantities, at the gigaton scale.

  • His views on phasing down fossil fuel production, however, clashes with that of Guterres but is in line with major energy-producing countries around the world.
  • Al-Jaber is championing the goal of tripling the global use of renewables by 2030.
  • "We need to be practical, realistic, and sober about what it's going to take, to allow for the world to continue to evolve and to progress, and to grow in a way that is responsible, while also building the new energy system that will consist of zero unabated fossil fuel," al-Jaber told Axios in an interview Tuesday.

Yes, but: The meaning of "unabated" is up for debate but is generally taken to mean using technologies to capture emissions from the use of fossil fuels.

The bottom line: The summit may not have resulted in tangible agreements, or fancy new targets and timetables. But it put the world on notice that the biggest cause of climate change is no longer as solid of a red line at such gatherings than in previous years.

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