Dec 7, 2023 - Energy & Environment

COP28: Climate talks are going through a "phase"

Photo illustration of oil spilling out of a barrel, oil pipelines and abstract shapes.

Photo illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Don't assume one of the fiercest COP28 battles will be one of the most consequential.

Catch up fast: A big sticking point is whether the summit will formally endorse a phaseout, or at least phase-down, of fossil fuels.

  • A related question: whether any verbiage would target only fossil fuels without carbon dioxide capture.
  • The New York Times calls the phase fight the "most contentious" thing at COP28.

Why it matters: Scientists have made clear that immediate and steep emissions cuts are needed to keep Paris Agreement goals alive.

  • Paris temperature targets are meant to avoid some of the most harmful changes in a world that's already dangerously hotter.

The intrigue: Obviously, moving away from coal, oil and gas is important. But whether calling for this in a summit text helps that happen is far less certain.

Reality check: The relationship between non-binding text and action is often weak, given the stew of economic and national interests at play on the ground.

  • Bloomberg columnist Javier Blas, a veteran observer of energy markets, said no matter what language might be adopted, oil use will be higher in 2030 than today.
  • And global coal use has actually risen since the COP26 text in 2021 endorsed a phase-down of "unabated" use.
  • "[F]ocus on language rather than policy is an unwelcome distraction," he posted on X.

State of play: The best case for why this fight deserves the spotlight goes something like this...

  • These summits send market signals about where investment and policy are headed.
  • Countries feel more pressure to "walk the walk" with policy once they've jointly and formally "talked the talk."
  • Consider that under nations' existing policies, projected 2030 emissions increases are lower than before the largely voluntary 2015 Paris deal, per a United Nations analysis.

What they're saying: "There must be a very clear signal that meeting our climate goals means dramatically reducing fossil fuels," Jason Bordoff, who leads a Columbia University energy think tank, tells Axios via email.

  • Bordoff adds that "even recognizing a key role for carbon capture, there is no scenario where we reach net-zero with business-as-usual for fossil fuel use."

What we're watching: Explicit endorsement of ditching fossil fuels would be unprecedented for these COP summits. But the hurdles are huge at talks that require consensus.

  • Parties like the U.S., EU, and small island states — which face existential risks — back some kind of phase-out language.
  • But there's reportedly opposition from Saudi Arabia, China and others.

The bottom line: This fight is symbolically important, but the substantive consequences may be theoretical.

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