Dec 12, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Tumultuous COP28 heads into overtime as sides battle over fossil fuels

Climate activists from Fridays for Future Germany protest today at the COP28 conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Sean Gallup via Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Countries are headed for marathon climate negotiations, after receiving a draft decision text from the COP presidency on Monday that pleased virtually no one.

Why it matters: This summit is likely to be judged by its language on the future of fossil fuels, as well as provisions on climate adaptation and finance.

  • A majority of countries are hoping to significantly shore up these sections during increasingly high-stakes talks.

State of play: A new draft decision text is expected from the COP president, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, on Tuesday evening local time.

  • After that, countries may gather in a plenary session to further hash out differences.
  • Further text amendments may be made, and countries will be forced to publicly defend their stances.

Between the lines: The biggest point of contention relates to the section setting out expectations for the fate of fossil fuels.

  • The Monday draft made no mention of "phase out" or "phase down," instead giving countries a choice from a list of actions they "could" choose to pursue (including none of these options).
  • Still, the mention of fossil fuels in a COP decision text would be historic, since the term has never been included before other than references to oil and gas subsidies.

Climate negotiators — including U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, Germany's foreign minister, smaller nation envoys and climate activists — say the language introduced Monday would not provide the world a fighting chance to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

What they're saying: The numerous reactions circulating can be best summarized as: "The draft crosses a red line, and is inconsistent with the science."

Be smart: Wrestling with the future of the fossil fuel economy was never going to be easy. Yet some countries don't view the COP president, who also heads the UAE's national oil company, as an honest broker amid opposition from oil- and gas-producing countries.

  • There is also a fraying of the sense of trust, with many of the talks producing this document and others taking place behind closed doors, without the consultation of each negotiating bloc.

Yes, but: COP28 is not over yet. While some are pronouncing an early demise, a lot may change in subsequent drafts and during public plenary meetings.

What to watch: While the Saudis are known to be adamantly opposed to fossil fuel phaseout language, they are not the only ones.

  • Many developing countries, particularly in Africa, don't want to see this in a text without financing commitments from the developed world to help them make the energy transition and adapt to climate impacts.
  • Monday's draft also fell short in that regard.
  • If the climate adaptation and finance sections were bolstered, it could unlock more support for sharp cuts to fossil fuels.

The bottom line: Many climate negotiators consider this summit to be make or break, given the recent acceleration in warming and devastating extreme weather events. Against that backdrop, there's a sense that time is dwindling to bend the emissions curve downward.

  • If it fails, there may be reevaluations of the COP process itself, not just recriminations about Dubai's missed opportunity.
  • In other words, there's a distinct chance that the largest COP ever could be the one that ends all COPs.
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