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COP28 climate talks enter last day with no agreement in sight on fossil fuels

Dec 11, 2023, 8:50 PM | Updated: Dec 12, 2023, 5:38 am

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A stark standoff between countries that want a dramatic phase-out to fossil fuels causing damaging warming and those that don’t crushed hopes for an on-time finish to a critical climate summit Tuesday.

The United Nations-led summit known as COP28 was scheduled to end around midday after nearly two weeks of speeches, demonstrations and negotiations. But the climate talks almost always run long, and Monday’s release of a draft agreement angered countries that insist on a commitment for rapid phase-out of coal, oil and gas.

Instead, the draft called for countries to reduce “consumption and production of fossil fuels, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.”

Majid al-Suwaidi, COP28 Director-General, said Monday night’s draft was meant to get countries to start talking and presenting what are deal-killers for them, which are called “red lines.”

“The text we released was a starting point for discussions,” he said at a news conference midday on Tuesday. “When we released it, we knew opinions were polarized, but what we didn’t know was where each country’s red lines were.”

“We spent last night talking, taking in that feedback, and that has put us in a position to draft a new text,” he said.

A new draft was promised to come out on Tuesday, but much of the critical work in the Dubai-based talks keeps getting delayed.

A senior negotiator for a developing nation who did not want to be named so as to not impact negotiations said the fossil fuel phase-out language would not be in the next version.

Al-Suwaidi gave conflicting comments about the future of the fossil fuel phase-out language, which at one point he said “doesn’t work.”

“It’s important that we have the right language when it comes to fossil fuels. It’s important that we think about how we get that balance. There are those who want phased out. There are those who want phased down,” al-Suwaidi said. “The point is, is to get a consensus.”

“We’ve said as a presidency, we think fossil fuel language needs to be part of that,” al-Suwaidi said. ”Now we need the parties to say, how do they land? We’ve spent a year knowing that that language doesn’t work.”

On one side are countries such as Saudi Arabia that won’t accept phase-out language, while European countries and small island nations say it is unacceptable to leave those words out. Countries wanting phase-out are in a tough position because they may have to accept either a weak deal or no deal, neither of which is good for them, said Alden Meyer, a veteran climate negotiations observer for European think-tank E3G.

But Meyer thinks the blowback from phase-out supporters may be the start of strengthening a proposed deal, leaving Saudi Arabia and a few other Gulf states “as the last ones standing in the way of a more ambitious deal. We’re not there yet. There’s more work to be done.”

The key is finding language that won’t make someone block a deal because a final agreement has to be by consensus.

Jean Su from the Center of Biological Diversity said “a feasible success is some type of language that signals a phase out of fossil fuels and it will not have any abatement in it, any carbon capture and storage, something that is clean and fair.”

She said rich countries can leverage financial commitments to developing nations can help pass fossil fuel language in a final deal.

“It’s a game of chicken,” said CEO of Climate Analytics and longtime climate talks observer Bill Hare. He said the European countries and Pacific Island nations are threatening to walk out if there aren’t changes to the text.

“How do we go home and tell them the result?” Briana Fuean, a climate activist from Samoa asked. “That the world has sold us out. I can’t answer that. We are sitting in rooms being asked to negotiate our death sentence.”

She said both the global stocktake, which addresses the Paris agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) to stave off the worst effects of climate change, and the goal for how to adapt to climate extremes are both equally important. Earth is on its way to human health and leading to ever more costly and deadly extreme weather.

Joseph Sikulu of Pacific Climate Warriors teared up while trying to express his emotions over the draft text.

“We didn’t come here to sign our death sentence,” he said.

Veteran COP observer Meena Raman of environmental activism group Friends of the Earth’s Malaysia chapter blasted industrialized nations, which caused the problem with historical emissions that stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. And countries like the United States, Canada and Norway are expanding oil production, she said.

“They don’t want to talk about historical responsibility but talk about keeping 1.5 alive,” Raman said. “It’s really playing to the gallery. Fossil fuel expansion is already happening in the global north.”

Activists said they feared that potential objections from major oil producers, such as Saudi Arabia, had watered down the text. The head of OPEC, the powerful oil cartel, was reported to have written to member countries last week urging them to block any language to phase out or phase down fossil fuels.

“This text that we saw yesterday is sinking the lifeboat of humanity,” activist Vanessa Nakate said.

“I think there’s a lot of work that the COP28 presidency needs to do to make this better because the first attempt was really bad,” said activist Romain Ioualalen of Oil Change International. “If there isn’t an outcome on … phasing out fossil fuels, this COP will be a failure and the COP President will not be seen as the hero.”

In the 21-page document, the words oil and natural gas did not appear, and the word coal appeared twice. It also had a single mention of carbon capture, a technology touted by some to reduce emissions although it’s untested at scale.

Rachel Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists urged negotiators to keep working.

“Please do not shut down this COP before we get the job done,” she said.

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Associated Press journalists Lujain Jo, Joshua A. Bickel, Olivia Zhang, Malak Harb, Bassam Hatoum and David Keyton contributed to this report.

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Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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