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Phasing out fossil fuels among options on table for COP28 climate talks

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By Kate Abnett, William James and Valerie Volcovici

Countries at the COP28 climate conference are considering calling for a formal phase-out of fossil fuels as part of the UN summit’s final deal to fight global warming, according to a draft negotiating text seen on Tuesday.

Research published on Tuesday showed global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels are set to hit a record high this year, exacerbating climate change and fuelling more destructive extreme weather.

The draft of what could be the final agreement from COP28, published by the UN climate body, kicks off negotiations around what is considered the summit’s defining issue: whether countries will agree to eventually end the use of fossil fuels, or fight to preserve a role for them.

On the COP28 main stage, the chief executives of several major energy firms argued in favour of oil and gas, and sought to highlight their climate-friendly credentials such as cutting the greenhouse gas methane.

“We are big guys and we can do big things. We can deliver results and we will have to report them very soon,” said Jean Paul Prates, CEO of Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras. “The energy transition will only be valid if it’s a fair transition,” he added.

TotalEnergies CEO Patrick Pouyanne said a transition away from oil and gas would take a long time “so we need absolutely to produce oil and gas in a different way by slashing down emissions. And we can do it, we have the technology”.

“Of course it has a cost,” he said, “but it’s part of our licence to operate, I would say, for the future.”

At least 2,400 fossil fuel lobbyists registered for this year’s summit, according to an analysis of UN registration data published by Kick Big Polluters Out, an international coalition of climate activist groups.

The lobbyists outnumbered the 1,609 delegates from the 10 most climate vulnerable countries combined, the group said.

NEGOTIATING TEXT

The draft text for a COP28 final deal included three options, which delegates from nearly 200 countries will now consider.

The first option in the draft is listed as “an orderly and just phase-out of fossil fuels”. In UN parlance, the word “just” suggests wealthy nations with a long history of fossil fuel burning would phase out faster than poorer countries that are developing their resources now.

The second option calls for “accelerating efforts towards phasing out unabated fossil fuels”. A third option would be to avoid mentioning a fossil fuel phase-out.

The United States, the 27 countries of the European Union and climate-vulnerable small island states are pushing for a fossil fuel phase-out to drive the deep CO2 emissions reductions scientists say are needed this decade to avert disastrous climate change.

Even so, none of the world’s major oil and gas-producing countries have plans to eventually stop drilling for those fuels, according to the Net Zero Tracker, an independent data consortium including Oxford University.

“We’re not talking about turning the tap off overnight,” German Climate Envoy Jennifer Morgan said. “What you’re seeing here is a real battle about what energy system of the future we are going to build together.”

Major oil and gas producers including Saudi Arabia and Russia have resisted past proposals for a phase-out.

Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman told Bloomberg TV that his country would “absolutely not” agree to a deal that calls for a phase-down of fossil fuels.

David Waskow, director of World Resources Institute’s international climate initiative, said he does not think a COP28 outcome was possible without a clear mandate for moving away from global reliance on oil, gas and coal.

“I don’t think we’re going to leave Dubai without some clear language and some clear direction on shifting away from fossil fuels,” he added.

The draft text also includes language calling for the scaling up for carbon capture technology – which is likely to draw pushback from some countries worried that these nascent technologies are being used to justify the continued use of fossil fuels.

FOSSIL FUEL EMISSIONS RISING

The Global Carbon Budget report, published on Tuesday said that CO2 emissions from coal, oil and gas are still rising, driven by India and China.

Countries are expected to emit a total 36.8 billion metric tons of CO2 from fossil fuels in 2023, a 1.1 per cent increase from last year, the report by scientists from more than 90 institutions including the University of Exeter concluded.

The world’s overall emissions for this year, which reached a record high last year, have plateaued in 2023 due to a slightly better use of land, including a decline in deforestation. Emissions including land use are set to total 40.9 billion tons this year.

China’s fossil fuel emissions rose after it lifted Covid-19 restrictions, while India’s rise was a result of power demand growing faster than its renewable energy capacity, leaving fossil fuels to make up the shortfall.

The year’s emissions trajectory pulls the world further away from preventing global warming exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times.

“It now looks inevitable we will overshoot the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement,” said Exeter professor Pierre Friedlingstein, who led the research.

“Leaders meeting at COP28 will have to agree rapid cuts in fossil fuel emissions even to keep the 2C target alive,” he said.

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