Countries moved closer to reaching what critics called a watered-down final deal Monday, avoiding calls from more than 100 nations to phase out planet-warming fossil fuels as United Nations climate talks in Dubai neared their culmination.
A new draft released Monday afternoon on what's known as the global stocktake — the part of talks that assesses where the world is with its climate goals and how it can reach them — called for countries to reduce “consumption and production of fossil fuels, in a just, orderly and equitable manner."
The release triggered a frenzy of fine-tuning by government envoys and gimlet-eye analysis by advocacy groups, just hours before the planned late morning finish to the talks on Tuesday — even though many observers expect the finale to run over time, as is common at the annual U.N. talks.
Activists said the text was written by the COP28 presidency, run by an Emirati oil company CEO, and pounced on its perceived shortcomings. It called for “phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption" but fell fall short of a widespread push to phase out fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal altogether.
"The word ‘phase-out’ has been phased out," said Li Shuo, director of the Asia Society Policy Institute. “We need to phase in the word phase-out. I think there's still a chance for countries to do so.”
Added Andreas Sieber, a climate activists with 350.org: “What we have seen now is our fears come true.”
The COP presidency, in a statement, countered that the text was a “huge step forward” and was now "in the hands of the parties, who we trust to do what is best for humanity and the planet.”
The text “is extremely disappointing, concerning, and nowhere close to the level of ambition people around the world deserve,” said Rachel Cleetus, the policy director and a lead economist for the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The draft noted that some $4.3 trillion needs to be invested annually through 2030 in order to reach ambitions of net-zero emissions of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere by mid-century. It said financing needs for adaptation were but a fraction of current outlays.
Earlier Monday, visibly tired and frustrated top U.N. officials urged COP28 climate talks to push harder for an end to fossil fuels, warning that time is running out for action that could keep the world at or below the internationally agreed-upon warming threshold.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said it was “time to go into overdrive, to negotiate in good faith, and rise to the challenge.” He said negotiators at the COP28 summit in particular must focus on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and climate justice.
"We can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” Guterres said. “We are out of road and almost out of time.”
Emirati officials cancelled a hastily called news conference with al-Jaber, then cancelled another with another official in the early afternoon. They offered no explanation for the cancellations, which drew into question an earlier promise by al-Jaber to bring the COP to an end sharply at 11 a.m. Tuesday. They were part of a series of cancellations by prominent negotiators.
At one event that did still take place that included members of the presidency of the current and previous COP, climate activist Licypriya Kangujam came on stage to protest against the use of fossil fuels before being ushered away.
The presidency of the conference “recognizes that for this to be viewed as a success, we need to find some agreement on fossil fuels," said Steven Guilbeault, Canadian environment minister and one of eight super-negotiators tasked with helping find common ground. "I think if we can’t do that, people will see this as a failure, even though we’ve agreed on lots of other good things.”
Simon Stiell, the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, told journalists Monday morning that "we do not have a minute to lose in this crucial final stretch.”
“One thing is for certain: I win, you lose is a recipe for collective failure,” he said.
Negotiators from powerhouses United States and China were working together Monday morning.
One of the major players in all this is India, which in 2021 torpedoed the idea of a “phase-out” of coal but then in 2022 proposed the idea of phasing out all fossil fuels, not just coal, which never got on the agenda in last year's climate talks.
The world's most populous nation, and No. 3 carbon dioxide emitter, is trying to be both ambitious yet keep the backbone of its economy, coal, said Vaibhav Chaturvedi of New Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water. Earlier this month, Raosaheb Danve Patil, India’s junior coal minister said that they will increase coal production to 1.5 billion tons by 2030 to meet growing demand.
Alden Meyer, an analyst with climate think tank E3G, said Saudi Arabia was trying to mobilize the other members of the OPEC oil cartel to object to any inclusion of fossil fuels in the text.
Canada's Guilbeault said OPEC countries are "being very unwilling to even contemplate even a conversation, and I think that’s unhelpful.”
Seve Paeniu, Finance Minister of Tuvalu, said states at a press conference calling for a fossil fuel phase out were “addressing the oil producing states, particularly the Arab States, the Saudis in particular. We wanted them to come on board, we recognize that their countries and their economies depend very much on fossil fuel.”