The future of fossil fuels could be decided in Dubai

Tens of thousands of negotiators, activists and business leaders have descended on Dubai to argue over the future of fossil fuels. Should they actually have a future? Can governments make a deal to phase out the oil, coal and gas that cause climate change? Countries have already suffered major losses from the fires, floods and other disasters that are worsening due to climate change. They want the largest, most polluting countries to do something about it. And they will argue their case at a conference chaired by an oil baron.

These are some of the current topics on the table during the United Nations climate conference, which starts on November 30 in Dubai. It’s called COP28 because it’s the 28th annual “Conference of the Parties” – made up of 197 countries and territories that have ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Not every climate conference is as controversial as this year’s seems to be

Not every climate conference is as controversial as this year’s seems to be. So The edge has a quick guide to some of the biggest issues in the negotiations scheduled until December 12.

The future of fossil fuels

Let’s start with some background story on COP28. The largest international agreement to date to tackle climate change emerged from COP21 in 2015, when countries brokered the historic Paris Agreement. The aim was to limit the average temperature on earth to almost 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than before the industrial revolution. A major 2018 United Nations report mapped out what it will take to achieve that goal: achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Greenhouse gas emissions are of course the result of the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. And yet the Paris Agreement manages to omit the words coal, oil, natural gas and fossil fuels. So while it commits countries to stopping climate change, it sidesteps the root cause of the problem. Now that 1.5 degree target is in danger of falling out of reach (some scientists even think it may already be too late). With a warming of about 1.2 degrees today, 2023 is the hottest year on record and greenhouse gas emissions are still rising.

2023 is the hottest year on record and greenhouse gas emissions are still rising

At least the Paris Agreement had the foresight to require a “global stocktake” every five years to assess countries’ progress toward achieving the agreement’s goals. The time has finally come for countries to face up to how much – or how little – progress they have made.

This will happen at COP28. It turns out that global temperatures are still on track to rise between 2.5 and 2.9 degrees Celsius. That is clearly far above the Paris target, and the temperatures are expected to cause catastrophes such as wiping out virtually all of the world’s coral reefs. To avoid that and meet the Paris target, countries need to cut emissions by more than 40 percent compared to 2019 levels by the end of this decade, according to the UN Global Stocktake. Now that governments are expected to adjust their plans based on the inventory, there is an impetus for them to finally commit explicitly to abolishing fossil fuels.

A group of ten countries led by Costa Rica and Denmark (plus Washington State, Quebec and Wales) formed the Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance and led a charge to phase out fossil fuel production. Last month, a High Ambition Coalition of 117 countries released a statement calling for “phasing out the production and use of fossil fuels.” The European Union is also expected to come to the table and push for an agreement to ‘phase out’ fossil fuels. And more than 130 companies, including Volvo Cars, Ikea, Unilever, Nestlé and AstraZeneca, signed a letter last month asking governments to adopt a global plan to do so.

While momentum is growing, there are some key sticking points. These 130 companies and the EU use terms that could create a loophole allowing fossil fuels to linger. They say they only want to phase out fossil fuels that “unabated”, a word that changes everything. Establishing the phase-out of “unabated fossil fuels” in an agreement means polluters can continue to use coal, oil and gas as long as they install controversial new technologies to capture carbon emissions that have not yet proven effective on a large scale.

And what about that oil executive? A regional group within the UN chose the United Arab Emirates to host the conference and appointed Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, as president of COP28. He wrote a letter to the governments present stating: “phasing down supply and demand for all fossil fuels is inevitable and essential” (emphasis mine). Decreasing instead of reducing is definitely weaker language. And even that kind of watered-down deal was scrapped last year, when delegates at COP27 in Egypt at the last minute ignored wording of the final agreement that called for the “phasing out” of fossil fuels.

Not to mention an investigation by the BBC and the Center for Climate Reporting found that Sultan Al Jaber used his position as COP28 president to lobby for oil and gas deals with other governments. He has, of course, denied the allegations.

Ultimately – or rather: the end of the next thirteen days – what matters is what actions countries actually take. This is especially true for the world’s largest polluters, which are by far the US and China. The two are engaged in a funny dance around climate action, which has historically been one of the areas where the US and China can work together even as tensions between the two powers rise. In a move that environmental advocates cautiously welcomed, the two agreed earlier this month to work together to try to triple the world’s renewable energy capacity by 2030. And at COP28 they will organize a meeting to tackle methane pollution, an even more potent greenhouse gas. then CO2.

But (why is there always a but?!) Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping are not expected to attend the Dubai conference – an absence seen as a major snub by other governments to send their heads of state. And at home, the US is producing record amounts of oil and gas this year. In China, coal imports and production are also expected to reach record highs. Sigh.

It’s no wonder that less polluting, less wealthy countries already hit hard by climate disasters are calling for reparations. In climate negotiations it is presented as a fund for ‘loss and damage’. After decades of stalled negotiations on this front, a breakthrough finally came at last year’s COP. Delegates reached an agreement to establish the fund, but left it to future negotiations to figure out how the fund would work. That’s what’s at stake now.

“We have the fund, but we need money to make it worthwhile. What we have is an empty bucket,” Mohamed Adow, director of think tank Power Shift Africa, said in a speech rack last year.

On the first day of this year’s conference, countries launched the Loss and Damages Fund. That empty bucket now contains at least $400 million. Germany and the United Arab Emirates have each pledged $100 million. The US gave $24.5 million, Japan $10 million and Britain about $75 million.

Everything is possible, but it takes time

While the money is desperately needed, there are still major questions about how the fund will function. It will be organized over the next four years by the World Bank, an institution over which critics say the US has too much influence. They worry that financing will come through loans instead of grants, which could push countries suffering losses from worsening climate catastrophes into more and more debt. Advocates also wanted to see commitments to regularly replenish the fund, and so far that hasn’t happened.

“The lack of a defined replenishment cycle raises serious questions about the long-term sustainability of the Fund,” Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International, said in a statement. “The responsibility now lies with wealthy countries to meet their financial obligations in a manner commensurate with their role in the climate crisis, which has been caused mainly by decades of unbridled fossil fuel consumption and a lack of adequate climate finance at the Global South. ”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past decade of these climate negotiations, it’s that anything is possible, but it takes time. It took more than two decades to get almost all the countries on Earth to work together to stop global warming. A pact to phase out fossil fuels could be within reach – even if it doesn’t materialize this year. But every time a monstrous storm or devastating drought takes its toll, people pay the price for their government’s dragging their feet.

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