COP28 leaders announce newest attempt to seal long-fought climate compromise

Behind the diplomatic language is an attempt to defuse several policy landmines that had brought the two-week summit to a standstill, pitting advocates of aggressive actions to curb climate pollution against fossil fuel producers such as Saudi Arabia. The rift threatened to deliver an embarrassing blow to the climate agendas of governments such as the United States and the European Union.

As is almost always the case in these kinds of climate agreements, the steps this proposed deal outlines would be purely voluntary — making it easy for a populist government in Europe, or a second Trump administration in the U.S., to repudiate them. Even so, some environmental groups said the text would serve as an important milestone in driving home the message that the fossil fuel age needs to near its end.

“This sends a clear signal that the world is moving decisively to phase-out fossil fuels, turbocharge renewable energy and efficiency, and tackle forest loss and degradation,” said Jake Schmidt, senior strategic director of international climate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It puts the fossil fuel industry formally on notice that its old business model is expiring.”

Chief among the divides at the summit was the question of whether the deal should call for nations to “phase down” production of fossil fuels — or even, as green groups and representatives of endangered island nations had demanded, to phase them “out.” Either option was a non-starter for several key fossil-fuel producing countries, including Saudi Arabia, but also brought objections from blocs that included China, India and developing countries in Africa.

The UAE hosts’ attempts to skate past the divide in a draft on Monday exploded into fury and recriminations from the islanders, who labeled it a “death sentence” for their low-lying countries, and brought criticism from Europeans and the United States.

The Monday draft had suggested that countries commit to “reducing both consumption and production of fossil fuels,” though it didn’t specify that this should begin during this decade. And it said the goal would be “to achieve net zero by, before, or around 2050.”

The update strengthens a key portion of the text, as it “calls on” nations to take a set of actions to reduce greenhouse gases. Many countries and nations criticized the first version because it outlined steps countries “could” take, which came off as weak and optional.

The revision connects those actions with “the need for deep, rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in line with 1.5 °C pathways,” referencing a goal in the 2015 Paris climate agreement that called for keeping the rise in global temperatures from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius since the pre-industrial era.

The latest version also maintains two targets seen as crucial for hitting 1.5 degrees: tripling renewable energy capacity and doubling energy efficiency by 2030.

The text said that shift away from fossil fuels should account for “different national circumstances.” The draft also notes that “transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security.” Both are nods to developing countries’ concerns that they cannot as quickly move off fossil fuels as richer nations can given economic and energy poverty issues.

To that effect, some areas of the text softened. On coal, the text charged nations with “accelerating efforts toward the phase-down of unabated coal power,” a departure from the earlier urge to limit new coal-fired power plants. That language mirrors an agreement made two years ago at climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, but doesn’t move it further.

But the text delivered on a major request from developing nations by strengthening calls to boost finance to help them switch to cleaner energy systems. It noted the importance of “scaling up new and additional grant-based, highly concessional finance, and non-debt instruments” to enable energy transitions.

Finance like interest-free funding and below-market rate terms are seen as essential to avoid deepening developing countries’ debt burdens and drawing capital to regions the private sector typically avoids. The text recognized that maintaining “sufficient fiscal space” enables climate action.

Wednesday’s draft was released after the conference, which began Nov. 30, had zoomed well past its appointed Tuesday closing deadline.

The fossil fuel stalemate was a contrast to the swift opening days of COP28, when summit president Sultan al-Jaber had hailed a series of milestone agreements designed to show that the UAE, a Persian Gulf nation made wealthy by oil, could get business done on behalf of the climate. Those announcements included pledges from several nations for hundreds of millions of dollars in climate assistance to disaster-ravaged countries.

The summit’s fractious end revived environmental groups’ complaints that it had been a conflict of interest for the UAE to hand the leadership of the summit to al-Jaber, the chief executive of the country’s state-owned oil company. Al-Jaber’s most vocal supporters included U.S. special climate envoy John Kerry, who called him a “terrific choice” and expressed hopes he could bring the fossil fuel industry to the negotiating table.

But even Kerry joined in the criticism of the Monday draft, saying in a closed-door meeting that it “really doesn’t meet the expectations of this COP in terms of the urgently needed transition to clean sources of energy and the phaseout of fossil fuels.”

Green activists loudly insisted Tuesday evening — after what should have been the summit’s finale — that they saw no possible compromise with fossil fuels.

“What do we want! Phaseout!” they chanted during a raucous demonstration in the summit campus’ designated protest zone, while delegates nearby hugged goodbyes and posed for farewell photos. “If we don’t get it? Shut it down!”

Europeans and islanders came to the talks demanding a deal to phase out fossil fuels, with lukewarm backing from Washington. But opposition has been fierce — led by Saudi Arabia and other oil-exporting nations, but supported by many developing countries that see fossil fuel exploitation as a way to haul their people from poverty.

“Now we need the parties to say how do they land,” Majid Al Suwaidi, director-general of COP28, told reporters on Tuesday ahead of the release of the new draft. As for a call to phase out fossil fuels, he said, “we’ve spent a year knowing that that language doesn’t work.”

“There are those who want ‘phase out.’ There are those who want ‘phase down.’ There are those who want different formulations,” he said. “The point is to get a consensus.”

The deal would be the first time any of the nearly three decades of annual U.N. climate summits has agreed to language explicitly curtailing fossil fuels. Some attendees called its appearance in COP28’s drafts an important milestone — while others said the warming of the Earth has passed the point where symbolic measures will suffice.

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