It looked as though the Saudis had prevailed, just as they had succeeded three months earlier in defanging a fossil fuel proposal at G20 talks in Goa, India.
But by Wednesday morning, it all turned around. Nearly 200 nations, the Saudis included, consented to a compromise deal that fell short of promising an end to fossil fuels — but which acknowledged, for the first time ever in any U.N. climate agreement, that the world must begin “transitioning away” from them, starting this year.
That compromise came after a clutch of loose international coalitions scrambled to salvage the deal, with low-lying island nations, the European Union, the United States and even some wealthy fossil fuel producers joining in. The opposing blocs that faced off during a sleepless denouement revealed two global realities: The West, pushing a green economy on the world stage even as it pursues its own fossil fuel projects, was going up against resource-rich developing countries for whom oil, gas and coal are an essential economic lifeline.
The rescue effort included multiple attempts by U.S. special climate envoy John Kerry and other American officials to reach out directly to the Saudis, eventually settling on text in which continued fossil fuel use would be acceptable as a middle step toward a cleaner future. Among other officials, Kerry met with Abdulaziz bin Salman, the powerful Saudi energy minister.
Within hours, the compromise was sealed early Wednesday morning — and ratified, later that day, to a roomful of applause.
“There were times in the last 48 hours where some of us thought this could fail,” Kerry said.
The deal approved Wednesday is nonbinding, so there’s no guarantee that the Saudis — or, for that matter, the U.S. and U.K. — will shelve any of their planned oil and gas expansions to meet Wednesday’s pledge. Its real importance may not be clear until at least next year, when all countries are due to submit revised plans showing how they intend to cut greenhouse gas pollution in the coming decade.
The Saudis have traditionally played the spoiler at U.N. climate talks, thwarting any talk of aggressive action to turn away from oil and gas. But on Wednesday, Kerry singled them out for praise.
“A number of countries that produce oil and gas — and you know who they are — they stepped up and said we want this to succeed, we want this to move forward,” Kerry told reporters. “And they said we are transitioning.” He said the energy minister, Abdulaziz, agreed that “I will accept the idea of embracing a transition away” from oil.
While his team worked on Saudi Arabia, Kerry also ensured he had the support, even tacitly, of China, the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gas pollution. (The U.S. is No. 2.) On Sunday — the day before his 80th birthday — Kerry visited his old friend, Beijing climate envoy Xie Zhenhua, at the Chinese offices at the summit site, Xie told reporters.
The two old warhorses and fellow climate negotiators shared a birthday celebration. Then they agreed they would stick to a deal their two countries had struck in November in Sunnylands, California, aimed at speeding up the substitution of coal, oil and natural gas using renewable energy, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Meanwhile, European Union climate commissioner Wopke Hoekstra and Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Teresa Ribera had been building a coalition of countries to overwhelm the resistance.
Hoekstra met with Tina Stege, the climate envoy from the tiny Marshall Islands, according to an EU negotiator who was also not authorized to speak to the press. They drafted a document with a list of demands that they delivered to the United Arab Emirates government, which was presiding over the talks. They then brought on board dozens of island nations and wealthy countries to sign and deliver the note to the team of Sultan al-Jaber, the UAE oil chief executive serving as summit president.
Hoekstra and Ribera also met with a group of countries that included wealthy fossil fuel exporters Australia, Norway, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. They were seen shuttling in and out of the U.N. offices where they had been meeting with the COP28 president and delivering a clear message: that despite their own deep ties to coal, oil and gas, they too wanted an unequivocal message to end their use.
Ultimately, the deal they got was half of what they wanted. Even so, its mention of fossil fuels was the “first crack” in a 30-year-old “dam of resistance” that the Saudis had constructed inside the U.N. process, said Alden Meyer, a senior associate at the environmental think tank E3G.
But it was also far from what the islanders — who would now return to homes that are often just feet above the rising ocean — said they needed in order to reassure their people.
For them, Wednesday’s unsatisfying victory came with a final insult: For days, members of an alliance of small island states raised fears that their voices weren’t being heard. But when the final meeting began and al-Jaber gaveled through the deal, the islanders were in another room drafting their objections to what they saw as a weak agreement.
Speaking immediately after the meeting, a member of the COP28 press team told POLITICO they did not know why the islanders had been ignored. A member of the COP28 president’s team later went to the Samoan delegation to apologize and told them they had not been not aware the islanders were outside the room, said spokesperson Bianca Beddoe.
Stege called the snub “shocking.” If anything, the final two days of COP28 showed that “you need everyone in the room, you need everyone at the table,” she said after the plenary adjourned.
When islanders complained inside the plenary hall, all the assembled nations had to offer them was a loud round of sympathetic applause.
The next few years will show whether the struggle leads to a meaningful turn away from the petroleum age.
Denmark’s Jørgensen later reflected: “To be honest with you 48 hours ago, I would have never thought that we would be here now. But we did fight, through to the last minute.”