Global consensus on fossil fuel phase-out at COP28

The COP28 climate summit in Dubai started with all the ingredients for spectacular failure: It proposed an end to the fossil-fuel era at a conference situated in Arab oil country amid overt opposition from the powerful oil-producer group OPEC.

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FILE PHOTO: A man walks past a pollution pod designed to mimic the air quality in New Delhi, during the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 4, 2023. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani/File Photo

Landing a pact that all 196 countries could live with, took deft maneuvering by the conference host, the United Arab Emirates, along with back-channel diplomacy from the United States’ and China’s top climate envoys, sources told Reuters.

The COP28’s UAE presidency employed a strategy during the two-week summit of issuing deliberately provocative drafts for a deal designed to force negotiators to reveal the outer limits of their positions and find common ground, according to the sources.

The top envoys from the world‘s biggest climate polluters, the United States and China – relying on a personal relationship two decades in the making – together found the right words to describe the world‘s move away from oil, gas and coal and persuaded OPEC leaders to come along.

The details of the UAE’s strategy and the role of the U.S. and China in securing the deal have not previously been reported.

At the end of the conference, which spilled into overtime and was marked by moments of near-crisis, negotiators emerged with an accord that called for “transitioning” away from fossil fuels, marking the first time in history countries expressed a unified desire to end the oil age.

In a concession to oil producers, including OPEC members and their allies, the deal also provided an option for cleansing existing oil, gas and coal of their climate impact using technologies like carbon capture and sequestration, in which the greenhouse gas is kept from the atmosphere.

U.S. Special Climate Envoy John Kerry called the deal a victory for multilateralism, and the UAE’s COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber called it “historic.”

Some delegates, including the Alliance of Small Island States, bemoaned the accord’s loopholes for continued fossil-fuel use, but ultimately did not stand in its way.

LOW TO HIGH

Ahead of the conference, Al Jaber – who also runs the UAE’s state oil company ADNOC – was pilloried by environmental activists as an untrustworthy host for a climate negotiation.

But he did not want to oversee a failed conference. Before the summit, his office issued press releases pumping up an EU- and U.S.-led declaration by nations to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030, and a U.S.-China cooperation agreement in California in November.

Scores of countries had come to Dubai pressing for language in a final deal to “phase out” fossil fuels entirely, an option to which the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries was particularly opposed.

OPEC, which controls 80% of the world‘s oil reserves, made that clear in a Dec. 6 letter to its members and allies rallying them to block an agreement targeting fossil fuels.

The letter sparked worries that the summit was doomed to fail.

“I think there were times in the last 48 hours where some of us had thought, ‘this could fail,'” Kerry told reporters after the deal was clinched.

A former lead negotiator for Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Al Sabban, told Reuters early on in the conference that he shared that view: “I want you to know, that COP28 will fail to achieve any meaningful decisions by the end of the Conference next week,” he said in an email.

Faced with entrenched positions, and with time running short, Al Jaber employed his provocative strategy to shake things up.

On Dec. 11, his office released a draft deal text that outlined a “menu” of options countries could – not should – take to combat climate change, ranging from using carbon capture to reducing fossil-fuel use, or cutting fossil-fuel subsidies.

There was no mention of a “phase out.”

The reaction in the corridors of the summit was outrage. Small island nations called it a death sentence, the European Union called it insufficient, and climate NGOs dubbed it catastrophic.

That was the desired effect.

“Everybody saw immediately this was a menu rather than a directional text,” said a source with direct knowledge of the presidency’s strategy. “And that fleshed out people’s real positions and their red lines in a very public way … It then became clear where people really stood. People were being polite up to that point!”

The UAE host then organised a majlis, the Arabic term for a sitting room, in which negotiators sat in a circle facing one another and took turns outlining their positions – a unique tactic that laid bare the broad demand to address fossil fuels.

The COP28 presidency took meetings into the early-morning hours of subsequent days of the conference, and held off on releasing an updated draft deal until early on Dec. 13, a day after the summit’s scheduled end.

“The idea was to use the clock to your advantage to squeeze the best deal and put the pressure back on the parties,” the source said.

ONLY WORDS

The outrage sparked by the draft deal made clear that COP28 would succeed only if its final accord addressed the future of fossil fuels in a meaningful way.

But the term “phase out” remained a red line. Beijing, Riyadh and others would never accept it because it had become politically charged, delegates told Reuters.

“Very often in a negotiation, parties are too hunkered-down in their respective positions,” said Singapore Environment Minister Grace Fu, who was involved in the negotiations. “And words like ‘phase out’ became a problem.”

Sources told Reuters that Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, mulled a workaround: Use different words that mean essentially the same thing.

Xie and Kerry, who enjoy a warm rapport after two decades working on climate change together, already had a road map in their recent climate cooperation agreement reached at Sunnylands in California in November.

That deal did not use phrases like “phasing out” but instead called for the accelerated substitution of fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. To some extent, that language described what was already happening around the world, with governments enacting policies to transition to a greener economy.

With the two top players in agreement, it was then a matter of getting OPEC on board, and a number of meetings ensued.

“Ultimately, Kerry, China and the Saudis played a constructive role at the eleventh hour when it was clear there were no other options on the table,” the source said.

Delegates said the inclusion of carbon capture in the final accord appeared to be a concession to Saudi and the broader OPEC group, which had long argued emissions could be cut without targeting specific fuels.

Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, said after the deal that Riyadh supported the accord because it leaves countries to decide for themselves on suitable pathways to cleaner sources of energy.

The source familiar with the negotiations said the final flurry of diplomacy ensured the deal would pass: “I would say that doing the right thing became the only option left.”

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