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COP28: Is the world about to promise to ditch fossil fuels?

The UN climate change conference in Dubai is close to a big breakthrough on reducing the gases heating our planet, its United Arab Emirates hosts believe.

Expressing “cautious optimism”, the UAE negotiating team believes COP28 is gearing up to commit to phasing down fossil fuels over coming decades.

Maybe even ditching them altogether.

Hosting a climate conference in a petrostate sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but there are signs that it could deliver real progress on climate.

Surely working out how to get rid of fossil fuels is what this UN climate conference is all about, you are probably thinking.

But bizarre as it may sound, until just a couple of years ago fossil fuels were effectively “f-words” at these huge global gatherings – rarely ever uttered.

The first formal debate about their future was at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021 and the only commitment made there was a promise to “phase down” the dirtiest one of the lot, coal.

Let’s be clear, a pledge now will not mean the world will stop using fossil fuels completely.

We are very unlikely to get any commitment on an expiry date, that would be far too controversial.

And “abated” fossil fuels will still be allowed. That is when the atmosphere-heating carbon dioxide they emit is captured to stop it causing climate change.

But at least the world will have acknowledged what has always been implied by these negotiations – that we need to deal with the main source of climate change.

That would be an historic first and an important step forward.

So why might it happen here in the oil-rich UAE of all places?

A phase-out is in the text under discussion here in Dubai and is what the man in charge of these negotiations – Sultan al-Jaber, the president of COP28 and the head of UAE state oil company Adnoc – says he wants.

Much to his annoyance this desire has not been widely reported.

That is at least in part because Mr Jaber has been saying it in the kind of bureaucratic language only the most committed COP-heads understand.

He says he is the first COP president to encourage “parties to come forward with language on all the fossil fuels for the negotiated text”.

He explains he is “engaging with all the parties” and wants them to come forward with “common grounds and consensus”.

Confused? Here’s my own crack at a translation:

“I’ve spoken to representatives of all the world’s countries and urged them to agree in COP28’s final text to phasing out the use of fossil fuels, or at least phasing them down.”

Mr Jaber has repeatedly promised this summit will “take a new road”, do “unprecedented” things and be “transformational”.

Many readers may be surprised that the UAE, a country built on a foundation of oil money, might be trying to get the world to agree to stop using the stuff.

And you may have seen stories in recent days about Mr Jaber even questioning the science of global warming during COP28.

He insisted on Monday that his comments had been misinterpreted, adding: “I have said over and over again that the phase-down and the phase-out of fossil fuel is inevitable.”

Mr Jaber was joined at a press conference by the UN authority on climate science, Prof Jim Skea, who is head of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Prof Skea explained that meeting the target of limiting global warming to 1.5C would mean getting rid of unabated coal completely by 2050. Oil will need to be cut by 60%, natural gas by 45%, he said.

So, even in 2050 the world will still need a lot of the stuff the UAE is so rich in.

But – once again – only if it can be “abated”, if the emissions can be captured to stop them causing climate change and the technology to do that does not exist at anywhere near the scale needed.

When Mr Jaber says the science has guided everything his team has done – which he has repeatedly done – this is the science he is talking about.

In short, the UAE has recognised the world has to kick its addiction to unabated fossil fuels and has decided to put itself decisively on the right side of history by trying to own the decision.

But yes, at the same time it is planning to increase capacity and sell even more oil.

Source: BBC


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