With just two months remaining until the highly anticipated COP28 summit organized by the United Nations (UN) in Dubai, the world finds itself at a crossroads regarding the future of fossil fuels and their impact on climate change. The conference, scheduled from November 30 to December 12, has been identified as a pivotal moment for nations to expedite their efforts to combat global warming. However, stark divisions persist among countries, with some advocating for a swift phase-out of planet-warming fossil fuels and others insisting on retaining coal, oil, and natural gas in their energy portfolios.
Recent discussions at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) have reignited the long-standing debate over the role of fossil fuels in a warming world. Climate-vulnerable nations, such as the Marshall Islands, have passionately implored wealthier countries to abandon polluting fuels and shift their investments towards renewable energy alternatives. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres used strong language during a one-day climate summit alongside the UNGA, condemning what he referred to as the “naked greed” of fossil fuel interests and underscoring the dire consequences of unchecked global warming.
Conversely, countries that either produce or heavily rely on fossil fuels have stressed the importance of developing technologies to capture emissions, rather than entirely discontinuing their use. Sultan Al Jaber, the incoming President of COP28 from the United Arab Emirates, acknowledged the inevitability of reducing fossil fuel reliance. He asserted, “As we build an energy system free of all unabated fossil fuels, including coal, we must rapidly and comprehensively decarbonize the energies we use today.” However, major consumers like China have signaled their intentions to continue using fossil fuels for decades.
The United States has expressed support for phasing out unabated fossil fuels while recognizing that some developing countries have short-term plans to invest in them. Nonetheless, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry has raised doubts about the feasibility of scaling up emissions capturing technologies quickly enough to mitigate the climate crisis.
Although a COP28 agreement to reduce fossil fuel use may not lead to an immediate cessation of oil and gas production, supporters like the European Union believe it is essential to guide national policies and investments away from polluting energy sources. Spain’s Climate Minister, Teresa Ribera, emphasized the need to create conditions for a transition to cleaner energy sources.
Amid the ongoing discord regarding fossil fuels since the unsuccessful attempt by more than 80 countries to secure a phase-down deal at last year’s COP27 summit, negotiators have begun exploring new terminology in search of a compromise. One notable development was the agreement among the Group of Seven industrialized nations to expedite the “phase-out of unabated fossil fuels” in April. However, by July, this pledge faltered as the larger G20, which includes major oil and gas producers like Saudi Arabia and Russia, failed to reach a consensus on the issue.
Ireland’s Climate Minister Eamon Ryan suggested that the question of phasing out all fossil fuels or solely their emissions would be a pivotal issue at COP28. Concerns have arisen that emphasizing emissions capturing technology could be interpreted as a license to continue extracting and using oil, gas, and coal.
A coalition of 17 countries, including France, Kenya, Chile, Colombia, and Pacific island nations such as Tuvalu and Vanuatu, recently called for a fossil fuel phase-out that limits the use of carbon-capture technology. They emphasized that emissions abatement technologies should not be used to justify further expansion of fossil fuels.
Industry groups from the oil and gas sector, such as the American Petroleum Institute, have argued that emissions abatement technologies are essential to provide more energy with fewer emissions. Developing countries have also resisted a complete phase-out, citing the need for fossil fuels to expand their electricity capacity for economic development, similar to the historical trajectories of nations like Japan and the United States.
Within the African Union, some governments have accused Western countries of hypocrisy for using climate arguments to withhold financing for gas projects in developing nations while continuing to rely on gas at home.
The urgency of reducing fossil fuel use is underscored by climate scientist Peter Cox at the University of Exeter, who warns that without swift action, the Earth will surpass the global target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels within 10-15 years.
The head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) recently predicted that demand for coal, gas, and oil will peak by 2030 as renewable energy capacity continues to grow. IEA’s Fatih Birol also called on countries to cease making new investments in coal, oil, and gas, citing not just climate risks but also business risks associated with these industries.
However, these statements were met with opposition from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which disputed Birol’s projections and highlighted the importance of emissions-capturing possibilities. OPEC labeled Birol’s call for an end to new investments in fossil fuels as “dangerous.”
The Alliance of Small Island States, comprised of nations grappling with climate-induced storms and sea-level rise, has been vocal in its demand for a fossil fuel phase-out. They also call for an end to the $7 trillion spent annually by governments on subsidizing fossil fuels. The coming months leading up to COP28 will undoubtedly be marked by intense negotiations and deliberations as countries grapple with these critical energy and climate issues on the global stage.