Future of Fossil Fuels at Stake in Homestretch of Climate Talks

Wopke Hoekstra, the European Union’s climate commissioner, called for the beginning of the end for fossil fuels at the United Nations climate conference in Dubai. (AFP)
Wopke Hoekstra, the European Union’s climate commissioner, called for the beginning of the end for fossil fuels at the United Nations climate conference in Dubai. (AFP)

Summary

One draft agreement calls for a “phase out” of all burning of coal, natural gas and oil; producers argue the focus should be on emissions.

DUBAI—Fossil-fuel producers are fighting an existential battle here in the final stretch of the United Nations climate conference against countries that want to end the burning of coal, oil and natural gas.

Europe and a handful of nations on the front lines of climate change are demanding that a final agreement at the conference, known as COP28, include a phase out of fossil fuels. One option in a draft of the agreement circulating on Friday evening calls for “a phase out of fossil fuels in line with best available science."

“I want COP28 to mark the beginning of the end for fossil fuels," Wopke Hoekstra, the European Union’s climate commissioner, said Friday.

They are facing off against big oil producers led by Saudi Arabia, and backed by Western oil-and-gas companies that have sent dozens of executives to the conference to argue against a phase out.

Some want no mention of reducing fossil-fuel burning in the conclusions of the conference, which is set to end Tuesday. Others are calling for phasing out fossil-fuel burning in power plants and other facilities that lack equipment for capturing and storing the resulting carbon-dioxide emissions, according to the draft text, a position endorsed by the Biden administration at a summit of the Group of Seven advanced economies this year. That technology, known as carbon capture and storage, is still in its infancy and would need to be scaled up massively to make a dent in global emissions.

“It’s really about the emissions. It’s not about the fuel source," said Vicki Hollub, president and chief executive of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum.

After negotiations Friday night, European officials said they were facing stiff opposition from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

“It is quite a disgusting thing that OPEC countries are pushing against getting the bar where it has to be," said Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Teresa Ribera.

An agreement targeting fossil fuels would send a broad signal to the global economy that governments are intent on sharply cutting fossil-fuel consumption. It would still need to be enshrined in national policies and then implemented, an immensely complicated and politically fraught process that would run through 2050 and beyond.

Still, such a deal would represent an unprecedented acknowledgment by the world’s big fossil-fuel-producing nations of what scientists say is needed to prevent the more destructive effects of climate change. Until a few years ago, U.N. climate agreements hadn’t even mentioned the words “fossil fuel" because of opposition from China, India, Saudi Arabia and, at times, the U.S. The conclusions from the COP two years ago in Glasgow called for a phase out of inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies.

The debate in Dubai marks a crucial point in the fight against climate change under the Paris accord, the landmark climate agreement signed in 2015 that calls for governments to try to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures. This year is the first “global stocktake" required by the agreement to review progress since 2015 and make recommendations. The conclusions are supposed to guide a new round of national emission reduction plans that the Paris accord requires governments to submit next year to the U.N.

The negotiations have spurred the fossil-fuel industry to assert itself at U.N. climate talks like never before. Companies are navigating a thicket of new regulations and subsidies aimed at greening their operations, and they are doing it against a backdrop of rising temperatures and extreme weather events that have placed them under heavy scrutiny.

Energy executives at COP28, such as Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods, have cast themselves as economic realists, warning that sharp reductions in hydrocarbons would wreak havoc on a global economy that is hardwired with the fuels. Some acknowledge that fossil-fuel consumption should fall significantly. But they say significant quantities of fossil fuels can still be burned by capturing the resulting carbon dioxide for storage underground.

Climate scientists and analysts agree with that argument to some extent. The International Energy Agency, working off the U.N.’s latest climate science report, says that global consumption of oil must fall 77% and natural gas 78% by 2050 for the world to hold warming to 1.5 degrees.

Fossil fuels would still account for about 16% of global energy consumption by then. Most of those fossil-fuel emissions—around six billion metric tons annually, or a sixth of current global emissions—would be captured and stored, the IEA says.

“I think we are going to need carbon capture and storage, and these industries can provide that technology," said Tom Corringham, an economist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “But are they really acting in good faith, or buying time?"

How much carbon dioxide can be captured and stored underground is unclear. The cost is still prohibitively high to be deployed on a large scale.

Carbon capture has a high-profile backer in the host of this year’s conference, the oil-rich United Arab Emirates. Sultan Al Jaber, the man running the conference, is also the chief executive of Adnoc, the country’s national oil company. Dubai, the host city, is a magnet for private jets, large yachts and prolific air conditioning.

Jaber caused a stir during the conference when a recording surfaced of him saying that “there is no science out there" requiring that fossil fuels must be phased out to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. A few days later, he held a press conference and said, “The phase down and the phase out of fossil fuel is inevitable. In fact, it is essential."

Nations that are most vulnerable to climate change are calling for a phase out to avoid the most calamitous effects of climate change, such as drought, more powerful storms and rising seas.

“We are the most vulnerable in this whole existential climate-change fight," said Toeolesulusulu Cedric Schuster, minister of natural resources and environment for the island nation of Samoa. “The more voices we stand together, the more chance we will have in phasing out."

To replace fossil fuels, governments will need to massively scale up wind, solar and other renewable-energy sources. Negotiators are debating a text that would call for the global capacity of renewable energy to triple.

“We’re very optimistic about this," said Mariam Almheiri, minister of climate change and environment for the U.A.E. “We are doing it as a country. We are committed to it. And we’re hopeful that that will be one of the outcomes."

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