The world needs to phase out fossil fuels if it wants to curb devastating global warming, the United Nations climate chief says, but the idea might not even make it onto the agenda of “make-or-break” negotiations.
The phase-out of heat-trapping fossil fuels “is something that is at top of every discussion or most discussions that are taking place”, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell said.
“It is an issue that has global attention. How that translates into an agenda item and a [climate talks] outcome – we will see.”
Stiell said he could not quite promise ending the use of coal, oil, and natural gas would get a spot on the agenda in climate talks, called COP28, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, later this year.
That agenda decision is up to the president of the negotiations – Sultan Al Jaber, head of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company – Stiell said.
The decision by the host nation UAE to make Al Jaber the head of the climate conference has drawn fierce opposition from lawmakers in Europe and the United States, as well as environmental advocates. UAE officials said they want game-changing results in the climate talks and note Al Jaber also runs a large renewable energy company.
Last year at climate talks, a proposal by India to phase out all fossil fuels, supported by the US and many European nations, never got on the agenda. What gets discussed is decided by the COP president, who last year was the foreign minister of Egypt, a natural gas exporting nation.
When asked if Egypt’s leaders kept the concept off the agenda, Stiell, speaking via Zoom from Bonn, Germany, where preliminary talks started on Monday, said he could not comment except to say “it’s within their purview”.
An engineer-turned-government-official and diplomat, Stiell walked a fine line between talking about the importance of a fossil fuel phase-out and supporting the UN process that has put countries that export oil and natural gas in charge of negotiations about global warming for two consecutive years.
About 94 percent of the heat-trapping carbon dioxide that human industrial activity put in the air last year was from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, according to the scientists who monitor emissions at Global Carbon Project.
Al Jaber’s company has the capacity to produce 2 million barrels of oil and 7 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day, and said it plans to increase that drilling to 5 million barrels a day by 2027.
Getting a fossil fuel phase out on the agenda this year depends on the conference president Al Jaber, and on whether there is enough pressure from other nations, Stiell said.
“Where better to have a discussion … then in a region where fossil fuels are at the centre of their economy?” Stiell asked.
A senior UAE official said the Gulf nation wants the UN climate summit it’s hosting from November 30-December 12 to deliver “game-changing results”.
“Our leadership have been very clear to me and our team and our president that they don’t want just another COP that’s incremental,” said Majid al-Suwaidi, who as director-general of the summit plays a key role in the diplomatic negotiations.
“They want a COP that is going to deliver real, big, game-changing results because they see, just like all of us, that we’re not on track to achieve the goals of [the] Paris [Agreement].”
Phasing out ’emissions’
The issue of a coal, oil and natural gas phase-out is central to the fight against climate change, but the real issue is getting something done, not putting it on the COP28 agenda, Stiell said.
In public appearances, Al Jaber has emphasised being “laser-focused on phasing out fossil fuel emissions,” not necessarily the fuels themselves, by promoting carbon capture and removal of the pollutant from the air.
Stiell dismissed the idea that carbon removal can be a short-term solution.
“Right now, in this critical decade of action to achieve those deep reductions, the science tells us it can only be achieved through the reduced use, significantly reduced use, of all fossil fuels,” he said.
Stiell defended the back-to-back years of having climate negotiations run in and by fossil fuel-exporting nations as the wishes of the “parties” or countries involved.
This year will be critical because it is the first global stocktake to see where the world is in its efforts to reduce carbon emissions. To reach the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, greenhouse gas pollution needs to be cut in half by 2030.
“We know we are a long way from where we need to be,” Stiell said.
This year’s conference sets up a new round of pledges for even tighter emissions cuts by telling nations the stark truth of how bad the situation is, Stiell said.
But ignorance of the dire threat to the planet is not the problem, he added.
“It’s lack of implementation, I don’t believe it is the lack of knowledge. There’s been report after report after report that all say the same thing, all with increasing urgency,” Stiell said.