Ahead of COP28 climate talks, fossil fuels increasingly under fire

COP28 faces extra pressure to shift world from fossil fuels after many leaders criticise oil, coal and gas at UN climate summit.

The Paris Agreement does not mention "fossil fuels" even though coal, oil and natural gas are the main cause of climate change. Opposition from fossil fuel producers means the 2015 text refers merely to "greenhouse gas emissions". Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Heading into the COP28 conference in Dubai, this week’s UN Climate Ambition Summit broke fresh territory by naming and shaming the fossil fuel industry for its role in the climate crisis, according to advocates tracking the talks in New York.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ summit – though light on ambitious new commitments – featured many speakers who called for a swift drawdown of fossil fuel use, which analysts say will be needed to meet goals under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“It was a first time I had been in a room where I did feel this shift around the ability to say ‘fossil fuel,’ and say (it) again and again,” said Tina Stege, climate envoy for the Marshall Islands.

That contrasts with the past when fossil fuels might only be mentioned by a lone activist group, Stege said Thursday at a Climate Week NYC event hosted by Climate Analytics, a research group. “You didn’t hear a chorus.”

This time, many leaders - notably German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Kausea Natano, prime minister of Tuvalu - used their speeches to call specifically for phasing down fossil fuels to reach the Paris Agreement goals to curb rising temperatures.

Really, it’s striking that the leadership  on display at the summit is primarily coming from Global South countries – and that’s a disgrace. That’s a shame.

Romain Ioualalen, activist, Oil Change International

Guterres invited leaders from roughly 30 countries for prime speaking slots at Wednesday’s summit - but they collectively accounted for only about 17 per cent of global emissions.

Heads of state of the world’s top-emitting nations, including China, the United States and India, were absent.

“Really, it’s striking that the leadership  on display at the summit is primarily coming from Global South countries – and that’s a disgrace. That’s a shame,” said Romain Ioualalen with Oil Change International, an activist group.

Selwin Hart, a top climate adviser to Guterres, acknowledged Thursday that one summit would not solve the climate crisis, but that the event demonstrated there are leaders willing to up their game and move more quickly ahead of COP28.

“It is in my view … the most important COP since Paris,” Hart said at the Climate Analytics event.

“Because it’s a COP that sets the stage for what needs to be done to close glaring gaps to meet the temperature goal, the finance and adaptation goals in the Paris Agreement,” he said.

The Dubai COP will be held from Nov. 30-Dec. 12.

Leadership ‘sorely absent’?

California Governor Gavin Newsom received applause at the summit for his remarks labelling the climate crisis a “fossil fuel crisis.”

“It’s not complicated. It’s the burning of oil. It’s the burning of gas. It’s the burning of coal. And we need to call that out,” he said. “For decades and decades the oil industry has been playing each and every one of us in this room for fools.”

Newsom’s state of California recently announced a lawsuit against big oil companies, accusing them of helping drive the climate crisis.

He won plaudits from actress and prominent climate activist Jane Fonda, who complimented the governor for demonstrating “true climate leadership.”

“This leadership is sorely absent at the top of most major oil and gas-producing countries – especially the United States,” she said.

US President Joe Biden, though he has shepherded record amounts of new spending for green initiatives, has also faced intense criticism from activists who say he is not doing enough to stop new oil and gas leasing initiatives.

The Paris Agreement does not mention “fossil fuels” even though coal, oil and natural gas are the main cause of climate change. Opposition from fossil fuel producers means the 2015 text refers merely to “greenhouse gas emissions”.

The UN ambition summit did witness some new commitments and announcements, including an adaptation partnership between Tuvalu and Australia – though advocates say Dubai will be where the lofty statements this week will truly be tested.

“We have two months until COP28 in Dubai where countries will need to agree on a phase-out of fossil fuels,” Ioualalen said.

‘Misleading’ the world?

Sultan al-Jaber, the UAE oil executive who is president-designate of COP28, said at the closing session of the New York summit that a phase-down of fossil fuels is both “inevitable” and “essential” – but also that people need to be clear-eyed about what a green transition will entail.

“Allow me to be candid. Some say that we can have it all – in fact, some are actually in this room today. Zero carbon economic growth with no up-front costs,” he said.

“That is something I cannot comprehend,” he said after a pause. “There is a cost either way. We must be honest and sober about this very important fact, and we must accept to come to terms with realities.”

“We need to stop misleading this world,” he said. “We all know that this is going to cost trillions – in fact, between four and five trillion dollars annually.”

Guterres, who had to leave the summit after his opening remarks to attend a meeting of the UN Security Council, returned to conclude it with a call to arms.

“To all the first doers that are here today, I say scale up, bring together all those that you can bring together with you. Go for it. Take no prisoners,” he said.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit https://www.context.news/.

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