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How an oil executive led the world to an agreement to ditch fossil fuels

After weeks of debate at COP28, countries decide to “transition away” from oil and gas — while stopping short of a “phaseout.”

The bar was low for the success of this year’s COP28 climate conference, which was hosted by the United Arab Emirates, the world’s seventh largest oil producer. Ever since Sultan Al-Jaber, the head of the UAE’s national oil company, was announced as COP28 president in January, many observers approached the conference all but certain that the UAE would put its thumb on the scale in favor of oil interests. Indeed, leaked emails that emerged the week of the gathering showed that Al-Jaber’s team had prepared briefing documents outlining oil deals to discuss at COP28. 

Many of those who were most critical of Al-Jaber ahead of the conference now say their fears have proven unfounded. For the first time in the 28 years that world leaders have been meeting under the auspices of the United Nations to solve the climate crisis, negotiators have explicitly agreed to a transition away from fossil fuels — within this decade, no less, with an ultimate goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The fossil fuel language — which stopped short of calling for the “phaseout” of the fuels demanded by the most aggressive negotiators, instead calling for a “transition away” from them — is buried in a dense 21-page document that hundreds of parties debated in excruciating detail for days. The final agreement clearly signals that the world needs to both move away from the use of fossil fuels and ramp up renewable energy at an unprecedented pace. 

“This is a strong message aligned with the science,” Susana Muhamad, Colombia’s environment minister, told Grist. “It’s a step forward and not a step backwards, and that’s good news because there was a lot of fear that a COP here will end up being a step backwards.” 

The endorsement of the so-called UAE Consensus capped a massive conference that saw an estimated 100,000 climate advocates, policy wonks, and government ministers fill Dubai’s Expo City, a sprawling venue on the outskirts of the city. Under a glaring sun, high-ranking officials met with Al-Jaber and his team late into the night Tuesday, jostling to push their individual agendas. The resulting agreement has been described by officials and observers as “historic,” “strong,” “monumental,” and “an unmistakable signal” that the fossil fuel era is ending. The final decision also includes a call to triple global renewable energy deployment, double energy efficiency, and “substantially” reduce methane emissions by 2030.

Al-Jaber gavelled through the adoption of the agreement within five minutes of beginning the final plenary meeting on Wednesday. Members of the Alliance of Small Island States, which represents 39 island nations, were not in the room as he moved swiftly through the procedure — even though the agreement has especially substantial implications for these countries, which are facing sea-level rise that threatens their very existence.

“We are a little confused about what just happened,” said Anne Rasmussen of Samoa. John Silk, a representative for the Marshall Islands, later called the move “unacceptable.” 

A spokesperson for the group told Grist there was “miscommunication” and that the UAE presidency thought all parties were present. “Otherwise we would have questions on inclusivity of the process,” she said. (COP presidents wield enormous power over the process and have the ability to overlook objections; at the 2012 COP in Doha, Qatar, the Qatari presidency famously ignored a request from Russia.)

The wins were also undermined by a lack of finance to support implementation of the lofty energy transition goal, as well as loopholes that provide room for unproven solutions such as carbon capture, observers and negotiators told Grist. Nor does the agreement include any new financial commitments to help countries adapt to climate-driven disasters such as droughts and wildfires.

The language on finance “is quite weak” and “not action-oriented,” said Isatou Camara, a finance minister from the Gambia and the lead negotiator for a coalition of the least economically developed countries. “Because almost everywhere in the document, it is ‘recalling,’ ‘recognizing,’ and ‘notes,’” as opposed to “urging” or “calling,” she said. Muhamad echoed those comments. “The signal on the reform of the financial system and taking measures that are extraordinary because of the climate emergency is not there,” she said. “Without that we cannot deal with a crisis and an emergency as if we are in business as usual.”

The final decision followed two weeks of chaotic uncertainty about where the conference was heading. The mood during the first week of negotiations was optimistic, driven in large part by a surprise consensus on the very first day: Wealthy countries agreed to launch a new fund that will help address the loss and damage that climate change has and will continue to cause in developing countries. 

This so-called loss and damage fund has long been one of the most contentious issues at COPs, because it requires developed countries to accept some responsibility for causing and redressing climate impacts. As a result, a committee tasked with setting up the fund before COP28 had made little progress. But then, just weeks before the conference was slated to begin, Al-Jaber and his team called for an emergency fifth meeting of the committee in Abu Dhabi. They achieved an agreement on loss and damage just in time for COP28 to start. Pledges for the new loss and damage fund began rolling in within minutes; contributions now total more than $650 million

Negotiators and longtime observers Grist spoke to emphasized the historic and game-changing nature of that decision — one that only the COP presidency could make. Presidencies are supposed to act as neutral and honest brokers of the process, cajoling and sometimes dragging countries along and making key procedural decisions. To the surprise of many, Al-Jaber appears to have done just this.

Delegates applaud after a speech by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, third from left, on the final day of COP28. Al Jaber, the head of the Emirati state oil company, drew criticism for seeming to dismiss the idea of a fossil fuel phaseout.
Delegates applaud after a speech by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, third from left, on the final day of COP28. Al Jaber, the head of the Emirati state oil company, drew criticism for seeming to dismiss the idea of a fossil fuel phaseout. Photo by Fadel Dawod / Getty Images

With the loss and damage win under its belt, Al-Jaber’s presidency had built momentum. Then came the hard part.

The main action item at COP28 was the so-called “first global stocktake,” a comprehensive assessment of countries’ progress toward meeting the goals of the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement. That agreement established the all-important target of limiting global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. It also laid out dozens of other climate goals: Leaders agreed to draw up plans for reducing their carbon emissions, create a global market for trading carbon credits, and to enable countries around the world to start adapting to the climate-driven disasters increasingly showing up on their shores. 

The latest projections suggest that countries are on course to blow through almost all of those goals. The world is on course for 2.9 degrees Celsius of warming, according to the UN’s own estimates, and finance for adaptation is nowhere near adequate. This was the grim backdrop for the “global stocktake,” and the key question entering COP28 was whether or not nations could agree to change course. The best way to do this, according to many climate advocates and national ministers, was for negotiators to send a strong message that the world was moving away from fossil fuels and that wealthy nations would help poorer countries make that transition.

The idea had momentum heading into Dubai. At the outset of the conference, ministers and advocates had debated whether to call for a “phaseout” of fossil fuels like oil and natural gas, or a weaker “phasedown” of those same fuels. The just-noticeable difference between the two words seemed to hold a world of significance for climate activists and vulnerable countries such as the Marshall Islands, who argue that the Paris targets demand the total elimination of carbon-intensive energy within the next few decades.

In Dubai, after a week of closed-door talks, it seemed like activists and the most climate-vulnerable countries had scored a big victory in the stocktake debate: A draft text that emerged on the Friday of the conference’s last full week contained four options for a line about fossil fuels, all of which referenced “phaseout” rather than “phasedown.” 

“I’m feeling hopeful,” Rachel Cleetus, a policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists who has been to every COP since 2010, told Grist at the end of the first week. “For those of us who’ve been fighting for this for so long, it is an important moment.”

Al-Jaber, too, struck an optimistic tone, urging governments to come to an agreement on the transformative language regarding oil and gas.

“I want you to deliver the highest ambition on all items, including on fossil fuel language,” he said. “Let this COP be remembered as a collective COP that changed the game.”

Activists stage a protest on day thirteen of COP28, calling for a phaseout of fossil fuels. The conference went into overtime as negotiators debated whether to move away from coal, oil, and gas.
Activists stage a protest on day thirteen of COP28, calling for a phaseout of fossil fuels. The conference went into overtime as negotiators debated whether to move away from coal, oil, and gas. Photo by Fadel Dawod / Getty Images

But while national ministers spent a heated three days discussing the draft, oil interests launched a last-ditch attempt to counter the phaseout language. Leaders from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries argued strenuously that phaseout language wasn’t necessary, and ministers from Saudi Arabia reportedly clashed with other countries in the negotiating room. Meanwhile, powerful governments huddled behind closed doors to sort out their differences: U.S. climate envoy John Kerry held a lengthy dialogue with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua. 

When the next version emerged after the weekend, just before the final scheduled day of the conference, it had changed altogether. The word “phaseout” had disappeared, and a new line had appeared about “reducing fossil fuel consumption and production.” And whereas the previous draft had “called on” countries to cut out fossil fuels, this draft only said that countries’ actions “could include” attempts to move away from oil and gas.

Kaveh Guilanpour, a former negotiator for the United Kingdom and vice president at Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, told Grist at the time that the watered-down draft was “definitely disappointing.” The biggest reason was that it wasn’t “directive” — the language was “basically saying you can do some of this stuff if you want, but you don’t have to.”

The new draft triggered a wave of anger and backlash from the majority of countries and civil society groups, ranging from small island states such as Samoa to wealthy European nations.

“That one word ‘could’ just kills everything,” said Eamon Ryan, the environment minister of Ireland, in press remarks at the conference. “We can’t have a ‘get out of jail’ card for the fossil fuel industry, and the current text would give them that.”  

Even the United States, which has opposed aggressive commitments on fossil fuels at some previous United Nations summits, said the text didn’t go far enough. In a press conference, Kerry said the language on carbon emissions “needs to be substantially strengthened.” Negotiators from Europe threatened to walk away from the talks altogether. Mona Ainuu, a politician from the island nation of Niue, wept at a press conference outside the media center. “My 12-year-old, what am I going to say to her when I come back?” she said.

John Kerry, the United States climate envoy, attends day thirteen of COP28. Kerry pushed back against attempts to weaken language on fossil fuels.
John Kerry, the United States climate envoy, attends day 13 of COP28. Kerry pushed back against attempts to weaken language on fossil fuels. Photo by Fadel Dawod / Getty Images

The intensity of the reaction forced Al-Jaber to correct course. About 24 hours later, around 7 a.m. local time, the presidency dropped new text. This time the “could” had vanished and stronger language had replaced it: The final text “calls on” countries to pursue an ambitious set of actions to cut emissions in line with Paris targets. These actions include “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems,” a clear endorsement of a full-scale shift to renewables. 

The document also declares that the energy transition must be “just, orderly, and equitable.” This triple-adjective phrase is a favorite of Al-Jaber’s, and it has been everywhere at COP28, showing up in speeches given by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. It’s meant to underline that a rapid transition away from oil and gas could disrupt the lives of billions of people in developing countries, leading to rising fuel prices and less reliable power access. The language represents an attempt to ensure that negotiators don’t sacrifice global welfare for the sake of a speedy transition to renewables. The word “orderly” also acts as a buffer for states like the UAE, which faces economic risks if the world abandons oil.

The final adopted text also includes a number of loopholes for the oil and gas industry. For one, it calls for scaling down “unabated coal power” and also encourages the adoption of “abatement and removal technologies” for carbon dioxide. These phrases could allow countries to keep burning fossil fuels as long as they also invest in carbon capture, which is still unproven as a scalable climate solution. While the text does acknowledge that these technologies are to be used in sectors that are hard to decarbonize, climate hawks fear it could be used to undermine progress toward keeping warming in line with Paris Agreement targets. 

The text also “recognizes that transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security.” The line is a nod to natural gas as well as demands from developing countries with natural gas reserves that they not be asked to decarbonize at the same speed as developed economies like the United States and Canada.

Nevertheless, negotiators and observers noted that the combination of language instructing countries to transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewables will send clear signals to global markets. “Unlike in the past when we have all tried to hide behind consensus [and] have tried to use that to protect our national positions, this is the first time we have perhaps come out of our respective comfort zones and tried to look at the bigger picture,” a Bangladeshi representative said at the closing plenary.

The rest of the conference ended without any other huge breakthroughs. A parallel set of talks over how the world should adapt to climate disasters ended with a consensus agreement to prioritize key values such as water security, cultural heritage, and human health, but wealthy countries didn’t make major new financial contributions to vulnerable nations. Nor did the so-called “global goal on adaptation” contain a robust mechanism that could keep wealthy countries accountable for delivering their share of international aid.

“The [adaptation] text that we have now, I would say, is a step forward in some elements, but is two steps back on other elements,” said Linda Yassin, a negotiator from Sudan who represents a group of the world’s least economically developed countries.

Meanwhile, talks over how to implement a global market for trading carbon credits fizzled out in failure. The Paris Agreement calls for countries to establish such a system, but private carbon markets have drawn numerous accusations of fraud and deception, and negotiators in Dubai couldn’t agree on a framework for how to verify and monitor offset projects such as protected forests.

This outcome was a disappointment for the International Emissions Trading Association, a pro-carbon markets business group whose membership includes several large oil companies. A top policy official said in a statement that ministers “missed an opportunity” to “set a high bar on environmental integrity, safeguards, and human rights.” 

The other agreements likely won’t be transformative, either. Negotiators signed a joint statement promising to devote more resources to protecting nature, but it mostly calls for countries to try harder and plan better. The first-ever U.N. food map, which the agency’s Food and Agriculture Organization launched at the conference, missed what activists said was a chance to get fossil fuels out of food production. Even the launch of the loss-and-damage fund, which set an optimistic tone for the start of the conference, is just a launch. The total amount of pledge money from rich countries won’t cover even a fraction of the climate losses that vulnerable states have already experienced.

Susana Muhamad, the Colombian environmental minister, speaks to the press. Muhamad praised the final agreement at COP28 in Dubai.
Susana Muhamad, the Colombian environmental minister, speaks to the press. Muhamad praised the final agreement at COP28 in Dubai. Photo by Andrej Ivanov / AFP via Getty Images

Still, Muhamad, the Colombian minister, was buoyant as the final plenary wrapped up. In the hall outside the plenary room, she emphasized that the fears about the UAE presidency hadn’t borne out. In fact, the very fact that a petrostate hosted this year’s conference may have been the reason for an outcome that explicitly called out fossil fuels for the first time ever, she said. 

“I imagine a lot of political capital was expended in this process,” she said of the UAE presidency. “It was a fair process. And what the text reflects is what the real political situation is. It is the best possible outcome.”

Akielly Hu contributed reporting to this story.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How an oil executive led the world to an agreement to ditch fossil fuels on Dec 13, 2023.


This content originally appeared on Grist and was authored by Naveena Sadasivam.


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