23rd Feb 2024

Row over 'unabated' phase-out at pre-COP28 Dubai meeting

  • EU climate action commissioner Wopke Hoekstra has supported 'unabated' fossil fuel phase-out — which critics say leaves loopholes for further oil and gas burning (Photo: European Union)
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In exactly one month, world leaders will meet in Dubai at the 28th United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP 28) to discuss how to wean the global economy off fossil fuels.

The United Arab Emirates president of COP28 Sultan Al-Jaber welcomed negotiators to a pre-summit on Monday (30 October) where 70 ministers and 100 delegations met to prepare "common" language ahead of the summit.

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Many country representatives, including those from vulnerable island states, will seek agreement on phasing-out fossil fuels.

"There is broad agreement with the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) that we need to phase-out fossil fuels," said Vanuatu's minister for climate change Ralph Regenvanu, referring to the 115-country group that also includes the United States and EU member states.

But geopolitical strife and increasing competition between China and the United States are complicating negotiations.

While US climate envoy John Kerry has called for an immediate end to coal, China is still promoting it. The US, on the other hand, is reluctant to agree to end all fossil-fuel burning as it is still the world's biggest oil and gas producer.

Both countries will seek support from other countries for their respective phase-out preference during this week's two-day pre-COP meeting.

"I need you to work together to come forward with solutions that can achieve alignment, common ground and consensus between all parties," al-Jaber told the attending ministers.


Underlying these discussions is the spread of the term 'unabated', which, over the course of the year, has slowly changed the meaning of what a phase-out might mean.

UAE's Al-Jaber has set an action plan for a power system "free of unabated fossil fuels" by 2050. EU climate action commissioner Wopke Hoekstra has similarly said he would support a phase-out of "unabated" fossil fuels.

This week 131 companies, including Volvo Cars and Unilever, with a combined revenue of nearly one trillion dollars (€940bn] also called on governments to agree an end to "unabated" fossil fuels.

The problem, according to critics, is that this word leaves a loophole for fossil-fuel producers to keep selling their products and for industries to keep burning them.

"Unabated" allows for carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology that, in theory, safely stores emissions but is currently commercially unavailable and will not be viable for years.

According to a recent study by German energy NGO Climate Analytics, only 0.1 percent of the power system will be covered by CCS technology by 2030.

"Unabated cannot become a sort of loophole for countries to hide behind," said Tom Evans, who is a policy advisor at global energy think tank E3G. "CCS is not going to be a major technology that will allow us to keep polluting."

"We need an unqualified global phase-out of fossil fuels," said Regenvanu. "I very much hope that is going to be the consensus decision this week."


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