Chris Bowen has indicated Australia may be willing to back a global commitment at the Cop28 climate summit to phase out fossil fuels.
The Australian climate change minister has also flagged that position may be unlikely to be adopted at the meeting in the United Arab Emirates unless it was attached to the word “unabated” – a controversial and undefined term usually taken to mean fossil fuels can continue if they are cutting their pollution through the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Bowen gave two separate statements on the future of fossil fuels on his first day at the summit, which is entering an intense final five days as negotiators from nearly 200 countries attempt to agree on how to respond to the climate crisis.
In his first statement, at a press conference with Samoa’s natural environment minister, Cedric Schuster, Bowen said his government wanted to see “a big step forward on the language on phasing out of fossil fuels”.
“Whether we get there or not, the coming days will tell. But it is important, and it sends an important symbol,” he said.
He said he would not go into details of what Australia argued in one-on-one negotiations, but the discussion at the summit about phasing out fossil fuels – a line supported by a growing list of countries – went “hand-in-glove” with the Albanese government’s target of having Australia running on 82% renewable energy by 2030.
“Everyone sensible accepts [fossil fuels] are leaving the grid and need to be replaced to ensure energy reliability. So I see all these things as hand‑in‑glove, and that’s what this international conversation’s all about,” Bowen said.
Schuster, who appeared with Bowen to welcome Australia contributing $150m to Pacific and global climate finance funds, said the science on what was required to limit global heating to 1.5C was clear. “We have to look at phase‑outs of fossil fuels and other emissions, but this needs to be coupled with tripling of our renewable energy and doubling energy efficiency,” he said.
Bowen’s second statement on Friday was on the main conference stage as the chair of the umbrella group, representing a negotiating bloc that includes the US, UK, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Israel, Ukraine and Norway.
In that role, he said the group wanted Cop28 to back urgent action in line with what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had found was necessary to keep global heating of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels within reach.
That included global emissions peaking by 2025, and the world escalating emissions targets to make a 43% cut in pollution compared with 2019 levels by 2030, and a 60% cut by 2035. It also included “a rapid scaling up of clean energy coupled with a global phase out of unabated fossil fuels”.
Bowen’s statement for the umbrella group did not explain what unabated meant, but work is under way at the conference to properly define it if it is to be included in the global deal.
Critics of its potential inclusion fear it is being supported by some countries to justify continued fossil fuel development on the expectation that CCS – a technology that has not proven commercially viable despite billions of dollars in support – will one day become widely available.
CCS is central to some umbrella group country’s climate plans. The International Energy Agency found Japan, in particular, relied on the technology heavily in designing its net zero emissions plan.
Australia is not reliant on CCS to cut pollution from electricity, but has passed legislation to allow fossil fuel companies to expand use of the technology for export developments. It is the world’s third biggest fossil fuel exporter.
Cop28 is the first climate summit to seriously consider a commitment to phase out fossil fuels alongside a push to triple renewable energy and double energy efficiency by 2030. Previous conferences have agreed only to a phase down of unabated coal power, and a phase out of “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies. Oil and gas have not been specifically mentioned.
The proposal faces significant opposition. The secretary-general of the Opec oil cartel, Haitham al-Ghais, has written to the organisation’s 13 member countries warning them Cop28 could “put our people’s prosperity and future at risk”, and urging them to “reject any text or formula that targets energy, ie fossil fuels, rather than emissions”.
A draft text released on Friday night included five options for language on fossil fuels. Options included: phasing them all out in line with the best available science and the principles of the Paris climate agreement; phasing out unabated fossil fuels and recognising their consumption needs to peak and the energy sector needs to be predominantly free of fossil fuels well ahead of 2050; and saying nothing about fossil fuels at all.
The US special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, on Friday night told Australian reporters that: “I think we have to largely, not entirely, phase [fossil fuels] out because we can’t get to our goals without that.”
Kerry made the comments after appearing with Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest at an event aboard the Australian mining billionaire’s ship the Fortescue Green Pioneer, which has been designed with the capacity to run on a cleaner fuel mix that includes green ammonia, made with green hydrogen.
Cop 28 is being held against a backdrop of record-breaking temperatures this year and warnings that on current trends the world will hit 3C of heating, rendering parts of the planet effectively uninhabitable.
The two-week summit is due to finish on Tuesday, but expected to run into overtime.