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COP28 head says there is 'no science' to suggest phasing out fossil fuels is the only way to achieve key climate target

Climate leaders have reacted with fury after the controversial head of COP28 claimed there was "no science" to suggest phasing out fossil fuels will help limit global warming to 1.5C.

The president of the Dubai climate change summit, Sultan al Jaber, made the comments during an ill-tempered online question and answer session, a video obtained by The Guardian has revealed.

The 2015 Paris Agreement established the target, which aims to limit the world's average surface temperature to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Global temperatures have already increased by more than 1.28C since 1880, it is estimated.

The limit is seen as crucial to stave off the more dangerous impacts of climate change - with reducing or eliminating harmful emissions widely seen as the best way of achieving the goal.

However during the event, hosted by campaign group She Changes Climate, Mr al Jaber hit out at scientists after fellow panellist Mary Robinson, a former UN climate envoy, said nations needed to commit to phasing out fossil fuel usage.

He replied: "there is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says the phase-out of fossil fuel is what's going to achieve 1.5C...

"A phase-out of fossil fuel, in my view, is inevitable, it is essential. But we need to be real, serious and pragmatic about it."

Mr al Jaber added later: "Please help me, show me the roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socioeconomic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves."

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Video of the question and answer session, which took place on 21 November, emerged on Sunday only days after UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres called on world leaders to cut emissions to help "save" the planet.

He told the summit on Friday: "The 1.5C limit is only possible if we ultimately stop burning all fossil fuels. Not reduce. Not abate."

Scientists and campaign groups reacted with anger to Mr al Jaber's remarks.

Teresa Anderson, from ActionAid International, described his comments as "completely divorced from the reality of hundreds of millions of people on the frontline of climate catastrophe."

She added: "Communities whose lives are already being destroyed by floods, droughts, and cyclones have a different view on whether a fossil-fuelled future represents progress or poverty.

"With climate disasters worsening with each year, his comments fly in the face of all science and offer up another lifeline for climate-wrecking fossil fuel industries."

Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, said: "The recent comments from the COP28 president show how entrenched he is in fossil fuel fantasy and is clearly determined that this COP doesn't do anything to harm the interests of the oil and gas industry...

"For the people in Africa already dying because of climate change, a fossil fuel phase-out date in the future is already too late. We need to ensure we have a date locked in here at COP28 so that at least the next generation has a chance to survive."

Bill Hare, the chief executive of Climate Analytics, also told The Guardian: "This is an extraordinary, revealing, worrying and belligerent exchange. 'Sending us back to caves' is the oldest of fossil fuel industry tropes: it's verging on climate denial."

A spokesperson for COP28 said: "The COP president was unwavering in saying reaching 1.5C involves action across a number of areas and sectors. The COP President is clear that phasing down and out of fossil fuels is inevitable and that we must keep 1.5C within reach...

"The COP president is focused on working with parties to deliver a plan that will deliver maximum transition and minimal disruption for everyone in the world.

"He has repeatedly communicated our position on fossil fuels and invited all parties to work together and come up with solutions that can achieve alignment, common ground and consensus."

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It is the latest controversy to hit Mr al Jaber, who is also chief executive of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

Critics have questioned his suitability for the role, due to his background. He has also faced allegations that the UAE wanted to use the summit to strike new oil and gas deals - claims he has denied and described as "false".

The summit, which opened last week in Dubai, is scheduled to run until 12 December.