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Cop28 summit ‘on verge of failure’ after UAE abandons fossil fuel pledge

Activists protest against fossil fuels at the Cop28 climate conference in Dubai
Activists protest against fossil fuels at the Cop28 climate conference in Dubai - Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The UN Cop28 summit is on the “verge of complete failure” after the UAE ditched a commitment to phase out fossil fuels.

Released on the eve of the final day of the climate change conference, the new weaker draft of an agreement only pledges that the production and consumption of the polluting fuels “could” be reduced, rather than stopped completely, to reach net zero by 2050.

An earlier version of the agreement said signatories would agree to phasing out fossil fuels entirely, but the UAE was under pressure from other oil-producing nations, led by Saudi Arabia.

The EU threatened to walk away from the talks unless the draft was changed, while the US warned the language over fossil fuels would have to be “substantially strengthened”.

Almost 200 countries are represented at the 13 days of international talks in Dubai and all must agree or a potentially historic deal will collapse.

There was fury from negotiators and campaigners at the summit where there had been hopes of striking a landmark climate deal to rival the vow struck in Paris in 2015 to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Neighbouring Saudi Arabia had put pressure on Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, Cop28 president and head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, to water down the draft deal, they said.

COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber
Mr al-Jaber has previously faced criticism for suggesting there was 'no science' showing that fossil fuels had to be phased out to limit global warming - KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images

The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) had also urged its members, which include the UAE, to vote against a phase-out of fossil fuels.

‘An obsequious draft’

Al Gore, the former US vice-president turned environmental campaigner, said: “Cop28 is now on the verge of complete failure. The world desperately needs to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible, but this obsequious draft reads as if OPEC dictated it word for word.

“It is even worse than many had feared. It is ‘Of the Petrostates, by the Petrostates and for the Petrostates’.”

Mr Gore, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change, said the text must “include clear language on phasing out fossil fuels” or Cop28 would be “the most embarrassing and dismal failure in 28 years of international climate negotiations”.

Small island states threatened by rising ocean levels warned they would not sign their own “death warrant” in Dubai and lashed out at the “weak language” on fossil fuels.

“We will not go silently to our watery graves,” said John Silk, minister of natural resources and commerce for the Marshall Islands.

Speaking in Dubai, Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister, said that the draft deal was disappointing. Replacing fossil fuels was completely absent from the draft deal, she said, meaning Germany could not support it.

The draft was “clearly insufficient”, added Wopke Hoekstra, the EU climate commissioner, in comments echoed by French officials.

Before the draft was released, António Guterres, the secretary-general of the UN, said the success of Cop28 would be measured by whether it could “reach a consensus on the need to phase out fossil fuels”.

Almost 200 countries are represented at the 13 days of international talks in Dubai
Almost 200 countries are represented at the 13 days of international talks in Dubai - Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The text was produced by the UN climate body but the UAE is chairing the intergovernmental negotiations and trying to broker a deal.

“We have made progress, but we still have a lot to do . . . including on fossil fuel language,” Mr al-Jaber said after the draft was released.

He added that all the nations had decided to keep the focus on “our north star” of limiting temperatures to 1.5C degrees above pre-industrial levels.

The Emirati oil executive faced criticism a month before the summit for suggesting there was “no science” showing that fossil fuels had to be phased out to limit global warming.

He later claimed his remarks had been misinterpreted. There was further controversy after the BBC reported the UAE planned to use the event to discuss oil and gas deals with a dozen countries.

Burning fossil fuels is the biggest contributor to global warming and governments have never collectively agreed to stop using them before.

If a deal can be reached, it could be the first time the climate change conference has called for a shift away from all fossil fuels rather than just coal.

Negotiations are now expected to stretch on into the final scheduled day of the summit. Mr al-Jaber has set a deadline of 11am local time on Tuesday for a compromise to be reached.

“We have a text and we have to agree on it. The time for discussions is coming to an end and now is not the time to hesitate. It is time to decide,” he told the UN session.

At the Cop26 summit in Glasgow, a deal was reached but only after the meeting overran by two days.