World divided at COP28 over whether to end fossil fuel era

By Kate Abnett and Alison Withers

DUBAI (Reuters) – It’s the issue at the core of COP28: will this year’s U.N. climate talks, held in major oil producer the United Arab Emirates, produce the first global agreement to phase out fossil fuel use?

Burning fossil fuels for energy is by far the biggest cause of climate change. It is also the engine of modern life – even with the growth of renewables, fossil fuels produce around 80% of the world’s energy.

U.N. climate negotiations over the last three decades, however, have yet to address the issue head on.

The COP26 summit in Glasgow in 2021 made the first tangible progress toward a fossil fuel exit deal with an agreement to reduce coal use, but without mentioning oil and gas.

At COP28 in Dubai, more than 80 countries are pushing for a broader pact to phase out all CO2-emitting fossil fuels.

“The ‘phase out’ is a tool to reach the goal. And the goal is an energy system that has no emissions,” Norway’s Foreign Minister Espen Barthe Eide told Reuters at COP28.

“Not low emissions, but emissions free.”

Aside from Norway, Europe’s biggest oil and gas producer, excluding Russia, this position is also backed by western producers the United States and Canada, the 27-country European Union, climate-vulnerable small island states, some African nations including Kenya and Ethiopia, and Latin American countries Chile and Colombia.

Opposition to a full fossil fuel phase out, diplomats told Reuters, is led by Russia, Saudi Arabia and China, which is the world’s biggest carbon emitter.

Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman told Bloomberg TV on Tuesday that his country would “absolutely not” agree to a deal that calls for a phase down.

Sultan Al-Jaber, the United Arab Emirates’ COP28 president, said on Monday he was calling on countries to propose language on fossil fuels for the COP deal.

“The phase down and the phase out of fossil fuels is inevitable,” said Jaber, who is also CEO of the UAE’s state-owned oil firm ADNOC.

Countries’ negotiators have only days to find agreement before the summit’s scheduled end on Dec. 12.


Some representatives of African nations have said they could support a phase out deal if wealthy countries, who have long produced and used fossil fuels, agree to quit first.

“To tell Uganda to stop fossil fuels, it is really, really an insult. It’s like you are telling Uganda to stay in poverty,” Uganda’s energy minister Ruth Nankabirwa said.

Uganda, Mozambique and others on the continent with low electricity access rates plan to develop or expand their oil and gas production. Uganda began drilling its first production well this year.

Nankabirwa told Reuters the country could accept a long-term phase out, if it made clear that developing nations can exploit their resources in the near term, while wealthy long-time producers quit first.

“First in, first out – and we will be happy to be the last one to exit from fossil fuels,” she said.

Diplomats and observers told Reuters a group of countries including China and Saudi Arabia have consistently raised the issue of “equity” during COP28 talks, emphasising wealthy industrialised nations’ high historical contribution to climate change.

Some said they doubted whether these nations would support a phase out, however, even if the issue of equity was addressed.


Another sticking point in the talks around the future of fossil fuels is whether the deal should allow for continued consumption on condition that their planet-warming CO2 emissions are captured, or “abated.”

The vast majority of the world’s power plants are unabated.

Diplomats say that Saudi Arabia wants a COP28 deal that includes a focus on carbon capture technologies, which remain expensive and not used at scale.

The U.N.’s climate science panel – the IPCC – has said steep fossil fuel cuts are needed to avert more severe climate change. Alongside this, it sees a limited role for carbon capture to zero out the world’s emissions by 2050.

The U.S. and EU support a COP28 deal that recognises these technologies, which can help polluting sectors such as cement or steel to bring down their emissions. But they want caveats in the deal to prevent carbon capture promises from being used to excuse business as usual.

Overall, European nations say the COP deal must clearly ask countries to cut their fossil fuel use enough to stop global warming exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) and unleashing far more severe impacts.

“That is what 1.5C means. You can’t keep burning fossil fuels,” Irish Climate Minister Eamon Ryan told Reuters.

“There will be a small amount, abated, in hard-to-reach sectors… but that can’t be a get-out-of-jail card for international fossil fuel companies.”

Some negotiators told Reuters they and other phase out advocates could agree to something short of a full phase out, provided the world’s direction of travel is clear.

“Oil consumption is going to go down. It’s inevitable in my view,” Canadian climate minister Steven Guilbeault told Reuters.

“Whether it’s in the text or not, it’s happening,” he said.

(Reporting by Kate Abnett and Ali Withers; additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici, Sarah McFarlane, Gloria Dickie; Editing by Katy Daigle and Barbara Lewis)