New climate summit draft calls for transition away from fossil fuels, but still has ‘loopholes’

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A new draft of the centerpiece agreement at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai makes an unprecedented mention of transitioning away from fossil fuels, in what some experts are welcoming as the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era.

But it does not call for the world to “phase out” coal, oil and gas — as more than 100 countries had hoped — and includes “loopholes” that would allow for their continued use, even beyond 2050.

The draft, which could continue to be debated, calls on countries to “contribute” collectively to global efforts to reduce climate pollution in a way that they see fit. It offers eight options, one of which is “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems … accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050.”

Countries could choose other options instead, including contributing to a global goal of tripling renewable energy and doubling energy efficiency.

Climate advocates and policy experts welcomed the call to transition away from fossil fuels — the main driver of the climate crisis — saying it sends a signal to countries to make plans to wean off coal, oil and gas and recognizes this decade as critical for action.

The draft “sends a signal that the fossil industry’s days are numbered,” Teresa Anderson, global climate lead at ActionAid, said in a statement.

But Anderson pointed out several weaknesses in the draft, including references to accelerating growth in “removal technologies,” also known as carbon capture, which would allow for the continued use of fossil fuels if their carbon pollution was removed before entering the atmosphere. Many scientists have expressed concern that carbon capture is expensive, unproven at scale and a distraction from policies to cut fossil fuel use.

“The text has many loopholes and offers several gifts to the greenwashers, with mentions of carbon capture and storage, so-called transition fuels, nuclear power and carbon markets,” she said. “Overall, it maps a rocky road towards a fossil free future.”

The draft was published Wednesday morning local time, more than 12 hours after the summit’s deadline, as talks ran hours into overtime as countries negotiated language around fossil fuels and other sticking points. There will be widespread appetite to wrap up talks by the end of the day, which will require a vote on the draft in a plenary session that will be publicly available online.

What to do about the future of fossil fuels has been the most contentious issue at these talks. Some more ambitious nations and climate advocate had expressed anger and frustration an earlier draft dropped the call for a phase-out.

If the text is agreed by countries, it would represent a “significant moment,” Stephen Cornelius, WWF deputy global climate and energy lead, said in a statement.

“[But] this cannot be the benchmark by which we judge the outcome of this COP,” he said. “Countries must use these final hours to push for an even more ambitious text that is fully aligned with preventing the most devastating consequences of the climate crisis.”

The annual climate talks are often divisive and run into extra hours, but COP28 has been particularly fraught, with criticism that oil interests have derailed the process.

The fossil fuel industry was given record access to the conference, a recent analysis showed. COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber, who is presiding over the talks, also leads the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company as it undergoes a major expansion in oil and gas production. He has consistently rejected criticisms of a conflict of interest and pledged to hold a transparent process.

The secretary-general of the oil-producing group OPEC, Haitham Al Ghais, called on members and allies last week to “proactively reject” any language that targeted reducing fossil fuel use, telling members to support language that focuses on “emissions” instead.

Saudi Arabia and Iraq were among the countries that did not want reference to a phase-out of fossil fuels in the text, Catherine Abreu, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit group Destination Zero, told reporters in Dubai. Kuwait’s state news agency KUNA said the country’s delegation to COP28 was “reaffirming” its rejection of a phase-out as well.

The COP28 presidency has fended off criticism that the text had been too watered down. On Tuesday, it said it supported a “historic” deal that included some language on fossil fuels and aimed for “the highest ambition.”

“We are facing the most demanding COP agenda of all time,” said COP28 Director-General Ambassador Majid Al Suwaidi in a news conference.

This is a developing story and it has been updated.

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