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Climate

At COP28, the United States Will Stress an End to Fossil Emissions, Not Fuels


President Joe Biden will not attend the climate talks that commence this week in Dubai, but the conflict that has come to define his policy on the planetary crisis will be front and center.

The president who has catalyzed the nation’s greatest investment ever in a clean energy transition also has presided as U.S. oil and natural gas production reached record heights.

And as delegates from nearly 200 nations convene Thursday for two weeks of negotiations on what more needs to be done to stave off catastrophic warming, pressure is building for the annual conference to address specifically—for the first time— the future of fossil fuels.

But the United States, casting itself as a climate action leader despite its role as the world’s No. 1 oil and natural gas producer, will insist that any phase-down language be focused not on fossil fuels themselves, but on their emissions.

“We hope we can send a very strong signal that the nations of the world are committed to work together to transition away from fossil fuel emissions in the next three decades,” said John Kerry, the U.S. special climate envoy, in a briefing Wednesday from Dubai.

The language that the United States endorses, Kerry said, is in the statement agreed to this year at a summit of the so-called “Group of Seven” wealthy nations, or G7, requiring an accelerated phase-out of “unabated” fossil fuels to achieve net zero emissions in all energy systems by mid-century.

That phrasing foresees continued oil and natural gas production with deployment of technologies to capture their carbon emissions. Such technologies are not commercially available and even under the most optimistic scenarios would be able to capture only a fraction of global CO2 emissions by 2030. But the Biden administration is investing in them heavily—in essence, pouring money into a lifeline for the fossil fuel industry in a carbon-constrained world.

It was almost impossible to avoid fossil fuels becoming a focus of the 28th round of annual United Nations climate talks, known as COP28. In what is on track to be the warmest year on record, climate negotiators are holding their meeting in a major oil-producing nation, the United Arab Emirates. Climate action advocates have expressed outrage at a BBC report indicating that the president of COP28, Sultan al-Jaber, who simultaneously is CEO of the UAE’s giant state oil company, Adnoc, was using the summit to make oil and gas deals. Al-Jaber called a news conference Wednesday to deny the report.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration faces international and domestic political pressure to take an aggressive stand at the gathering on phasing down fossil fuels. Although the European Union signed on to the G7 language in the spring, the EU Parliament last week bolstered its position going into COP28. The EU Parliament now calls for “a tangible phase-out of fossil fuels,” and for negotiators to develop a fossil fuel “non-proliferation treaty” to augment the U.N. climate accords.

At home, Biden is going into next year’s election with weakening support from young voters, who were a key to his 2020 victory. It is clear the erosion in part is over pro-fossil fuel moves like his approval earlier this year of ConocoPhillips’ $8 billion Willow oil drilling project on federal land in Arctic Alaska.

“Biden hasn’t said why he’s not attending COP28,” posted the youth-led climate action group Sunrise Movement, on the social media platform X. “Might it be because he’s afraid to show his face while he’s approving projects like Willow that are putting the U.S. on track to produce more oil and gas than ever before?”

Several published reports on Wednesday quoted White House sources saying that a last-minute decision had been made for Vice President Kamala Harris to attend COP28, a development not yet reflected in her official schedule.

The Union of Concerned Scientists organized a letter to Biden signed by more than 650 scientists, urging stronger U.S. leadership at COP28, especially on “a fast and fair phaseout of all fossil fuels.” Rachel Cleetus, policy director of UCS’s climate and energy program, said mid-century goals like the G7’s are ignoring the evidence of a string of studies, including by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier this year, that the world is on track to blow past its carbon budget by 2030, making impossible the Paris goal of holding warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.

“When we’re talking about 2030 emissions cuts, it has to be about direct cuts of all fossil fuels—coal, oil and gas,” Cleetus said, adding there aren’t any “escape hatches” that will address the near-term problem, even if carbon capture is ready by mid-century.

Kerry stressed that there still are countries—including major producers—that have not signed on to the idea of phasing out unabated fossil fuel emissions. “They need to immediately step up and be part of the solution, not the most significant part of the problem,” Kerry said. Although he did not name names, the world’s No. 2 oil producer, Saudi Arabia, has played a strong role in weakening language on fossil fuels at past COPs. And on the eve of the Dubai talks, Britain’s Channel 4 and the Centre for Climate Reporting published an investigation showing the Saudis are working on a plan to artificially increase oil demand globally.

“We find it hard to understand how anybody would continue to allow unabated burning of fossil fuels in the world we’re living in, knowing about the dangers,” Kerry said.

The United States expects to make what Kerry called “a very important” announcement on control of the potent greenhouse gas methane, involving the oil and gas industry as well as other countries. Published reports suggest that may occur Dec. 2 at a special methane-focused summit at COP28 organized by the U.S. and China as part of the deal the world’s two largest greenhouse gas polluters struck earlier this month in California.

Because methane is 81 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, Kerry noted that control of emissions—which leak from oil and gas operations and are generated by agriculture—can have a large short-term impact. “We think it’s the easiest, quickest, fastest, cheapest way to begin to get gains against warming,” Kerry said.

Still, some advocates for a stronger U.S. stand on fossil fuels have concerns that methane can become a distraction. “We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we still also need steep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions,” Cleetus said. “It’s not either/or; it’s both/and.”

In listing the top U.S. priorities at COP28, Kerry did not include the fossil fuels language but highlighted other mandated items that the parties had agreed to address, such as setting up the long-awaited fund to address climate loss and damages and the first so-called “global stocktake,” a detailed checkup of progress toward the goals of the Paris accord.

The stocktake, Kerry said, is “a unique opportunity … to rally the world to significantly step up our collective efforts.”

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The recent U.N. Emissions Gap report shows that the Earth is on track to blow past the Paris goal, heating up by roughly 2.5 to 2.9 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels by the century’s end. Kerry noted the world was headed toward warming by 3.7 to 4 degrees Celsius before the Paris accord. 

“I don’t say this because the job is done,” he said. But he added that the International Energy Agency has calculated that warming could be held to 1.7 or 1.8 degrees if the promises made at past climate talks, particularly two years ago at Glasgow, were fulfilled. “It shows that with this effort, things could be within grasp. They’re not completely, for the simple reason that not everybody is doing what they promised to do.”

Climate advocates see the United States as having a unique responsibility at the talks, as the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gas pollution, as the wealthiest nation, and as the leading fossil fuel producer. 

“This is about collective action,” said Cleetus. “No one country can do this on their own. But there is a large responsibility for the United States.”



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