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The U.S. May Not Have Won Over Critics in Dubai, But the Biden Administration Helped Keep the Process Alive


When it looked like climate negotiations in Dubai were about to fall apart early this week over the summit’s failure to make any commitment to transition away from fossil fuels, U.S. Special Climate Envoy John Kerry sharpened his tone to align with the most ardent climate activists—many of whom had been targeting him for criticism.

Kerry was no longer talking about a phase-out of “emissions” rather than fuels, and no longer insisting that the qualifier “unabated” be included in any text on ridding the world of fossil fuels. Instead, Kerry was saying that the United States stood with those who rejected the weak draft text published on Monday by COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber of the United Arab Emirates.

“Many of us have called for the world to largely phase out fossil fuels, and that starts with a critical reduction this decade,” Kerry said. “This is a war for survival.”

The United States may not have entirely won over its critics when COP28 ended Tuesday with the first statement on fossil fuels in the history of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. But the summit’s cautious final compromise text—which the United States clearly had a key role in helping to craft, say those familiar with Kerry’s team—was enough to ensure that the gathering did not blow up and end without a deal. And that, in itself, was a victory both for the United States and the much-maligned U.N. process, say a number of close observers of climate talks.

To the extent that the U.S. contributed to keeping the process alive, it was able to ensure continued progress would come out of its intensive pre-summit diplomacy with China. The world’s two largest greenhouse gas polluters worked together at Dubai to include in the summit’s final statement a number of items from the agreement they reached in November in Sunnylands, California, including language on addressing potent greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide, especially methane. 

“We both hope and are pleased that we think our joint work not only advanced our respective national efforts, but also reflected at the COP in many ways,” said Kerry at a news conference after the conclusion of the session, where he appeared alongside China’s top climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua.

Acknowledging that many parties—particularly small island nation states—felt the Dubai agreement was too weak, Kerry maintained that it marked an important achievement, given the competing interests of the nearly 200 nations involved, any one of whom could block a deal.

“I think  we all should recognize the special nature of finding common ground for something as broad and complicated as this, where the stakes are so high,” Kerry said. “Economically, socially, politically, in human terms, it doesn’t get bigger.”

Breaking the Fossil Fuel Logjam

The conference erupted early in the week when al-Jaber released a text listing fossil fuel reduction as an option that nations “could” embark on, instead of one of the urgent actions needed to keep the Paris goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius  within reach. While Saudi Arabia was openly pushing to exclude mention of fossil fuels from the text altogether, many climate activists directed their anger at the nation that has supplanted the Saudis as the world’s No. 1 oil producer, the United States.

“We wouldn’t be in this situation, and the deal would have a lot more credibility right now, if it work not for countries in the global North that are still expanding fossil fuel production, and in particular, the United States,” said Romain Ioualalen, global policy lead at Oil Change International.

Rachel Cleetus, climate and energy policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, talking about the shortfall in finance for poorer nations as well as the lack of a clear commitment to phase out fossil fuels, called out Kerry by name.

“I especially urge my country, the United States, to stop being a laggard and step up and deliver, as the world’s richest nation, and the biggest contributor to historical emissions,” she said. “Secretary Kerry, you can still do it. Please, please, play a constructive role.”

John Kerry attends day seven of COP28. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

After round-the-clock negotiations, a text emerged that would put the U.N. climate negotiators on the record for the first time addressing the future of the oil, gas and coal that is the source of the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions. The parties agreed to “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.”

Jonathan Pershing, who served as the chief U.S. climate negotiator during President Barack Obama’s administration and served under Kerry early in the Biden administration, said it may not have been as clear a statement as many had hoped, but it was a way forward.

“It kind of finds a middle compromise between those who didn’t want to speak to this agenda and those who want to aggressively address the agenda,” Pershing said. 

He said he believed the U.S. team clearly was involved in crafting the final language. “The U.S. has a very talented negotiating team, and they’re a huge asset in helping to figure out great solutions.”

If no agreement had come out of Dubai, observers said it would have cast doubt upon the entire U.N. process.”The ghost of Copenhagen sits over all these negotiations and there’s always a risk some countries are going to take the ball and go home,” said David Victor, a professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego, referring to the failed climate talks at the start of President Barack Obama’s administration in 2009. Victor argues that Copenhagen eventually paved the way for the 2015 Paris climate accord, and with the world in the crucial implementation phase, he said it was important that the parties didn’t walk away.

“Harming the process right now would be really harmful” to further progress, Victor said.

Beyond Fossil Fuels, Renewables and More

Nathan Hultman, a former senior State Department official and climate negotiator who now directs the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland, said there are many other important elements of the Dubai agreement that have gotten overlooked in the focus on the fossil fuel language.

“It’s good that we got an outcome because there are many other good things in this document that are in fact, very good and very strong,” he said.

For example, the negotiators went on record in support of tripling renewable energy and doubling the pace of energy efficiency improvement. They also called for “accelerating and substantially reducing non-carbon-dioxide emissions globally, including in particular methane emissions by 2030.”

The focus on methane was drawn directly from U.S.-China climate agreement in the run-up to the COP.

“We’ve now seen over and over again, what happens at the COP is often presaged by a meeting of the minds of the U.S. and China as the world’s two emitters,” said Deborah Seligsohn, an international relations professor at Villanova University who has focused on the relationship between the two countries. Seligsohn thinks that putting greater focus on short-lived but potent pollutants like methane makes sense, given the rate at which warming is happening.

“We need to address gases that we can control much more quickly that are going to have a huge impact in the short to medium term,” she said.

Given the tension between the U.S. and China on other issues, including on Taiwan and a trade war on semiconductor technology, Seligsohn said Kerry deserves credit for continuing to pursue climate negotiations with China. 

“During a period where I think the Biden administration as a whole tended to think about all kinds of other issues with China as more urgent, he kept on working on this most important issue,” she said.

Still Seeking Path on Transition From Fossil Fuels

Although many of the poor, most vulnerable nations wanted to see stronger commitments to fossil fuel reductions, Kerry expressed confidence that the record investments that the Biden administration and others are making in clean energy will eventually spur the needed change. “That transition, I am convinced, because of the marketplace, is going to just accelerate and accelerate,” he said.

Hultman, the former climate negotiator now at the University of Maryland, noted that this is exactly the approach to addressing the climate crisis that nations committed to in 2015 in Paris, when instead of targets and timetables, they agreed to nationally determined contributions. 

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“This is my 21st COP, going back to COP3, and I think that this is the strongest position domestically that the U.S. has ever been in,” Hultman said. “We’re already delivering on policies and investments and other kinds of actions, which is what countries agreed to do under Paris.”

Pershing, Obama’s chief climate negotiator, said that it should be seen as significant that the Dubai meeting ended with the first specific recognition of the problem of fossil fuels, and it signals that the center of gravity has definitively changed, in how nations view the climate crisis.

“The fact that we’re recognizing fossil fuels does not mean that we’re doing enough about that. The fact that we’ve got a commitment to triple renewables does not mean we’ve tripled renewables,” Pershing said. “This is the middle, which is what you tend to get in these negotiations. It shows that the middle has moved, as opposed to showing that the answer has been found.”



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