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If it wasn’t already, seven days into COP28 it’s crystal clear. At the end of the hottest year on record, with the Panama Canal turning away ships, Saudi Arabia’s groundwater supplies running out and insurers warning of catastrophic extreme weather losses, some countries are still refusing to accept that the continued burning of fossil fuels and general abuse of nature is a problem.

Once Wednesday wraps up, governments will have five working days to agree how the world will respond to the impacts of climate change, as laid out in the UN’s climate science & policy report card (Global Stocktake aka GST). The current text is chunky – too long, too bitty, too many loopholes. A global ‘fossil fuel phaseout’ target gets a mention (para 35), but the text avoids any kind of timeline, an issue on which the science is clear. 

Asked by the UK & Singapore co-chairs to take a ‘scalpel’ to elements of the GST text, an evening session on Tuesday night saw countries come with machetes. Here’s a taste of the views expressed:

  • US: Made nearly 200 edits/comments (‘took a broadsword’ was one reflection)
  • EU: No vague language on fossil fuels & wants tripling of renewables & doubling of energy efficiency 
  • Malawi: Cannot backtrack from 1.5C target, GST needs to deliver on this + finance
  • Brazil: Concerned with unilateral trade measures connected to climate change 
  • Iran: Supports Russia on natural gas as a bridging fuel – it’s affordable and accessible
  • Saudi Arabia: Para 35 (fossil phaseout) was ‘trauma’ and opposed human rights references
  • China: Echoes Brazil on rising unilateralism/wants to address Cross Border Adjustment Mechanism
  • India: Also opposed para 35 – ‘no policy prescriptive mandate to be respected’.

This Carbon Brief piece nails why the battle over fossil fuel phaseout and the use of ‘abatement’ technologies is so contentious. As it explains, “the IEA’s 1.5C pathway sees dramatic reductions in unabated fossil fuel use, with only a very small role for abated fossil fuels.” There are multiple routes to net zero in 2050, but all need fossil fuel use to fall significantly. 

Make no mistake, the reputation of the UNFCCC process is under threat more than ever. An oil-rich host was always a risk, but dubious interpretations of climate science, a UAE hydrocarbons production surge and an influx of big fossil fuel lobbyists has left alarm bells ringing. There are 2,400 fossil-fuel industry representatives here. The next few days will show if that’s enough to delay climate action by another crucial year.

Carbon capture

But it’s not all about the GST. Word hit late on Tuesday that the Mitigation Work Programme talks (aimed at developing emission-cutting plans through the 2020s) had stalled. African climate experts are especially worried about the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA) negotiations, a vital but tortuous set of discussions aimed at delivering a boost to global efforts on climate resilience.

Elsewhere on Tuesday, the ‘high level’ CCS event at COP was a lacklustre affair – no pledges of note and a general view that it would be nice if carbon capture was a thing. A bit like world peace, everyone has a view, no-one has a plan. This may be because – as Oxford University’s Smith School notes – the costs could hit $1 trillion a year. It may also be linked to the fear that CCS doesn’t work that well. Climate Analytics reckon leaky tech could bust 1.5C with 86 billion tonnes of CO2 escaping  between 2020-2050.

Another couple of developments worthy of note were Australia and Norway joining the clean energy transition partnership, an initiative designed to end international public finance for fossil fuels. OECD countries poured an average of $41 billion into fossil fuels from 2018 to 2020, almost five times more than clean energy exports.

And finally six big dairy companies committed to report on and reduce methane emissions, but stopped short of agreeing reduction targets. Tellingly, some of the biggest dairy polluters – Arla, Dairy Farmers of America and Fonterra – didn’t even take part.