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The countdown to COP has begun in earnest. In just one month, climate delegations will descend on Dubai at a time when the need for urgent, meaningful action is greater than ever. This year is set to be the hottest on record, with around one in three days breaching the 1.5C threshold laid out in the Paris Agreement, while the impacts of climate change have been more extreme and widespread than ever. The conflict in the Middle East is further exposing tensions between North and South, developed and developing, fossil fuel and clean energy. The key issues are familiar, depressingly so for some, but they cut right to the heart of the climate crisis – fossil fuels and finance.

Fossil fuel consensus developing

Fossil fuels account for three-quarters of all greenhouse gas emissions, and cutting their use dramatically will be a key focus at COP. The COP President Sultan Al Jaber has consistently called for a tripling of renewable energy capacity (a cornerstone of the International Energy Agency’s roadmap to net zero) and a doubling of energy efficiency to cut emissions. However, in recent weeks he’s made it clear that while he accepts the need to ramp up renewables, he believes fossil fuels still have a vital role to play

In his recent advisory note to governments, he repeatedly outlines the need for a “responsible phase down of unabated fossil fuels” by 2050. Not only does this put him at loggerheads with the science, but also with a number of powerful delegations. At COP28 the EU will be pushing hard for the phase-out (not down) of unabated fossil fuels, and according to Vanuatu’s Minister for Climate Change Ralph Regenvanu, speaking on the sidelines of the Pre COP meeting in Abu Dhabi, the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) of countries, which includes the US, will be doing the same. 

Others will be going further. “The Pacific members of the HAC want to completely phase out fossil fuels, with no qualifications,” Regenvanu said. In other words, some delegations will be calling for an end to all fossil fuels, not just those without technology to capture emissions. Indeed “the phase out should be unqualified… and I very much hope that is the consensus that will come out of the HAC,” said Regenvanu.

None of this will go down well with fossil fuel nations and Al Jaber, who talks of the need to embrace “the deployment of all available solutions and technologies” in the fight against climate change. Specifically, he’s referring to carbon capture and storage (CCS) and carbon dioxide removal (CDR), technologies that would allow for the continued use of fossil fuels. This is despite the fact that even optimistic forecasts for CCS (most of which is currently used to increase oil production) indicate it could capture only a tiny fraction of emissions in the time required, while the costs involved mean CDR won’t be able to scale up quickly enough to make a meaningful difference.

Loss and damage key test

Negotiations regarding finance will be equally fraught, and there are a number of potential flashpoints. Not least loss and damage, which has been a hugely divisive issue between developed and developing countries. Where the fund should be housed is one problem to resolve, with the US keen on the World Bank (WB) but developing nations deeply sceptical given the organisation’s US and western-centric viewpoint, as well as its weak track record on climate. According to Michai Robertson, Lead Negotiator for Climate Finance for the Alliance of Small Island States, speaking on the sidelines of Pre COP, given the World Bank is undergoing “massive reform” and “the clear recognition in Marrakesh (at the recent WB/International Monetary Fund meeting) that [it’s] not fit for purpose even for looking at broader sustainable development issues… it is absolutely inappropriate for us to be saying we’re going to be fitting into the model of the WB”. 

Where the money is going to come from is another hugely contentious issue that needs to be resolved, with some calling for rich, historically-polluting nations to pay and others for a tax on the profits of big oil companies. Neither are keen to deliver. “There are going to be a lot of problems around the fund,” said Regenvanu. “It’s going to be very hard, but if we don’t get an operational fund, it will be a failure of COP28.”

Away from loss and damage, there will be tense negotiations on adaptation and mitigation finance. Developed nations pledged in 2009 to provide $100bn a year in climate finance to developing nations, but have yet to hit the target 14 years on. Al Jaber has called for a doubling of adaptation finance by 2025. These numbers represent the absolute bare minimum needed to meet a shortfall in overall climate finance of trillions of dollars, also acknowledged by Al Jaber in his recent guidance. Reforming international financial institutions, including the WB, to unlock this kind of money will be high on the COP agenda.

Other important issues will be discussed in Dubai including an ambitious proposal to slash methane emissions, which account for a fifth of total greenhouse gases (GHGs), by 75% by 2030, and a deal to strengthen countries’ national climate plans, so-called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which currently fall woefully short of what’s required to hit net zero and 1.5C targets. Incorporating all sectors of the economy and all GHGs will be discussed. But it’s progress on phasing out fossil fuels and raising enough climate finance to slash emissions, adapt effectively and acknowledge responsibility for rising temperatures and the havoc they wreak that will be the true test of COP28.