Tension as Dubai talks hit stalemate over fossil fuels, finance

Demonstrators hold a protest outside the venue hosting the COP27 climate conference

Demonstrators hold a protest outside the venue hosting the COP27 climate conference at the Sharm el-Sheikh International Convention Centre, in Egypt's Red Sea resort city of the same name, on November 10, 2022.

Photo credit: Ahmad Gharabli | AFP

What you need to know:

  • COP28 President’s briefing called off twice in 30 minutes as fears that the talks might not end on time are amplified by the fact that, by mid-morning yesterday.
  • There had been no indications that the team of negotiators working on the Dubai document had agreed on the testy matter of fossil fuel phase-down, the mechanics of funding adaptation programmes, as well as whether the West should pay for energy transition.

The COP28 climate talks were headed for a stalemate last evening, with all indicators showing they might not meet the Tuesday deadline for a consensus that was suggested by the Presidency at the start of the Dubai summit. A flurry of meetings and an avalanche of protest notes pointed to a night of long knives here as armies of negotiators pored over the first draft of the document for the two-week-long summit.

Concerns over the stalemate had started in the morning and reached a crescendo by late evening, but were eased late last evening with the release of the first draft of the Text, a long document that captures the outcomes of all negotiations at the talks, which typically undergoes various revisions before it is universally adopted.

At a press conference last evening, Dr Al Jaber was expected to address the concerns over the text, which is the first draft of the final, universally agreed document from the negotiation rooms. The callout for the briefing was a single paragraph, attributed at the end to “COP28 Spokesman”. Usually, there are several versions of this text as the first one undergoes various revisions, and it was expected last evening that country representatives would spend the better part of the night discussing and amending the document.

“The COP28 Presidency has been clear from the beginning about our ambitions,” stated the media invite. “This text reflects those ambitions and is a huge step forward. Now it is in the hands of the Parties, who we trust to do what is best for humanity and the planet.”

However, the meeting was abruptly called off, with a spokesperson of the secretariat only saying that Dr Al Jaber had been “called to the plenary”, and that “obviously, the plenary takes precedence”.

However, Nation.africa obtained an advance copy of Dr Al Jaber’s notes, in which he suggests that, on the controversial subject of fossil fuels, the language in the negotiations text “calls for a reduction in consumption and production in line with net-zero by 2050, informed by the science”.

“On adaptation,” the notes continue, “there is an explicit recognition of the adaptation finance gap, and links it through the next year’s new goal”, and continues to say that the text “recognises that there needs to be a link between increased action and increased support to developing countries”.

At the time of going to press Dr Al Jaber had not commented on the matter of shifting financial flows, and a source indicated that, “in parallel, work is continuing and text is forthcoming”. His press briefing was postponed again at the last minute, the second such postponement within half an hour.

Fears that the talks would not end on time had emerged on Sunday evening and were amplified by the fact that, by mid-morning yesterday, there had been no indications that the team of negotiators working on the Dubai document had agreed.

The bone of contention, various sources told Nation.africa, is the testy matter of fossil fuel phase-down, the mechanics of funding adaptation programmes, as well as whether the West should pay for energy transition.

Oil-producing countries have been particularly averse to the suggestion that they should start phasing down their output, and indeed protested at this summit that their economies rely heavily on fossil fuel extraction, therefore the suggestion of a phase-down, which would ultimately lead to a total phase-out, is unacceptable to them.

The interest Dr Al Jaber’s briefing would have on the global media was evident at the hurriedly convened huddle in the Blue Zone of the conference area. Hundreds of media representatives quickly filled up the briefing zone, with many forced to follow the proceedings from outside the designated area.

Teams of security and logistics personnel were under strict instructions to only let media outlets into the venue, perhaps to keep away anti-fossil fuel demonstrators, who were chanting slogans just a few metres away from the briefing.

Such has been the high-stakes game at the talks that, at some point during the day yesterday, there were concerns that the Dubai talks could end up being a failure for not producing a roundly accepted document.

The annual talks had ended on a high note in Egypt last year with the setting up of a Loss and Damage fund to finance adaptation and mitigation efforts around the world, especially in the global south, and many had looked at the Dubai talks as an opportunity to finally have a candid, science-backed conversation about the future of fossil fuels.

Parties and delegates last evening expressed displeasure with the draft text, saying it was weak and non-committal on many subjects. The contentions raised by some delegations, including members of the civil society and a faction of negotiators, include the argument that the fossil fuel language on the Global Stocktake is unimpressive.

The Global stocktake is a form of a progress report for countries which is conducted every five years to see whether they have lived up to their pledges to make the planet more habitable.

In the draft text released yesterday evening, and which could change post the publishing of this article, the fossil fuel language shows that countries “could” take actions, but they are not obliged to when it comes to phasing out fossil fuels.

Mr Brandon Wu, Senior Policy Analyst at Action Aid, told the Nation that while most delegates anticipated the inclusion of a language on either phase-out or phase-down, this was excluded in the draft text.

“The text talks about reducing consumption and production of fossil fuels in a just, orderly, and equitable fashion to reach net zero by 2050,” he noted, adding that while the terms “just”, “orderly”, and” equitable” are important, the framing is still weak and parties could make it stronger.

“Equity implies that different countries have different timelines. So, the wealthy and developed countries should be the ones to be phasing out fossil fuels. However, Net Zero by 2050 is a problem, it will be too late. It will blow way past 1.5 degrees at that rate. We have to get rid of fossil fuels much faster,” he protested.

The other bone of contention from the text is on the finance bit as experts say that many developing countries cannot implement a fossil fuel phase-out without international support.

A paragraph in the text recognises the need for developed countries, as in the Paris Agreement, to provide finance to developing countries so that they can meet their emission reduction goals, but it does not outright say how this will happen.

Reacting to the draft text, Doli-Wura Awushi representing the Interfaith Dialogue, argued that it appeared there had been infiltration by fossil fuel lobbyists to influence the outcome of the draft text.

“I think, to a large extent, that there has been an influence. It is unfair, they should look at it in a way that if we continue using fossil fuels, where will the world be? How will the future generation take this? Will they pardon us?” he said, adding: “Lobbyists must look beyond their personal interests.”

Ms Mary Robinson, the former Ireland president who rattled the Dubai talks with an expose about Dr Al Jaber’s lukewarm acceptance of the danger of fossil fuels to the planet, was not amused with the text.

“It is not good enough to say you recognise and respect the science but then fail to take heed of its dire warnings in the collective action you commit to,” she said in a statement. “It is not good enough to note with ‘alarm and serious concern’ the findings of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report and the damage being caused already by climate change but then fail to put in place the steps the science recommends. It is not good enough to use weak language or to permit loopholes for the fossil fuel industry to continue to contribute to the very problem countries are meant to be committed to tackling here in Dubai.”
Last evening, three service crew members at the summit intimated to Nation.africa that they had been requested to extend their duties to Thursday, December 14. While Nation.africa could not confirm with the secretariat the reason for the extension-of-service request, it understood that was, in part, due to delays in coming up with the final document from the negotiations.

At the start of the summit two weeks ago, Dr Al Jaber had told journalists that he would very much love to have the Dubai talks conclude by noon of Tuesday, December 12, and urged parties to embrace compromise in their negotiations.

But why the stalemate? As of last Sunday, Parties have been busy burning the midnight oil debating over full stops, commas and the framing of the draft texts on issues such as loss and damage, adaptation and the total phase-out of fossil fuels, with some parties accusing oil producing entities of influencing the negotiations for their national interests.

For Kenya, Africa and the entire global south, COP28 is a critical conference of parties meeting as they are on the frontline of the climate catastrophe, and this push-and-pull is unacceptable to many of the observers here.

“What we are seeing is a clear attempt by developed countries to set a weak goal, weak targets and the development of indicators being pushed to another two years,” one of the African negotiators, who is not authorised to speak on behalf of the African Group of Negotiators, told Nation.africa. “Two years is too long and too late for the New Collective Quantified Goal outcomes (NCQG).”

He added: “Even if we manage to double adaptation finance, this will still be far from the scale that is needed. Developed countries are deleting any reference to finance targets in the text, delaying any opportunity to arrive at any decision on adaptation finance target to later than a decision on NCQG.”

Additional reporting by Leon Lidigu and Hellen Shikanda