Optimism ebbs at COP28 as fault lines on contentious issues widen
As the summit enters the second week, fault lines began to sharpen among country groups on the phase out of fossil fuels.
The excitement about big-ticket announcements in the initial days of the United Nations Climate Summit (COP28) ebbed as the focus begins to shift this week on negotiations over contentious issues in the Global Stocktake and other legally binding texts.
As the summit enters the second week, fault lines began to sharpen among country groups on the phase out of fossil fuels, with larger focus on coal, observers aware of the discussions said on Wednesday, predicting a tough round of negotiations before the conference is due to end on December 12.
While countries like Saudi Arabia, China and India are likely to oppose language on phasing out fossil fuels and stopping new coal projects, the US and the EU are pushing for strong language on these along with the inclusion of carbon capture and storage technologies, observers in Dubai said.
Negotiators have said that there are far too many issues on which countries have expressed divergent views. The draft text prepared by subsidiary bodies will go to the Conference of Parties on Friday, when negotiations will be threadbare, with ministers overseeing the shaping up of what will be the agreement from Dubai and conclusion of the first Global Stocktake.
For India, the main focus is to safeguard the principles of the Paris Agreement in the final text, officials said, adding that the country’s position on certain issues cannot be compromised on.
“We are trying to safeguard the principles of Paris Agreement. There are certain issues which may turn out to be challenging but this is a multilateral process and every country has a say,” a senior official said on the condition of anonymity.
Among the non-negotiables is the tying up of renewable energy capacity with a complete halt on investments in new coal power plants, negotiators involved with the draft GST and other texts said.
“During the first week, when countries led by UAE, US and others signed a pledge on tripling renewable energy capacity and doubling energy efficiency, India and China did not sign it because of the language on coal. That is a non-negotiable for India even in the GST but there is pressure to introduce that language,” an observer said, asking not to be named.
The issue is expected to polarise the debate next week, a second negotiator, from a developing country, added.
“Saudi Arabia and China along with India may not be agreeable to language on phasing out fossil fuels and stopping new coal projects but US and EU are pushing for strong language on those. This will become an intense, polarised issue next week. There is now a lot of discussion on inclusion of CCS (carbon capture and storage) as that has to go with language on fossil fuel phaseout,” this negotiator said.
The language on methane is also likely to emerge as a big challenge for India with the US pushing for a 30% reduction in methane emissions from 2020 levels by 2030 to be introduced in the global stocktake text.
“We cannot accept it because in India methane emissions are survival emissions from the agriculture sector,” the Indian official cited above said.
Methane, a primary component of natural gas and a byproduct of fossil fuel emissions, has a much shorter atmospheric lifetime than carbon dioxide – about a decade compared with the centuries it takes CO2 to dissipate – but is over 25 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2.
Since the industrial revolution, methane has been responsible for nearly 45% of the current net warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Sixth Assessment shows.
US climate envoy John Kerry, who addressed a press conference in Dubai on Wednesday, reiterated that his country expects to see language on methane emissions reduction in the GST text. “Methane is 80 to 100 times more destructive than CO2. We are trying to engage all parties to include methane,” he said.
Developing countries are also unanimously opposed to unilateral carbon taxes and protectionist measures introduced by the EU and others.
“We are looking for a balance between mitigation, adaptation and adequate means or finance for transition. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has said that the long promised $100 billion has been delivered. But when we do not even have an agreed definition of climate finance, how do we know what has been delivered? Those may be investments which we do not accept to be climate finance,” the official said.
There is also a very strong pushback on removing references to historical responsibility and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR-RC) from the text, more than one negotiator said.
“For example, there is a discussion now to reword pre-2020 goals (Kyoto period) to pre-2030 actions. There is great effort to make the GST forward looking as opposed to considering questions of historical responsibility and differentiated action,” a negotiator from a developing country said.
Another issue being raised by Saudi Arabia, China and other developing countries is that developed nations have benefitted from fossil fuels and are continuing to invest in projects but want to share the burden of phasing out with developing nations.
“Where is equity and CBDR if developing countries are being forced to do something that developed countries are still not doing,” an observer said.
The European Union, at a press conference on Wednesday, said it will call for phasing out of fossil fuels.
“We expect this COP to mark the end of fossil fuels and that is the key part of our negotiating mandate. We simply have to get rid of fossil fuels. Around 120 countries are supporting us in this call,” EU Commissioner Wopke Hoekstra said.
On developing countries’ concerns about unilateral carbon taxes and protectionist measures, Hoekstra said: “I hope not and expect not that trade will become a major issue. Emissions Trading System (ETS) and Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) provide a level playing field.”
It’s very difficult to have speedy decarbonisation without putting a price on carbon, Teresa Ribera, the Spanish Third Vice-President and Minister for Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge, said at the press conference.
Kerry also said that the world needs to phase out some fossil fuels and employ carbon capture technology to reach net zero climate targets by mid-century.
“Science says we have to reduce the emissions. It doesn’t prescribe some particular discipline that has to be done; it says reduce the emissions. The science says we cannot get to net zero 2050 without some carbon capture,” he said.
CCS essentially means trapping CO2 emissions at source and storing them deep underground. But scientists have warned that the technology is nowhere near the required commercial scale, flagged that the economic costs far outweigh the benefits, and may act as a greenwash for these countries.
The negotiations and the outcome documents will be closely watched.
“I see a lot of very important and contentious issues being discussed — fossil fuels, carbon space, differentiation, historical responsibility and methane. Let’s see how developing countries manage to uphold the principles of the Paris Agreement,” said Manjeev Singh Puri, former climate negotiator and ambassador.