‘The clock is ticking’: COP28 President urges countries to break deadlock as fossil fuel stand-off continues

COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber has voiced his growing frustration at the sluggish pace of progress at the crunch UN climate talks in Dubai, as he convened an unorthodox meeting with national Ministers in a bid to break the deadlock on contentious key issues surrounding the future of fossil fuels, climate finance pledges, and adaptation goals.

Speaking to journalists in a hastily arranged press conference this afternoon, Al Jaber warned negotiators the “clock is ticking” to secure an ambitious deal at this year’s Summit, which the UAE hosts are optimistically hoping to draw to a close on Tuesday morning.

But most observers believe that unless a major breakthrough is secured in the coming hours, negotiations are now highly likely to overrun, with major divergences remaining on a host of key issues. Al Jaber conceded he was not satisfied with the pace of progress at the talks, as Ministers and officials brace themselves for several more days of round the clock talks.

“We are making good progress,” Al Jaber said. “But although we are making progress, I don’t think we are making it fast enough… And as such, I’ve decided to give all Ministers, heads of delegations, and negotiators a different setting. I want to take them out of the environment by giving them a new opportunity for them to engage with each other in an open and transparent manner.”

In a bid to break the deadlock, Al Jaber announced this meeting would take place immediately in the style of a ‘majlis’ – or Emirati assembly – “with one simple objective: to come out with a clear understanding of the pressing issues that we need to get to the bottom of now”.

Al Jaber urged lead negotiators to come to the meeting ready to “be flexible and to accept compromise”, and without “any pre-prepared statements and prescribed positions”.

“The clock is ticking… and we all need to move much, much, much faster,” he added. “But to do that I want to break the silence, I want to bring [parties] together under one roof… where we can talk openly, transparently.”

The Majlis is now taking place with one representative from each country or party sat in a small circle with Al Jaber at the centre, with an overflow room next door in which wider negotiating teams and observers can watch a livestream of the events in the main room.

Al Jaber noted the need to find common ground on the draft Global Stocktake text – over which nations are fighting over the potential inclusion of a call to “phase out” or “phase down” unabated fossil fuels – as well as over finance commitments for developing nations and new goals for climate adaptation.

The COP28 Presidency has said it wants to draw technical negotiations to a close today with a view to publishing its own final draft of the Global Stocktake text on Monday morning, which could provide the clearest indication yet of what a final agreement might look like.

“We need to find consensus and common ground on fossil fuels including coal,” said Al Jaber. “We need to also come to terms with the sources of finance and support for adaptation finance and a just transition. We need text agreed on by everyone on a Global Goal on Adaptation.”

Despite the palpable frustration contained in Al Jaber’s words, he went on to note that such challenges were typical during intense climate negotiations that require consensus between some 196 countries and parties with myriad competing priorities.

“You know none of this is a surprise – this is exactly how this particular process works,” he said. “Ultimately, it all boils down to the need for all Parties to come to the table with the task that we will deliver the highest ambition… I am confident we can work through these issues.”

The move comes in the face of growing demands from governments, businesses, and campaigners for the final agreement to include language that explicitly calls for a “phase down” or “phase out” of fossil fuels or unabated fossil fuels.

Over 100 countries – including the US, UK, and EU – are thought to back proposals for a phase out of unabated fossil fuels, while more than 800 leading CEOs, financiers, scientists, and civil society figures yesterday called for an ambitious agreement that commits to a fossil fuel phase out.

However, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Nigeria, and others are among a group of nations thought to be fiercely opposed to any deal that calls for a fossil fuel phase out, arguing it could harm their economic development. Crucially, though, observers have signalled that China – the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter – may be softening on its previous opposition to the inclusion language targeting fossil fuels, assuming the appropriate phrasing can be agreed.

While the latest iteration of the Global Stocktake on Friday included four options that all called for a “phase out” of fossil fuels – as well as one option for no text at all on the issue – there are concerns proposals for a weaker commitment to “phase down” fossil fuels are now being put forward by some countries.

During an informal plenary session behind closed doors at the Summit last night, one observer of the talks claimed Norway’s Foreign Affairs Minister Espen Barth Eide – who has been co-leading negotiations on the so-called mitigation work programme – expressed a divergence of views on whether language in the final text should seek to “phase out” or “phase down” fossil fuels.

In addition, securing an agreement on climate adaptation – which has historically taken a backseat to the push for emissions reduction in climate talks, much to the frustration of nations facing increasingly severe climate impacts – remains a key to securing an ambitious agreement at COP28, including action on fossil fuels, energy transition targets, and climate finance.

However, the latest draft of the Global Goal on Adaptation text which landed this morning lacks the clear targets and detail that have been demanded by climate vulnerable nations and environmental groups.

Financial pledges for the Climate Adaptation Fund also remain below the 2023 goal of $300m, with only around $230m pledged by nations at this year’s Summit, even after Germany this afternoon pledged to provide a further $60m.

COP veteran Mohamed Adow, director of the Power Shift Africa think tank, said that while it was positive to see some adaptation targets now included in the draft text the wording remains “weak” on specific adaptation measures, indicators, and mobilising financing.

“On the important question of setting these indicators to measure adaptation progress towards achieving the targets, it kicks the can down the road for another two years,” he said. “Two years is too long and misses the opportunity to set the long-term finance goal.”

“Ending fossil fuels is about how to stop climate change – the adaptation goal is how we help people who are suffering from its impacts.”

It came as the International Energy Agency (IEA) this morning published its assessment of the pledges made so far at COP28 on renewables, energy efficiency, and tackling methane, and their expected impact on energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.

The IEA welcomed fresh proposals to triple renewable energy capacity, double the rate of energy efficiency improvements, and eradicate methane emissions and flaring across the oil and gas industry by 2030, arguing that achieving the new goals would slash annual emissions by around four gigatonnes.

However, it warned that even if all the pledges are fulfilled by signatories by the end of the decade, it would still “not be nearly enough to move the world onto a path to reaching international climate targets, in particular the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C”.

Some 70 per cent of the yawning gap in greenhouse gas reductions required to limit global warming to 1.5C still needs to be bridged through fresh commitments and actions, the IEA’s executive director Fatih Birol warned.

“An ‘orderly and just decline of global fossil fuel use’ is needed to keep 1.5C in reach,” Birol said.

COP29 and COP30

More positively, the deadlock over where next year’s UN Climate Summit should be held appears to have finally been broken, with Russia – which has been vetoing all hosting bids from EU members – having reportedly given its blessing to plans for COP29 to take place in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku.

It follows Armenia’s decision to drop its own rival bid to host the Summit, which has been designated to take place in Eastern Europe.

The move appeared to be all but confirmed in the latest draft of the overarching COP28 text that was released afternoon, which is separate to the Global Stocktake that has dominated negotiations but effectively summarises the Summit’s main decisions.

It states that the UN “accepts with appreciation” Azerbaijan’s offer to host COP29 next year from Monday 11 November to Friday 22 November 2024.

It similarly accepts Brazil’s offer to host the 30th UN Climate Summit the following year, which is set to take place from 10-21 November 2025. The Brazilian government announced its bid last year to host the COP30 Summit, and has maintained its intention to hold the event in the Amazon region in order to highlight the plight of the world’s biggest rainforest, despite concerns about the logistical challenges in doing so.

The proposed schedule means next year’s Climate Summit would once again be hosted in an oil and gas-rich nation. However, Brazil’s hosting of the 2025 Summit – which is scheduled to see countries submit updated versions of their national climate action plans, or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in the UN jargon – would likely see President Lula ramp up pressure on industrialised economies to come forward with bolder climate mitigation plans and financing commitments.

Carbon markets, nature and fossil fuel subsidies

Elsewhere, today there are hopes stronger language on the restoration and protection of land and ocean habitats that was included in the previous version of the Global Stocktake will again feature when the next text lands tomorrow. Theme days around nature and land over the weekend spurred numerous calls for stronger commitments on finance for forest protection and for greater alignment between the goals of the UN Climate Conference and the UN Biodiversity Conference.

Yesterday also saw a significant coup for global nature restoration efforts, after China announced it had joined High Ambition Coalition for People and Nature, which aims to drive progress towards the global goal adopted last year to protect 30 per cent of the world’s land and sea by 2030.

The Coalition now counts well over 100 countries as members and is co-chaired by Costa Rica, France, and the UK.

“We believe that China’s active participation will significantly contribute to the global goals set by the Coalition,” said WWF China’s chief program officer Zhou Fei. “China’s accession not only responds positively to the international community’s collective efforts on climate change but also contributes significantly to biodiversity.”

Meanwhile, NGOs have raised the alarm negotiations on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement – which cover carbon markets and trading – are headed for a weak outcome, warning a number of measures that would have bolstered transparency and integrity in global carbon markets have now been stripped from the text. Proposed rule which would have prevented countries from being able to label information about bilateral carbon credit trades with other countries as “confidential” and rules about whether countries should be able to revoke or revise credits after they have been traded appear to have been blocked.

Bernt Nordman, programme director for climate from WWF Finland, told BusinessGreen he was “very disappointed” at the progress to date.

And Gilles Dufrasne, policy lead of global carbon markets at Carbon Market Watch, said Article 6.2 of the Agreement – the section relating to bilateral carbon trades – was “about to become a black box”. “To shine a light on carbon trades, we need at least to have clear limits on confidentiality provisions, real consequences for countries that don’t play by the rules and guardrails against countries that want to backtrack on the activities they have authorised,” he said. “The current text doesn’t include any of that.” 

Outside the confines of the negotiations, progress on several multilateral agreements has continued. For example, yesterday saw the Netherlands’ launch a new international coalition to phase-out fossil fuel subsidies, backed by 12 founding members including Austria, Canada, Belgium, Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, Luxembourg and Spain.

Signatories to the joint statement have committed to each publishing an inventory of their fossil fuel subsidies by COP29 next year and developing national phase-out strategies “within a clear timeline”.

“Phasing out public financing of fossil fuels while pursuing public investments in the energy transition will drive necessary climate action and increase competitiveness in a net zero global economy,” the joint statement reads.

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