Banning fossil fuels is now a make-or-break issue at climate talks

Many countries want a rapid phaseout of oil, gas and coal, but major powers — notably Saudi Arabia — are strongly resisting

By Chico Harlan and Timothy Puko December 10, 2023 


DUBAI — For 30 years, with temperatures and sea levels rising, global negotiators have managed to discuss the health of the planet without addressing the root cause of the problem. In meeting after meeting, document after document, even in the landmark 2015 Paris agreement, one phrase has been conspicuously absent: any mention of fossil fuels.

But that could be on the verge of changing.

At this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Dubai, known as COP28, nations have at last turned their attention to this highly contested driver of planetary warming and are considering historic language pledging to close out the era of coal, oil and gas.

There are many camps in this debate. Some oil-rich nations want no language at all. Some, such as the United States, support a “phasedown” of fossil fuels. Others see that as far too weak, and are demanding a clear timeline for a “phaseout” of fossil fuels.

Such a move would mark a belated recognition that the past strategy — of pledging to reduce emissions without overtly saying how — has not been sufficient. And while a strong fossil-fuel phaseout statement may not be enough to keep warming below the target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, it would improve the odds that humanity could avoid the worst expected impacts of climate change.

After more than a week of talks in Dubai, countries have just a few days — and sleepless nights — left to figure out the language of a potential agreement. In so doing, they are confronting many of the sticking points that stymied talk about fossil fuels in past years, even with the clear-cut science. There are influential lobbying groups, vast financial interests, and plenty of contradictions: Some countries advocating for a reduction in fossil fuels, such as the United States, continue to ramp up their oil and gas production.

But even if COP28 were to collectively advocate a rapid end to burning of fossil fuels, the real-world results are less than clear. Would nations made wealthy by oil and gas suddenly leave it in the ground?

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