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Global stop to fossil fuels: phase out those who want what to Cop28

The phase-out of the fossils at the top of the Cop28 agenda, on November 30

(sustainabilityenvironment.com) – Triple the global installed capacity of renewables by 2030. Double energy efficiency by the same date. Decide how and when the global stop of fossil fuels should occur. These are the three pillars of the final agreement that will come out of the COP28 in Dubai, to be held from tomorrow, 30 November, to 12 December.

While the first two points have already garnered a very broad consensus and should not create any problems during the negotiations, the fossil fuel dossier is at the heart of the international climate summit. Which, for now, there’s no deal in sight. The positions of the states continue to be quite distant and, in many cases, seemingly irreconcilable.

Oil, gas and coal are the main cause of the global increase in temperature attributable to anthropic action, but also the foundation of the global energy system, an important part of the world economy, and a formidable foreign policy tool for many countries. If Cop28 can find an agreement on fossils – and it is a great “if” – the level of ambition of the agreement will represent the meeting point between these three dimensions, economic and political climate.

The words to say global stop to fossil fuels

As always, the progress of international climate diplomacy is measured by the choice of a handful of keywords, their combination and how binding the outcome seems or leaves loopholes for states that must honor the commitment. Under the spotlight, for the moment, there are 3 words: phase out (gradual elimination), phase down (gradual reduction), and unabated (without emission abatement).

Global phase-out of fossil fuels

The strongest and most radical option is to phase out. That is what civil society, but also the UN, is asking. Again this week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stressed that “we need a clear and credible commitment to phase out fossil fuels in a time frame that is in line with the 1.5 degree limit”. Many countries also support this phrase and will press for it to be included in the final agreement of the COP.

Phase out implies that by a certain date, you have to completely eliminate the production and demand of fossil fuels. To be credible, this global stop to fossil fuels must be set within a clear time horizon.

This can be done either by setting a final date for the farewell to the fossils (and possibly the intermediate stages), or by linking the respect of the phase-out to the indications coming from the most up-to-date climate Science (the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC). In this second case, the roadmap should implicitly comply with the objectives of the Paris Agreement (1,5 years C or 2 years C) and should be recalibrated if scientific evidence so dictates.

The least ambitious solution: phase down

A possible compromise, on the downside, is the use of the expression phase-down. It means, concretely, that states are only committed to reducing, but not completely eliminating, the production and use of fossil fuels. The global stop to fossil fuels would therefore not be a real stop, but a sharp decrease in their impact on the Earth’s climate.

This option is preferred by those who today depend heavily on oil, gas or coal to support their economy and social order. Both, therefore, from exporting countries (such as OPEC members), and from countries that want to set their growth also or in a preponderant way on fossil consumption (such as China, but also many African countries that are investing in gas).

In terms of climate diplomacy, this choice would not be new. In 2021, the Cop26 in Glasgow closed with the exchange, at the last second, of the expression “phase out of coal” with “phase down”. Without, however, any substantive specifications regarding ways and times.

Unabated: cut fossils or their emissions?

Another compromise option is the use of the phrase “unabated fossil fuel”. Although embedded in the demand for a global stop to fossil fuels, the introduction of “unabated” completely changes the scenario. That is, it would not be a question of progressively reducing production to zero, but only of equipping itself so that the emissions generated by fossil fuels are captured and stored with some technologies such as CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage). In short: cutting is about fossil emissions, not sources as such.

A choice that many like. It hints at the possibility of a slow, gradual, uninterrupted change in the productive and economic model, so as to limit to the maximum the social repercussions (and the loss of votes, in the democratic systems). But, on the other hand, leaving room for fossils, slows down the spread of renewables by draining investments and allowing energy companies to continue investing in oil and gas (and CO2 capture technologies) instead of photovoltaic and wind.

Who wants what at Cop28 Dubai

Finding a square between the many negotiating positions is not easy (and one more level of complexity is the intertwining with the theme of the stop to fossil subsidies). The starting point will be the document containing the summary of the first Global Stocktake, that is the periodic assessment (every 5 years) of the progress made towards the Paris objectives and the indications on how to modify the route. The UN preliminary report, released two months ago, claims – for the first time in an official UN document – that “phasing out all unabated fossil Fuels” is needed.

On this line are lined up many. Starting from the European Union, along with the UK, Canada and Australia. The option is also supported by the United States, although it is not a priority on the Washington climate agenda: the White House instead presses for “phase down of unabated fossil Fuels“, perhaps the least ambitious version possible. While the phase-out of unabated sources is opposed by China – a few months ago, the Beijing Special Climate Envoy called the phase-out of fossils “unrealistic” – along with the G77 developing country group and African countries

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