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Sparks

A Fossil Fuel ‘Phase-Out’ Is Officially Out

COP28 negotiators replaced the controversial phrase with language that calls for reducing both consumption and production of fossil energy.

Earth in a gas drip.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

One of the most exciting and contentious questions looming over the COP28 climate summit in Dubai this year has been whether countries will agree to an historic phase out of fossil fuels to stave off the worst effects of climate change. With one day left on the official conference agenda, we may have our answer: No.

A new draft of the global stocktake text dropped Monday and it contains no mention of a fossil fuel phase out or phase down. Instead, the relevant section of the text now calls for “reducing both consumption and production of fossil fuels, in a just, orderly and equitable manner so as to achieve net zero by, before, or around 2050 in keeping with the science.”

That the phase-out language didn’t survive a tense weekend of negotiations isn’t a huge surprise. Any deal to emerge from the annual United Nations climate summit must be unanimously supported by all 198 participating nations. Saudi Arabia staunchly opposed a phase-out, while a handful of powerful oil-producing countries (including the U.S.) wanted to see specific caveats and provisions.

Strong language on moving past oil and gas was always a long shot, but some activists and governments are still disappointed. Fossil fuels are a primary source of planet-warming pollution, which must fall by at least 45% “to avoid global catastrophe,” according to the UN. New analysis from the International Energy Agency concluded that the voluntary emissions pledges to come out of COP28 so far are nowhere near dramatic enough to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

“This draft takes a giant step backwards,” said Teresa Anderson, Global Climate Lead at ActionAid. “It’s staggeringly empty of any new commitments.” CarbonBrief’s Simon Evans laments that “hardly any of the verbs in the latest draft global stocktake text actually ask for action.” Kaisa Kosonen, head of the Greenpeace COP28 delegation, calls it “a dog’s dinner.”

The new text isn’t entirely toothless, though. “By requiring countries to reduce their fossil fuel production, it effectively achieves the same ends as a phase down, without using the contentious language that some countries would not allow,” arguedThe Guardian’s Fiona Harvey. Past language focusing on fossil fuel emissions instead of production was considered a sneaky workaround for countries that want to keep emitting while relying on carbon capture and storage. So focusing specifically on production could be interpreted as an attempt at stronger accountability.

“It appears to be a compromise between Saudi Arabia who didn’t want any mention of fossils and the progressive countries who called for an outright fossil fuel phase out,” said Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa. “It’s in the middle and uses creative language to describe the direction of travel.”

“It’s not sufficient,” concededBusinessGreen’s James Murray. “But the signal to investors and businesses is pretty clear. Is it enough to secure backing from COP’s opposing factions?”

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Jessica  Hullinger profile image

Jessica Hullinger

Jessica Hullinger is a freelance writer and editor who likes to think deeply about climate science and sustainability. She previously served as Global Deputy Editor for The Week, and her writing has been featured in publications including Fast Company, Popular Science, and Fortune. Jessica is originally from Indiana but lives in London.

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