Pressure mounts for phaseout of fossil fuel ahead of COP28 climate talks in Dubai

Paul Roberts

November 23, 2023

As the world looks towards COP28, the United Nations climate negotiations, in Dubai at the end of the month, calls are being made for a comprehensive phaseout of fossil fuels to be agreed upon at the meeting, according to a recent article from Yale Environment 360.

Despite the growing momentum behind this movement, formidable challenges loom large on the horizon in the form of major fossil fuel expansion projects taking root across the globe. In the deserts of New Mexico and West Texas, the Permian geological basin is experiencing a resurgence in oil production, propelled by fracking. Bloomberg has dubbed the area “uniquely positioned to become the world’s most important growth engine for oil production.”

Pose a significant threat

At the same time, on the frozen shores of the Arctic Ocean, Russia’s Bovanenkovo Gas Field plans to double its production by 2030, potentially accounting for 40 percent of Russian gas output. Meanwhile, China is poised to open dozens of new coal mines, collectively emitting over a billion tons of carbon dioxide, according to the Yale Environment 360 article. These developments, often labeled “carbon bombs,” pose a significant threat to efforts to combat climate change, which is sending global weather patterns berserk.

Promises made by big emitters at previous UN climate conferences to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century are falling short. Critics argue that these commitments lack specificity and fail to hold nations accountable, particularly in the short term. As the international community gears up for COP28, calls for a fossil fuel phaseout are gaining traction. Delegations from various governments will push for a complete ban on further development of fossil fuel mines and wells, along with deadlines for ending existing extraction practices. The question that looms large is whether the conference will heed these calls and take decisive action.

Recently, 15 nations, including France, Austria, Spain, the Netherlands, and Ireland, forming a coalition known as the High Ambition Coalition, issued a call for COP28 to urgently phase out coal-fired power generation and commit to halting the development of new coal mines or expanding existing ones. However, on oil and gas, despite acknowledging that “fossil fuels are at the root of this crisis,” the proposal merely suggests that fossil fuel-producing companies should “publish trackable transition plans” for reducing their emissions.

‘Climate change is happening much more quickly’

The urgency of the climate crisis cannot be overstated. Jim Skea, the chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warns that climate change is happening much more quickly than anticipated. This year is on track to be 1.4 degrees Celsius (2.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the preindustrial average, rapidly approaching the 1.5-degree limit crucial to international climate policy. A group of leading climate scientists recently cautioned that the climate system is “entering uncharted territory,” with damaging tipping points looming sooner than expected.

Despite the warnings, powerful forces, including the host nation of COP28, the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, oppose a comprehensive phaseout. Progress on addressing the climate crisis has been slow, with eight years passing since the 2015 Paris Agreement committed the world to capping planetary warming as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The IPCC underscores that meeting the 1.5-degree target requires a 45-percent reduction in emissions by 2030. However, halfway to that deadline, emissions are still on the rise.

The official UN Global Stocktake, assessing progress on the Paris Agreement, emphasizes that achieving net-zero CO2 requires transformations across all sectors, including scaling up renewable energy and phasing out all unabated fossil fuels. The report is the foundation for discussions at COP28 to revise emissions targets. Yet, there needs to be more signs of negotiators fully embracing the implications of this critical finding, according to the Yale Environment 360 article.

Timetable for a fossil fuel phaseout

Industry leaders are joining the call for a phaseout, seeking policy clarity beyond distant emissions targets and temperature ambitions. Over 100 prominent companies, including Unilever, eBay, Volvo, and Bayer, are urging COP28 to establish a timetable for a fossil fuel phaseout, advocating for the complete decarbonization of power systems by 2035 in advanced countries and 2040 globally.

In September, the International Energy Agency (IEA) advised against new oil, gas, or coal projects to achieve the 1.5-degree target. However, there are significant obstacles to a phaseout. The United Arab Emirates and other major oil and gas-producing nations prefer a vague commitment to “phasing down” fossil fuels rather than a phaseout. COP28 President Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the chief executive of state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), says, “phasing down demand for, and supply of, all fossil fuels is inevitable and essential.” Yet, the practical implications of such a commitment remain unclear.

‘Carbon Bombs’

A phased-out commitment would spotlight major suppliers with extensive expansion plans, potentially causing concern among investors worried about stranded assets. An analysis by geographer Kjell Kühne found 425 fossil fuel extraction projects globally, each capable of emitting over a billion tons of CO2. China leads with 141 “carbon bombs,” followed by Russia with 41 and the United States with 28.

Thirty-one countries still have plans for new coal mines, threatening to increase global production and emissions by 35 percent. The United States holds a prominent position in oil and gas, with more than a third of planned worldwide oil and gas expansion slated for the country, potentially emitting 72.5 billion tons.

Climate losses and damages

At the previous climate summit, COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, an agreement to establish a loss and damage fund was hailed as a breakthrough on one of the trickiest topics in the UN climate change negotiations. In an otherwise frustrating conference, this decision in November 2022 acknowledged the help that poorer and low-emitting countries, in particular, need to deal with the consequences of climate change – and, tentatively, who ought to pay.

The past year has seen more extreme weather records broken. Torrential rains led to a dam breach that swept away an entire city in Libya, while wildfires razed swathes of Canada, Greece, and Hawaii.

As extreme events become routine, the case grows for an effective fund that can be set up quickly and help those most vulnerable to climate change. But after a year of talks, the fund has yet to materialize in the way that developing countries had hoped.

Many questions were raised and left unresolved in Sharm El-Sheikh. Among them: who will pay into this new fund? Where will it sit? Who will have power over it? And who will have access to the funding (and who won’t)?

The UN appointed a transitional committee with 14 developing country members and ten developed country members to debate these questions after COP27. The committee has met regularly over the last year, but at its fourth meeting at the end of October – scheduled as the previous session – important questions surrounding the fund, such as who should host and administer it, remained. Discussions broke down without agreement.

Pool of contributors should be widened

Early this month, a hastily arranged fifth meeting presented committee members with a text cobbled together by the two co-chairs from South Africa and Finland as a take-it-or-leave-it agreement. Despite reservations, developing countries agreed to have the fund hosted by the World Bank for an interim period.

Developed countries also objected to the final text. The US wanted to add the adjective “voluntary” to any mention of contributions to the fund. Others argued that the pool of contributors to the fund should be widened to include some developing countries, such as Saudi Arabia, and private finance sources. These objections were noted, but the text was adopted without them. These recommendations must now be signed off at COP28, which begins on November 30.

When it comes to the Loss and Damage fund, or a phase-out of fossil fuels, with almost 200 countries having to reach an agreement on these arrangements at the COP and dissatisfaction widespread, the process isn’t likely to be straightforward. The Earth’s climate hangs in the balance.


Paul is a British communications expert specializing in strategy, framing, messaging, and crisis communications. He has extensive expertise working in the Maldives and Asia on foreign policy, climate diplomacy, renewable energy policy, and democracy and governance. Paul has served as communications advisor to President Mohamed Nasheed, helping him to build an exceptional international profile. He is the founder of Atoll Communications, a Maldivian PR and communications firm. He is also the COO of the Maldives Coral Institute.