The annual UN climate conference is more than ever a geopolitical poker game. It is about words, but they can have major consequences, especially for the oil-producing countries. For the first time, there is a chance that a text will be endorsed stating that the world will phase out its fossil fuels. Don’t expect an end date when the last drop can be pumped up, but if ‘phasing out’ makes it into the final text, Dubai will go down in history as historic.
A major responsibility lies with the chairman, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber. It got off to a flying start. In the first days there were breakthroughs on climate finance and the loss and damage fund to help developing countries affected by climate disasters. After years of bickering, this can finally start. Al Jaber called it a ‘historic breakthrough’, but he also pointed out that not nearly enough money has been raised. “We have to raise the bar.”
But the hardest work starts today. The almost 200 participating countries are considering whether fossil fuels should be phased out. The scientists are clear: this is necessary to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Jim Skea, the chairman of the UN climate panel, mentioned this again this week in a joint press conference with Al Jaber. By 2050, all coal must be phased out unless the CO₂ is captured and stored. The use of oil and gas must be reduced by 60 and 45 percent respectively.
On the brakes
Al Jaber remains ambitious. He says he has spoken to all countries and continues to push for a final text that includes the phasing out – or at least reduction – of fossil fuels. The question is whether he can speak with sufficient authority and persuasiveness. In the first week he came under fire for sowing doubt about the usefulness of the phase-out. “There is no science that says phasing out fossil fuels will lead to a maximum warming of 1.5 degrees,” he had said during an online meeting last month. According to Al Jaber, the quote was taken out of context. “Science guides my life.” Skea stood up for Al Jaber.
More than a hundred countries – including the US and the European Union – agree that the phasing out of fossil fuels should be included in the text. The question is whether the major oil producing countries want to jump over their shadows.
The neighbors from Saudi Arabia – the largest oil producer in the world – are once again the biggest obstructors. In the first week they were constantly putting on the brakes. The Minister of Energy was asked by a Saudi TV channel this week whether he was in favor of a phase-out. “Absolutely not,” was the clear answer. But Saudi Arabia’s strongman, Mohammed bin Salman, wants to make his country more attractive to Western investors. The image of a contrarian at climate summits does not fit in with this. The Emirates are also loyal allies. Can the Saudis make Al Jaber lose face?
Russia – number two in oil and gas – is also dragging its feet. Without oil revenues, the Russian economy will collapse. It was therefore a bit cynical that President Putin made a blitz visit to the Emirates and Saudi Arabia this week. He made an agreement with Bin Salman to reduce production. His motivation was not the climate, but the Russian treasury.
Demir stops resisting
And then there are China and India. They too will need fossil fuels for a long time. Even Al Jaber’s own Energy Minister sowed doubt on Thursday. “I don’t think we should talk about phasing out because technologies are constantly improving. What if we can soon capture all the CO₂?” he said. Al Jaber is also a great advocate of that technique.
Climate Minister Zakia Khattabi (Ecolo) is at the negotiating table for Belgium. She realizes that it will be a geopolitical arm wrestle. “We know how Russia has used the gas tap against us, how Opec+ keeps the oil price high and does not want to distance itself from its fossil revenue model.” But Khattabi wants to fight for clear language in the final statement. “The balance of power must shift away from oil and towards green solutions in which Belgium is also strong.” She was able to travel with a Belgian point of view. Flemish minister Zuhal Demir (N-VA) gave up her opposition to a joint text on Wednesday.