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Critics pan draft text at UN climate talks as watered down as COP28 nears its finale in Dubai

Published: December 11, 2023, 11:30am

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Countries moved closer to reaching what critics called a watered-down final deal on how to act on climate change on Monday, avoiding calls from more than 100 nations to phase out planet-warming fossil fuels as the United Nations summit in Dubai neared its culmination.

A new draft released Monday afternoon on what’s known as the global stocktake — the part of talks that assesses where the world is at with its climate goals and how it can reach them — called for countries to reduce “consumption and production of fossil fuels, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.”

The release triggered a frenzy of fine-tuning by government envoys and gimlet-eye analysis by advocacy groups, just hours before the planned late morning finish to the talks on Tuesday — even though many observers expect the finale to run over time, as is common at the annual U.N. talks.

Small island nations, some of the most vulnerable places in a world of rising temperatures and seas, blasted the draft and were trying to decide their options. Final decisions by COPs have to be by consensus and objections can still torpedo this. Activists said they feared that potential objections from fossil fuel countries, such as Saudi Arabia, had watered down the text.

Anger grew as people had more time to read the document.

“What we have seen today is unacceptable,” Marshall Islands chief delegate and natural resources minister Samuel Silk said. “We will not go silently to our watery graves. We will not accept an outcome that will lead to devastation for our country, and for millions if not billions of the most vulnerable people and communities.”

European climate commissioner Wopke Hoekstra called the text “disappointing.” French Environment Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher called it “not good enough. There are elements that are unacceptable as such.”

German climate envoy Jennifer Morgan said Europe is “extremely unified” in opposing the COP presidency’s text, calling it unacceptable.

“We’re prepared to stay as long as it takes to get the course correction that the world needs,” Morgan told The Associated Press as she walked into the heads of delegation meeting.

A combination of activists and delegation members lined the entry way into a special evening meeting of heads of delegations, with their arms raised in unity as delegations walked through, creating a tunnel-like effect. A few activists told delegates passing by: “You are our last hope. We count on you.”

Delegations are meant to be reaching a deal that’s in line with capping warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) to stop the worst effects of climate change, from devastating heat, droughts, storms to sea level rise and other extremes.

In the 21-page document, the words oil and natural gas did not appear, and the word coal appeared twice. It also had a single mention of carbon capture, a technology touted by some to reduce emissions although it’s untested at scale.

Activists said the text was written by the COP28 presidency, run by an Emirati oil company CEO, and pounced on its perceived shortcomings. It called for “phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption” but fell fall short of a widespread push to phase out fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal altogether.

The COP presidency, in a statement, countered that the text was a “huge step forward” and was now “in the hands of the parties, who we trust to do what is best for humanity and the planet.”

COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber skipped a planned news conference and headed straight into a meeting with delegates just after 6:30 p.m. It was the second time for him to cancel a press briefing on Monday.

“We have a text and we need to agree on the text,” al-Jaber said. “The time for discussion is coming to an end and there’s no time for hesitation. The time to decide is now.”

He added: “We must still close many gaps. We don’t have time to waste.”

Critics said there was a lot to do.

“COP28 is now on the verge of complete failure,” former U.S. Vice President and climate activist Al Gore posted on X. “The world desperately needs to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible, but this obsequious draft reads as if OPEC dictated it word for word…. It is deeply offensive to all who have taken this process seriously.”

Tom Evans of the European think tank E3G said: “This text is a nightmare of weak proposals and internal contradictions.”

“The word ‘phase-out’ has been phased out,” said Li Shuo, director of the Asia Society Policy Institute. “We need to phase in the word phase-out. I think there’s still a chance for countries to do so.”

Jean Su from the Center for Biological Diversity said the text “moves disastrously backward from original language offering a phaseout of fossil fuels.”

“If this race-to-the-bottom monstrosity gets enshrined as the final word, this crucial COP will be a failure,” Su said.

But Mohamed Adow of Power Shift Africa said the “text lays the ground for transformational change.”

“This is the first COP where the word fossil fuels are actually included in the draft decision. This is the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era,” he said.

Also on Monday, the latest draft on the Global Goal on Adaptation — the text on how countries, especially vulnerable ones, can adapt to weather extremes and climate harms — was released on Monday,

The adaptation is “utterly disappointing” and “an injustice to communities on the frontline of the crisis,” said Amy Giliam Thorp of Power Shift Africa.

“The text is even weaker, more vague in many areas, and lacking in ambition,” she said. It’s “set to corrode trust between developed and developing nations. A framework focused on action without concrete targets, especially to support developing countries, is pointless and toothless.”

Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio, a senior advisor for adaptation and resilience at the U.N. Foundation said “the new text doesn’t have the strength that we were hoping to see.”

“The language on financing of adaptation is wishy washy,” she said.

On Monday morning, visibly tired and frustrated top U.N. officials urged COP28 talks to push harder for an end to fossil fuels, warning that time is running out for action.

“We can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. “We are out of road and almost out of time.”

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