The UN climate talks in Dubai were thrown into crisis late on Monday as the EU threatened to pull out of the summit after a pledge to phase out fossil fuels was cut.
The Cop28 presidency released a draft text on Monday evening, which called 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”.
This draft text was immediately rejected by many countries as being too weak and far short of an unequivocal phasing out of these energy sources.
The text avoids calls for a “phase-out” or “phase-down” of fossil fuels, which have been the focus of deep disagreement among the more than 190 countries meeting in the United Arab Emirates. Instead, the language used is weaker: countries are “called upon to take action that could include” reductions in fossil fuels, a conditionality that is far too vague for many countries.
The text is expected to form the key outcome of the talks on the future of climate action, which are scheduled to end on Tuesday.
The EU delegation ruled out the document within minutes of it being released, underlining it would walk away if it was adopted as framed.
Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan confirmed the text was unacceptable after coming from an EU delegation meeting. All references to phasing out fossil fuels were excised from a previous iteration and replaced by vague language, he said.
Mr Ryan said the wording of the text will have to reworked for the deal to be agreed in Dubai.
He singled out paragraph 39 which talks about the “need for deep, rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gases”, but with a call to parties to take action that “could” include a range of measures including “phasing down unabated coal” and “accelerating technologies” like carbon capture and storage.
In a statement, he said: “We can’t accept this text. It’s not anywhere near ambitious enough. It’s not broad enough. It’s not what parties have been calling for.
“If we start with paragraph 39 which goes to the heart of whether we phase out fossil fuel, that one word ‘could’ just kills everything. We can’t have a get out of jail card for the fossil fuel industry and the current text would give them that.”
Mr Ryan added: “We have to hugely strengthen the finance sections. We need to phase up the opportunities to invest in renewables, particularly in the developing world.
“However, above all, we need clear mechanisms for implementation so that we can begin to work on changing the global financial systems to incentivise investment in renewable energy systems and in adaptation like water supplies and climate smart agriculture.
“These are critical for developing countries. We have to stitch climate justice into every part of this text and we are not anywhere near that yet.”
Talks facilitator Sultan Al Jaber insisted in a statement significant progress had been made. “The Cop28 presidency has been clear from the beginning about our ambitions. This text reflects those ambitions and is a huge step forward. Now it is in the hands of the parties, who we trust to do what is best for humanity and the planet,” he added.
But as ministers and negotiators went into plenary session on Monday night, his text - which emerged many hours later than expected - was severely criticised by climate campaigners, particularly on the basis it would not align with keeping global warming to within a 1.5 degrees.
Chair of the Elders Mary Robinson said the wording was grossly insufficient. “It is not good enough to say you recognise and respect the science but then fail to take heed of its dire warnings in the collective action you commit to. It is not good enough to note with ‘alarm and serious concern’ the findings of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report and the damage being caused by climate change but then fail to put in place the steps the science recommends,” she added.
“It is not good enough to say you reaffirm the Paris Agreement but to then fail to commit to a full fossil fuel phase out ... to use weak language or to permit loopholes for the fossil fuel industry to continue to contribute to the very problem countries are meant to be committed to tackling here in Dubai.”
Karol Balfe, the chief executive of ActionAid Ireland, said the previous draft text had broken new ground in proposing a phase out of fossil fuels. “To take it over the finishing line we just needed to agree the finance and fair timelines that would make the package workable for lower-income countries,” she said.
“But instead of taking us closer to a fossil-free future, this draft takes a giant step backwards. It’s staggeringly empty of any new commitments. Instead of deciding to take action, it simply ‘recognises the need’ to phase down unabated coal and scale up renewable energy, leaving out any reference to other fossil fuels such as oil and gas,” she added.
While it notes the need for finance, Ms Balfe said it does not actually provide any. “It legitimises debunked technologies such as carbon capture and storage. It’s a paper fan being waved at a burning house.”
With Cop28 scheduled to end in coming hours, rich countries needed to agree to end their fossil dependence “and provide the finance that can swing the deal and promise a safer future for billions of people.”
“The global stocktake conducted at Cop28 should be a shared action plan to realise our dream of meeting the Paris Agreement. Instead, this text is a nightmare of weak proposals and internal contradictions: asking to keep 1.5 degrees in reach on the one hand, while on the other setting out no common pathway for phasing out fossil fuels fast,” said Tom Evans a policy advisor with think tank E3G.
This was not a credible response to the global climate crisis, he said. “The next 17 hours must see the champions of ambition rally hard and isolate those who are holding ambition back.”
“This is no collective commitment to end the fossil fuel era. At the moment it’s a garbled list of half-measures,” said Friends of the Earth policy Jerry MacEvilly.
“It puts forward an incoherent, ‘shopping list’ of optional actions, most of them problematic and disappointing, including a weak reference to fossil fuel reductions. The reality is that a full, swift and equitable fossil fuel phase-out is crucial to keeping the 1.5-degree temperature threshold within reach.”
Although it points to new renewables and energy efficiency goals, an optional fossil fuel reduction together with a dependency on unproven abatement technologies fundamentally fails the test,” Mr MacEvilly said.