UN climate chief says ‘it’s go time’ to save planet as Cop28 talks ramp up

Cop28 president Sultan al-Jaber (Kamran Jebreili/AP)
Cop28 president Sultan al-Jaber (Kamran Jebreili/AP)

Teams of veteran negotiators fanned out on Friday at the UN climate conference with orders to get the strongest, most ambitious agreements possible, especially on the central issue of the fading future of fossil fuels for a dangerously warming planet.

The leadership of climate talks, called Cop28, sent out four pairs of veteran and high-level ministers to push countries together on four key but stubborn issues as the summit went into its second week after a day of rest on Thursday.

New proposed language on how to curb warming released on Friday afternoon strengthened the options for a phase out of fossil fuels that negotiators could choose from. Four of the five options call for some version of a rapid phase-out.

Environmental advocates grudgingly praised some of the options in the expanded 27-page draft, but tempered that by pointing out that nearly every option includes the possibility of not saying anything about the topics being negotiated, including phasing out fossil fuels.

“The text includes options explicitly calling for the phasing out of fossil fuels in line with the best available science. That’s clearly a positive step,” said Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa. “The text also includes important recognition of fairness in regards to developing countries.”

He added: “The bare bones of a historic agreement is there. What we now need is for countries to rally behind the stronger of the options and strengthen them further.”

Making a possible final document stronger was also a priority for top United Nations officials.

“It’s go time for governments at Cop28 this week,” UN climate chief Simon Stiell said at a press event. “If we want to save lives now and keep (the international goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius, 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, of warming since pre-industrial times) within reach, the highest ambition Cop outcomes must stay front and centre in these negotiations.”

Mr Stiell underlined the challenge ahead if the world does not limit emissions, describing ice shelves melting to cause catastrophic flooding in coastal cities around the globe.

“If we pass these key thresholds, we can never go back from the planet’s perspective,” he said.

A report released on Wednesday on the sidelines of the summit warned that the melting of ice sheets could reach the point of no return with more warming.

Cop28 president Sultan al-Jaber said he was “quite positive, hopeful and optimistic” that the summit could bring a “paradigm shift centred around and based on the science”.

Members of the four pairs of high-level special teams – who will work with negotiators from nearly 200 countries – said they too thought they would be able to get the job done.

Cop28 president Sultan al-Jaber
Cop28 president Sultan al-Jaber (Kamran Jebreili/AP)

“I think there is some momentum. Having spoken to all parties’ groups of countries for months now there really is this sense of urgency,” said Denmark’s environment minister, Dan Jorgensen. “We need an agreement, so I am optimistic.”

EU countries, some Latin American countries and the small island countries often victimised by climate change are aligned on calling for a phase out of fossil fuels, negotiators said.

Two groups of countries are likely to oppose, in some manner, a full and quick phase out of fossil fuels, said World Resources Institute CEO Ani Dasgupta. One is developing nations, such as India and Indonesia, that think they need fossil fuels to power up their economies, but with financial and other aid, they can be pulled out of that position, he said.

The other group are fossil fuel producers. The United States is the biggest oil producer in the world and special envoy John Kerry earlier this week said the US is committed to supporting strong phase-out language.

But a big country looming against it is Saudi Arabia and they are close partners with the United Arab Emirates, the country hosting and running the conference, Mr Dasgupta said.

People walk near flags during the the Cop28 summit in Dubai
People walk near flags during the the Cop28 summit in Dubai (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)

The UAE has a lot to gain from a successful climate conference and “I think they will bring Saudi Arabia as close as possible”, Mr Dasgupta said.

When asked at a press conference about working with Saudi Arabia, Sultan al-Jaber, who also leads his country’s national oil company, avoided answering that part of the question.

The Arab group is a major blocker so far, a negotiator said.

European negotiators provided some extra hope. The EU goal is to cut emissions by 55% by 2030, but European commissioner Wopke Hoekstra said on Friday that the European parliament hopes to do better than that and instead slice 57%.

Negotiators said there is a sense of urgency because of floods, droughts, storms and heatwaves in a world that keeps setting heat records.

“We cannot negotiate with nature,” Mr Jorgensen said. “The climate cannot compromise.”

Asked when talks would start to go around the clock, Mr Jorgensen looked at his watch and said “now”.