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Controversy hangs over climate talks as countries weigh whether to ditch fossil fuels

The first week of the COP28 climate talks has come to an end not with the euphoria of the first days of breakthrough announcements, but with growing anxiety about whether the world will do anything about the main cause of the climate crisis: fossil fuels.

The trade-show-like pavilions — where countries have for days been touting everything from zero-carbon shipping to nuclear fusion energy — are slowly starting to empty. One European nation’s pavilion had just three staff members left late Wednesday morning, all rushing out to catch a flight home. Another representing climate vulnerable states had its lights switched off, no one at all inside.

The summit’s glamorous early days are over. What’s left now is the tedious, hard work between countries’ negotiators who are sorting the thorny issue of what to do about fossil fuels — pursuing what could potentially be the most ambitious COP outcome in years.

But journalists, delegates and civil society groups are still talking about the summit’s president, whose recent remarks cast a shadow over the negotiations.

Comments from Sultan Al Jaber that came to light on Sunday sent shockwaves through Expo City in Dubai: In a late-November panel discussion, he said there is “no science” behind the demand to phase out fossil fuel to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius – the goal of the Paris climate agreement. Al Jaber, who is also an oil executive, fiercely defended his commitment to climate science the next day, and said phasing out fossil fuels is “inevitable” and “essential.”

Sultan Al Jaber, COP28 President, speaks at the meeting on December 2. - Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sultan Al Jaber, COP28 President, speaks at the meeting on December 2. - Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Days later, UN climate chief Simon Steill was asked by a reporter about Al Jaber during a news conference Wednesday, but refused to be drawn on the controversy, saying his focus was now on the summit’s critical negotiations.

US climate envoy John Kerry fended off similar inquiries. Kerry has publicly supported Al Jaber’s COP presidency several times, but chose not to wade into it at a press conference Wednesday. He had earlier told POLITICO that Al Jaber’s remarks perhaps “came out the wrong way” and could use a “clarification.”

Getting climate action on the same page as the science has never been more urgent; 2023 will officially be the hottest year on record, and even scientists are expressing alarm that the climate impacts they’re seeing are outpacing their predictions. The planet’s average temperature this year is on track to be around 1.4 degrees above pre-industrial levels — just a hair below the Paris Agreement’s threshold.

The impacts of the climate crisis weigh heavily on attendees at the talks — but there are now concerns among civil society groups and some delegates that Al Jaber’s remarks may bleed into the negotiations themselves.

“The whole COP has been a conflict of interest,” said Isabel Rutkowski from Germany, part of the European Youth Forum. “It’s frustrating because the science is pretty clear, and you have a president for COP who is not following science. It’s crazy.”

A ‘frustrating’ distraction

Whether Al Jaber’s comments will have an impact on final language around fossil fuels is yet to be seen, but countries are deeply divided over the issue.

The latest draft of the summit’s key agreement included several options: One called for a phase-out of fossil fuels –— the language widely supported by most climate scientists. Another called for a phase-down of fossil fuels, which is weaker language and leaves the door open for a future with more planet-warming pollution. Another option was to omit language on fossil fuels altogether.

The Mexican delegation is supporting a phase-down of fossil fuels, Benjamín Murguía, a technical advisor to Mexican negotiators, told CNN, given the difficulties of getting a “phase-out” through the country’s parliament back home. The delegation doesn’t disagree with all of Al Jaber’s comments, but Murguía said it finds the controversies unhelpful.

“It’s frustrating,” said Murguía, who wanted to see more progress and “action” and fewer distractions.

“Mexico is a highly vulnerable country and we’re facing that as our own fight,” he said, pointing to Hurricane Otis, which killed dozens of people and tore through coastal cities. “We’re trying to rebuild Acapulco now.”

Reaching consensus on fossil fuels was always going to be a tough fight. The UN’s Stiell said Wednesday that there was a “spectrum of positions” on the issue among the nations at the summit.

Two sources who were in the room for a late-night drafting session told CNN the US, China and Saudi Arabia all requested a large number of changes to the draft before it was published. Those countries’ negotiators were told to “take a scalpel” and be surgical with the text.

A delegate from the Philippines, which represents the G77 nations — a coalition of developing countries — described the US as taking a “broadsword” to the agreement, with nearly 200 edits or comments, the sources said.

From left, Bola Tinubu, Nigeria's president; Xie Zhenhua, China's special envoy for climate change; COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber; and John Kerry, US special presidential envoy for climate, on Saturday at the climate summit in Expo City in Dubai. - Hollie Adams/Bloomberg/Getty Images
From left, Bola Tinubu, Nigeria's president; Xie Zhenhua, China's special envoy for climate change; COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber; and John Kerry, US special presidential envoy for climate, on Saturday at the climate summit in Expo City in Dubai. - Hollie Adams/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Some of India’s delegates expressed reservations on phasing out fossil fuels, according to the sources, but the country has previously supported a phase-down.

CNN is reaching out to the US, China, Saudi Arabia and India.

Al Jaber’s influence over talks may become clearer next week, when ministers and senior officials join other delegates and discuss this language openly in public sessions, said Tom Evans, a policy advisor in climate diplomacy and geopolitics for the E3G climate consultancy.

And the controversy could, ironically, bring positive outcomes, he said.

“The fact that we have had so much scrutiny on the fossil fuel industry and on the comments on the fossil fuel transition is actually, maybe helpful in putting them under the spotlight and saying, ‘If things do go south, we’ll be pointing at the UAE,’” Evans said.

He cautioned that there were several other countries that were blocking progress on including a fossil fuel phase-out, and that failure in that regard wouldn’t solely be the UAE’s doing.

“But, we do see that pressure now playing into the discussions, constructively,” he said.

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