DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — After a first-day blur of rare quick action and agreement, negotiators at a critical United Nations climate summit Wednesday finished up their first week in a more familiar place for them: the murky middle where momentum and roadblocks intertwine.
“Negotiations, as are often the case, are a mixed picture right now. We see big differences between individual states in some areas,” German climate envoy Jennifer Morgan said, “but there is a will to make progress.”
U.S. Special Envoy John Kerry, said, “We have done a lot in this first week and we’ve accomplished real things.”
Proponents who are calling for a ground-shifting phase-out of fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal have hope for the first time in years, but also see where it could be torpedoed. Key issues of financial help for poor nations to decarbonize and how to adapt to warming need much more work, officials said.
That is in contrast to the first day when the conference — called COP28 — put into effect a climate compensation fund — called loss-and-damage — and started seeing its coffers grow to more than $720 million.
U.N. Climate Secretary Simon Stiell on Wednesday warned against putting “a tick on the box" for that victory and think it solves the multi-trillion dollar problem of financial aid that's needed to help cut emissions worldwide.
“We need COP to deliver a bullet train to speed up climate action. We currently have an old caboose chugging over rickety tracks,” Stiell said.
Adnan Amin, the No. 2 official in the COP presidency official and a veteran United Nations diplomat, was a bit more optimistic, saying all negotiations have both an up period and depressing times. This one, he said, is in that time where “there's still a buzz. There's still positivity.”
Discussions have been focused on the so-called Global Stocktake — a status of where nations are at with meeting their climate goals to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial times and how they can get there. On Tuesday, negotiators produced a new draft of the text, but it had so many possibilities in its 24 pages that it didn’t give too much of a hint of what will be agreed upon when the session ends next week.
Negotiators for 197 countries are going over the document word by word to see what they can live with and what they can't, Amin said: “They have so many demands and needs. But I think it provides a very good basis for moving forward.”
Cedric Schuster, the chair of the Association of Small Island States, said failing on the global stocktake would “make it significantly more difficult to leave this COP saying we can achieve the 1.5 C limit.” He said major emitters and developed countries need to take the lead and ramp up efforts to phase out fossil fuels.
"If we fail, the consequences will be catastrophic,” he said.
While United Nations officials highlight worries about finance and adaptation, many at the Dubai conference are focused on language about what to do about fossil fuels. Burning coal, oil and natural gas are the chief causes of climate change. For the first time in nearly three decades of talks, the idea of getting rid of all of three of them is on the agenda and a serious possibility.
But issues about language, timing and meaning — especially defining terms — are far from settled. Some are using phase-down as less stringent, along with the term “unabated” tossed in front of fossil fuels. When asked to define “unabated,” Stiell said that's up to negotiators.
“We have seen options about fossil fuel phase-out in the text. And while it’s historic to have them, they’re not enough,” said environmental activist Romain Ioualalen of Oil Change International. He pointed to 106 nations signing a document calling for a phase-out, which was mentioned by many world leaders when they made speeches in the first few days.
“The situation we’re in right now, it was unthinkable just three COPs ago to have these debates on the phase-out of all fossil fuels,” Ioualalen said. “There’s definitely momentum in the conversation. There’s definitely opposition, of course. And that’s that’s to that’s to be expected. But that’s what we need to solve.”
“We've never been closer to an agreement for sure,” he said.
Kerry said the United States is just as strong a supporter of phase-out language as the European Union, one of the main proponents. If the world is going to get to net zero emissions by 2050 “you got to have largely a phase out of fossil fuels energy systems by 2050.”
But unlike environmental activists such as Ioualalen and scientists, who dismiss carbon capture as unrealistic and as greenwashing for the industry, Kerry said technology that captures carbon emissions and buries it, thus allowing some burning of oil and gas, is critical for heavy industries like aluminum and cement manufacturing.
Ioualalen said Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Turkey seem clearly against fossil fuel phase-out language.
“If there is some disagreement between ‘phase-out’ and ‘phase-down,’ let’s all agree there should be no disagreement that oil demand in 2050 has to be a fraction of what it is today, if not zero," said Jason Bordoff, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. “We are fighting over ‘phase-out’ or ‘phase-down’ while oil demand is rising each year.”
Wednesday's sessions were to focus on transport, the second-leading sector for the carbon dioxide emissions warming the planet, with panels like building out EV charging infrastructure and decarbonizing urban freight transportation.
Despite rapid growth of electric vehicles in some countries, oil still accounts for nearly 91% of the energy used in the transport sector, according to the International Energy Agency. And it's a sector that includes hard-to-decarbonize industries like aviation and shipping, where cutting emissions will require big ramp-ups in production of sustainable aviation fuel, for airplanes, and alternative fuels like hydrogen for ships.
Wednesday was a day for negotiators to talk about moving people around the world in transportation systems that produce less carbon emissions, yet when United Nations officials were asked about how much carbon pollution was caused by bringing more than 100,000 people to Dubai, they said they had no figures but that the gathering was worth it.