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The U.N. Climate Talks Hung Poorer Nations Out to Dry

Nearly 200 countries agreed to transition away from fossil fuels, but the U.S. and others are actually expanding oil and gas exploration while refusing to finance the transition for poorer countries.

Delegates applaud after a speech by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, president of COP28
Fadel Dawod/Getty Images
Delegates applaud after a speech by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, president of COP28, on December 13.

On Wednesday morning in Dubai, as U.N. climate talks stretched well into overtime, COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber left no room for comments as he rammed through the final version of a text widely understood as the main prize of this year’s negotiations. The Global Stocktake—a framework for meeting the audacious goals of the Paris Agreement—includes two little words that never appeared in that prior document: fossil fuels.

Ironically, some of the countries that were most adamant about including calls for a “phaseout” of fossil fuels in the Global Stocktake are also those planning to increase their extraction of fossil fuels the most. The United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Norway are responsible for the majority of planned expansion of new oil and gas fields through 2050. All cheered Wednesday’s deal as a key step to “keep 1.5 alive,” referring to the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). But the final text doesn’t reference a phaseout of fossil fuels—only “transitioning away” from them “in a just, orderly and equitable manner.”

“People who don’t know better think this is ambitious,” said Meena Raman, head of programs at the Third World Network, a Malaysia-based nongovernmental organization that closely tracks U.N. climate proceedings. “They come here and talk about ‘keeping 1.5 alive’ while they continue to expand fossil fuel production,” she added, referencing wealthy oil and gas-producing countries in the global north. “It’s a big con on the part of the developed world.”

As Raman and many others have pointed out, the final text includes several “escape routes” for continued fossil fuel production. Among those is a formal recognition that “transitional fuels,” principally methane gas, “can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security.” There’s also little clarity on how low- and middle-income countries are meant to finance a transition away from coal, oil, and gas. References to richer countries taking the lead in providing that support were largely watered down in the final version, which emphasizes courting funds from the private sector and multilateral development banks.

“Not only has the finance not been delivered by developed countries, but they’ve been trying to weaken their obligation to provide that finance,” Brandon Wu, director of policy and campaigns at ActionAid USA, told me yesterday before the last version of the Global Stocktake had been released. “The U.S. is trying to remove all references to developed countries and to saying they have to be the ones to provide finance.”

Climate justice advocates I spoke with see the U.S. and other global north countries’ ultimately failed push for phaseout language—absent concrete plans or financial support—as, at least in part, a cynical attempt to divide developing countries against one another and advance their own interests.

The G77 plus China has been a powerful negotiation bloc in recent years, having just won a dedicated fund to help countries recover from climate disasters. Establishing that fund meant overcoming years of obstruction from the U.S., in particular. The coalition, though—now 134 countries—is a heterogeneous group that includes the world’s most climate-vulnerable nations and some of its biggest fossil fuel exporters. U.S. media coverage of the fossil fuel phaseout debate at COP28 has largely framed it as a battle between members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries—which opposed that language—and the U.S., which has aligned itself on this issue with low-lying island nations that face an existential threat from continued warming.

“This has been a usual tactic from their playbook to divide and conquer: Ask vulnerable countries to demand more action from developing countries without offering any money,” Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International, told me.

Many countries had demanded that language about an energy transition also include committing additional funds to help make it happen. “Any agreement concerning the phasing out of fossil fuels, and any moratorium on new investments in fossil fuel production, must be applied equitably,” the African Group of Negotiators wrote in its contribution to the Global Stocktake.

Like the Paris Agreement itself, the Global Stocktake is a nonbinding agreement. It will be realized mainly through countries updating their own emissions-reduction pledges. There’s very little to keep countries who’ve pushed language about a fossil fuel phaseout from phasing in a good deal more of them. Without real financial commitments, moreover, transitioning away from fossil fuels will be nearly impossible for poorer countries. A spokesperson for the U.S. delegation to COP28 did not respond to repeated requests for comment as to how it intended to transition away from fossil fuels or help poorer countries do the same.

“How can a developed country say with a straight face that ‘1.5 is our overriding priority,’ when they’re the ones who have blown the budget for 1.5, and are continuing to blow it with fossil fuel expansion plans? They’re pushing,” Wu added, “for words on paper that don’t match the action that they’ve taken.”

An energy transition will be especially difficult for countries staring down onerous debt burdens. Just 42 countries have doubled their governmental, corporate, and household debt over the last decade and now carry a combined load of $3.5 trillion. In Nigeria—an OPEC member—debt payments of $7.5 billion exceed government revenues by $900 million.

“The energy transition cannot be just, equitable, or fair if it isn’t funded. Developed countries who are responsible for historical emissions must not only take the lead in reducing current emissions but also provide the adequate climate finance that developing countries need,” Ubrei-Joe Maimoni Mariere, of the Nigerian NGO Environmental Rights Action, wrote in a statement about the end of the talks. “Without finance, the so-called ‘just transition’ put on the table here at COP28 won’t deliver the long-term transformation that is needed in my country, Nigeria, and across Africa.”

According to the U.N. Commission on Trade and Development, about half the world’s population lives in places where debt payments exceed spending on education and health care. The Federal Reserve’s commitment to keeping interest rates higher for longer has worsened that picture. That also makes countries all the more eager to exploit fossil fuels that can be sold off for much-needed U.S. dollars. Multilateral development banks often encourage countries to drill for fossil fuels in exchange for desperately needed funds. As part of its aid package to Argentina—which increased by $7.5 billion this past summer—the International Monetary Fund is directly supporting the development of the country’s massive Vaca Muerta oil and gas fields with the aim of boosting exports.

Colombia—Latin America’s fourth-largest oil producer—is finding out in real time how difficult it is to transition off fossil fuels, as the country’s recently elected left-wing president, Gustavo Petro, has pledged to do. “When our president said he will not sign any new coal or oil contract,” Colombian environment minister Susana Muhamad noted during informal talks in Dubai on Monday, “the peso devalued the next day. Credit rating agencies downgraded us. How do we repay our debt? How do we deal with these kinds of contradictions?”

Many more oil- and gas-producing countries will have to follow Colombia’s lead to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The annual Production Gap Report, released last month by the U.N. Environment Program and several other groups, found that the world is on track to produce 110 percent more fossil fuels than is consistent with keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. With COP28, world leaders have finally agreed to call fossil fuels a problem they have no plan for solving.