'Unabated': The word that may point way to Cop28 fossil fuel deal

Use of carbon capture seen as route to compromise on global stocktake talks in Dubai

Capturing carbon as it is emitted from power stations is a potential way of limiting the environmental impact. AP
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Getting the world to turn its back on fossil fuels completely? That is an uphill struggle. What if it is only “unabated” fossil fuels?

The extra word means coal, oil and gas are still on the table if you step in to lower their emissions.

That could point the way to a deal at Cop28, Finnish Climate and Environment Minister Kai Mykkanen told The National.

However, it relies on technology such as carbon capture and underground storage which some UN experts and activists say is unproven.

The agreed wording on fossil fuels will be key to the global stocktake – a battle plan on climate action being drawn up for the first time at Cop28 – and to the overall outcome of the summit.

An initial draft of the stocktake circulated on day two of the UAE-hosted summit left all options on the table, with an update on the negotiations expected on Sunday or Monday.

The language on “unabated fossil fuels” is supported by the US and EU, while the question of whether the stocktake calls for a “phase-out” or “phase-down” will be a second point of debate.

“The carbon capture and storage ecosystem will play an important role on the road to a sustainable future,” said Mr Mykkanen, adding it would be the only viable way to cut emissions in some sectors in the next 10 to 15 years.

“Maybe this is one room for manoeuvre in compromises, to what extent we give flexibility for carbon capture in the fossil phase-out.”

He hopes emissions cuts in the EU – which believes it is on track to exceed its 2030 targets – will mean “important players would see that this is possible without hampering economic growth”.

“We know that this is of course not a clear-cut case, it’s a challenge, but from a Nordic and Finnish perspective it’s the clear dimension where we should go forward, to replace fossils especially from the energy system and overall from society,” he said.

Fears of delay

Some campaigners at Cop28 say all fossil fuels must go and that carbon capture can't deliver ambitious targets in time.

Speaking for a High Ambition Coalition that includes several vulnerable island states, Palau’s President Surangel Whipps Jr said a full phase-out was needed to keep global warming to 1.5°C, the world’s central climate goal.

“We also need guard rails to ensure that abatement technologies are not used to delay climate action or justify further fossil fuel expansion,” he said.

A UN technical report underpinning the stocktake says the wider use of carbon capture “hinges on resolving geophysical, environmental-ecological, economic, technological, sociocultural and institutional challenges”.

Nonetheless, key negotiators have embraced the language on “unabated fossil fuels” including US climate envoy John Kerry, who has said he has “high hopes” of making progress at Cop28.

Mr Mykkanen said Finland envisages carbon capture mainly being used in the industrial sector, and ideally the stored CO2 being reused to make materials or fertilisers.

Germany, which typically lobbies for more ambitious action, has accepted the language on “unabated fossil fuels” as a standard compromise in climate talks, one official said.

“We are realistic. We have already seen this year that in the G20 negotiations we were more in defensive mode and tried to defend commitments the G20 has made in the past,” they said.

Countries agreed at Cop26 in Britain to work towards a “phase-down of unabated coal power”, with various qualifications, after a tense climax to the summit two years ago.

A similar deal on fossil fuels more broadly would set the tone for the next round of national climate plans, which almost 200 countries are due to hand into the UN by 2025.

Cop28 at Expo City in Dubai - in pictures

With the next stocktake not due until 2028, the talks in Dubai are seen as a key moment to “course-correct” before it is too late.

Any deal on fossil fuels will only be one part of the horse-trading, with diplomats seeking a package that keeps all parties satisfied on emissions, loss and damage and other issues.

“You cannot say ‘if you put a billion more on the table for loss and damage then you get that’. It's not that,” one former negotiator from a developed country told The National.

“But if you want to have an ambitious outcome, for example, on concrete targets in the mitigation sector – not just pledges by some, but referenced in the consensus document – you need to have a good outcome on loss and damage as well.

“So you need to satisfy the basic needs of all negotiation partners, giving some sense of equity and of course not stepping too much over red lines with key partners.”

Updated: December 04, 2023, 9:10 AM