'Huge debate' on fossil fuels as Cop28 considers coal phase-out deal

Pledge to end coal would be a major win for the summit after previous opposition from India and China

Delegates at Cop28 are expected reach an agreement on a 'phase-out' of fossil fuels. AP
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The world is facing a tug-of-war over coal after a draft deal to phase it out was put on the table at the Cop28 climate talks in the UAE.

A second draft of what could be Cop28’s key final text includes the option of a “rapid phase-out of unabated coal power this decade”.

The draft of the “global stocktake” shows negotiators are also considering a phase-out of all fossil fuels. An alternative proposal in each case is to agree on nothing, amid "huge debate" on the subject.

Campaigners welcomed signs of a potential coal deal that would go further than a “phase-down” agreed on two years ago in Glasgow.

A key question will be whether India and China, who have previously opposed a full “phase-out”, will support the new proposal.

Rahul Walawalkar, president of Customised Energy Solutions India, told The National it would be “almost impossible for India to meet economic development targets while phasing out coal”.

He said coal plants would instead start “naturally phasing out” as they become less economical. “The expectation is that the developed countries need to take a bigger share in terms of their decarbonisation,” he said.

The chairman of India’s electricity authority, Ghanshyam Prasad, said the country would be “holding [out] for some more time” on fossil fuels, while trying to lower emissions and turn to alternatives such as hydrogen.

India is committed to going green but also needs “a focus on energy security to provide the economic growth”, he said.

The draft wording would need to be agreed to by all 194 countries involved in the stocktake talks in Dubai.

They are expected to use Cop28’s final text as a foundation when they draw up their next round of climate plans, due by 2025.

With the next stocktake not due until 2028, the talks in the UAE are regarded as a key moment to speed up climate action before it is too late.

Tom Evans, a policy adviser at think tank E3G, said the new text contains the "ingredients for an ambitious outcome".

"We can see some of the elements that we would need by the end of this Cop," he said, but it is "far from guaranteed that we land those ambitious outcomes" as negotiators continue shuttling around Dubai’s Expo City.

Critical coal wording

The draft text’s “option 1” on coal calls for “rapid phase out of unabated coal power this decade and an immediate cessation of the permitting of new unabated coal power generation”. Option 2 is “no text”.

"Unabated" in this context means a power plant that does not trap CO2 emissions before they hit the atmosphere. The word is a compromise that allows some fossil-fuel plants to keep running if they use carbon-capture technology.

Two years ago, India pushed through a last-minute amendment on coal that brought a tense climax to Cop26 in Britain, changing “phase-out” to “phase-down”.

The same wording could yet be considered in Dubai, with Brazil’s chief negotiator Andre Correa do Lago calling fossil fuels a “huge debate here at this Cop”.

Coal is regarded as the most polluting fossil fuel and scientists say it is the one that needs the most severe cuts if the global temperature rise is to be limited to 1.5°C.

While there was some alarm at the suggestion of agreeing on nothing, David Waskow of the World Resources Institute was optimistic countries would find a compromise.

“I don’t think we’re going to leave Dubai without some clear language and some clear direction on shifting away from fossil fuels,” he said. "I think there’s no doubt that that will be in the text when we leave here, in some fashion."

Some countries oppose a specific deal because they see it as “too prescriptive” and going beyond the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C objective, said Jamal Srouji of the same institute.

Coal is only one part of a 24-page stocktake package, meaning sceptics such as China and India could back the text in exchange for concessions elsewhere. “Never say never,” said one delegate observing the talks.

The draft text proposes three options on fossil fuels more broadly – an “orderly and just phase-out”, no text at all, or a middle ground in which countries “accelerate towards” a phase-out of unabated fossil fuels in the energy system.

Further areas in which the language is still up for discussion include fossil-fuel subsidies, zero-emission vehicles and a call to curb methane emissions and deforestation.

Also up in the air is whether countries should specifically explain how the stocktake shapes their next national climate plan, with an alternative wording saying they should merely be “informed” by the text.

The stocktake is the first since the 1.5°C goal was agreed on in Paris eight years ago and will be the key outcome of Cop28, said the EU’s top negotiator Jacob Werksman.

He said diplomats would try to take the stocktake to “as much of a conclusion in this first week of negotiations as possible”, before delegates take a rest day on Thursday.

But there will inevitably be “some very important political questions for ministers to resolve in the second week,” he said. “We imagine that this issue of how we’re going to address fossil fuels will be top of the list”.


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