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December 12, 2023

Editor’s note: COP28 – language, compromise and global climate diplomacy

Filling car with petrol
Vocal pressure from Saudi Arabia against the inclusion of a ‘phase-down’, let alone a ‘phase-out’, of fossil fuels in the final COP agreement has lowered expectations on what can realistically be achieved (Photo: Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

The latest edition of our Sustainable Views newsletter

Dear reader,

While we wait for a final COP agreement, it might be worth revisiting some of the most contentious parts being discussed – and the context of this year’s negotiations.

First, there is the issue of the moral authority of a petrostate, the United Arab Emirates, and of the COP28 presidency in particular in driving UN climate talks. Sultan al-Jaber, COP28 president, also leads the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (as well as serving as chair of renewable energy group Masdar).

Leaked documents and Jaber’s comments during a recent panel discussion inflamed the situation further. Vocal pressure from Saudi Arabia against the inclusion of a “phase-down”, let alone a “phase-out”, of fossil fuels in the final COP agreement lowered expectations on what could realistically be achieved – despite other governments’ push in the opposite direction.

Then, there is the final document being negotiated. Indeed, no phasing down of anything other than unabated coal in the draft “stocktake”, and the only phasing out mentioned is that of “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”, as our subscribers will have seen from last night’s COP round-up.

But among the fierce criticism, from around the negotiating table too, there was also praise.

“This is the first COP where the words fossil fuels are actually included in the draft decision,” said Power Shift Africa director Mohamed Adow, who noted that the text “uses creative language to describe the direction of travel”. 

As you’ll have seen in the document, the spelled out justification for “accelerating zero and low-emissions technologies” is “to enhance efforts towards substitution of unabated fossil fuels in energy systems”. Different terms with a very similar meaning – which is: “The beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era,” according to Adow.

This might still sit uncomfortably with critics, particularly those for whom the climate existential threat is already manifesting itself. “The Republic of the Marshall Islands did not come here to sign our death warrant,” said John Silk, the minister of natural resources and commerce of the low-lying atoll nation.

Compromises, as Adow suggested, are useful and needed. Though for how complex, surely the global climate diplomacy system could be improved. And so, as the third and concluding reflection of today’s missive, I’d like to highlight a proposal from a young activist.

As global climate talks should rightly be as inclusive as possible, and attempt to gather consensus from big polluters too – and with next year’s COP also being hosted by an oil-dependent economy, Azerbaijan – participants’ intent should be as evident as possible. 

Brianna Fruean, a member of the Pacific Climate Warriors’ youth-led grassroots network, has a solution that might go some way in restoring faith in the global climate diplomacy process. 

She told Alex that organisers should prepare a different type of COP badge for oil lobbyists, given that their numbers keep on growing and more than tripled this year from the previous UN climate conference – and given their ability to influence decisions.

Not necessarily a straightforward proposal, but one worth considering. After all, it wouldn’t be an unheard of system. Journalists, for example, wear clearly marked press passes at any event – which grant us access to certain areas, and prevent us from entering others. People seem to want to know who they’re dealing with before talking to us. This is likely true for other professions as well.

Until tomorrow,


Silvia Pavoni is the editor of Sustainable Views 

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