Observers See OPEC ‘Panicking’ as COP28 Climate Talks Focus on Possible Fossil Fuel Phase-out

December 9, 2023

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Veteran negotiators at the U. N. climate talks Saturday said that the push to wean the world from dirty fossil fuels had gained so much momentum that they had poked a powerful enemy: the oil industry.

Late Friday, multiple news sources reported that the leader of OPEC, the powerful oil cartel, wrote to member countries earlier this week urging them to block any language that would phase our or phase down fossil fuels. The news had the effect of a thunderclap, shinning a light on host and petrostate United Arab Emirates, which clearly has oil interests but also wants to show the world that it can lead the conference toward a substantive result.

Environmental activists, still smarting from 30 years of soft power from oil interests keeping such discussions from seeing the light of day, smirked at signs that the mighty cartel was circling the wagons.

“I think they’re panicking,” said E3G analyst Alden Meyer. “Maybe the Saudis can’t do on their own what they’ve been doing for 30 years and block the process.”

Former Ireland President Mary Robinson said, “They’re scared. I think they’re worried.”

Robinson, co-chair of the retired leaders group The Elders, is now a prominent climate campaigner, said the fact that OPEC is concerned “gives me hope.” Last month she clashed publicly with the president of the COP28 negotiations, Sultan al-Jaber, who is also CEO of the Emirates’ national oil company.

“It is incredibly brazen of OPEC to come forward with these unreasonable demands,” said an infuriated Swedish environment minister Romina Pourmokhtari in a statement. “We will not allow actors who want to continue emitting and polluting the climate to make our negotiations and our work conditional on reaching the agreement to completely phase out fossil fuels.”

Germany’s climate envoy, Jennifer Morgan, suggested any call for blocking a deal would be felt most by small countries vulnerable of sea level rise caused by global warming.

“Right now, countries here are fighting for their lives. The small islands, and most countries here, are engaging very actively on this discussion in a real way,” she said in an interview. “And I think it is obviously not responsible to have a position that could mean — would mean — the life and death of many million people.”

“When I listen to the small islands who are in my ear and in my heart, and then I hear about this OPEC letter, I’m deeply concerned about it,” she added. “We’re seeing very worrying tactics by the Arab groups here.”

COP28 Director General Majid al-Suwaidi downplayed the OPEC letter, saying the UAE team running the climate conference has been meeting with negotiators to get an ambitious deal. He said the oil cartel is a different entity than climate negotiations, even though the letter was about the talks themselves.

“I feel confident that we’re going to get a good result you’re going to be surprised about,” Suwaidi told The Associated Press.

The conference presidency has been crowing about deal after deal, many of them involving hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars of pledges, but they’ve more nibbled the edges of the key issue of cutting emissions. When it comes to reducing the gases that cause climate change, a key group of scientists who analyze pledges, actions and potential temperature increases said in a report on Saturday that all the action so far hasn’t really amounted to much.

“The COP28 Presidency has made a very big deal about a whole lot of voluntary initiatives, while adopting an ambiguous and weak position on the central issue of a fossil fuel phaseout,” Climate Analytics CEO Bill Hare, co-author of the report, said.

Saturday’s firestorm of controversy came as protests at the conference center in Dubai ramped up, with a “Global Day of Action” urging nations to move decisively to stop climate change and officials from various countries talked increasingly urgently at the official meetings. The OPEC letter has added fuel to their fury.

“With current policies, the planet is on track to a 2.9 (degree Celsius, 5.2 degree Fahrenheit above pre-industrial temperature) future. We cannot adapt to temperature rise that high; the loss and damage will be incalculable. It will be our death sentence,” Marshall Islands natural resources minister John Silk said.

“We will not go silently to our graves,” he said.

A speedy phase-out of fossil fuels has shaped up as the central issue at the talks as they head into their final days. Activists and experts have warned that the world must quickly reduce use of the oil, gas and coal that is causing dangerous warming.

Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, called the Dec. 6 letter from OPEC Secretary-General Haitham Al Ghais “shameful” and said “the writing is on the wall for dirty energy.”

“The reality is if the world is going to save itself, it cannot be held back by a small band of countries that control the world’s oil supply,” Adow said in a statement. “Fossil fuels keep power in the hands of the few that happen to have them. Renewables give energy to anyone with a solar panel or a wind turbine.”

Climate Analytics’ Hare said, “Perhaps if fossil fuel interests hadn’t spent the last three decades working hard against climate action, denying and questioning the science, the discussion about fossil fuels today might be quite different.”

OPEC didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment. Protestors Saturday in a flash mob briefly blocked the OPEC exhibit at climate talks, calling for an immediate phase-out of fossil fuels.

Negotiators are fleshing out language in a key document called the Global Stocktake. It will say how much progress the world had made since the 2015 Paris agreement — where nations agreed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since preindustrial times — and what it has to do next.

New proposed language on how to curb warming released Friday afternoon strengthened the options for a phase-out of fossil fuels that negotiators could choose from. Four of the five options call for some version of a rapid phase-out.

Earlier, Adow had been among environmental advocates who had some qualified optimism about the expanded 27-page draft language.

“The bare bones of a historic agreement is there,” Adow said. “What we now need is for countries to rally behind the stronger of the options and strengthen them further.”


Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


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