“We must be laser-focused on phasing out fossil fuel emissions.” Those are the words of Sultan al-Jaber, who will be the president of COP28, the United Nations climate conference being held in Dubai next month. He was speaking at a climate conference in Berlin in May.

To many climate-conscious people, al-Jaber’s remarks might seem laudatory. Not to Christiana Figueres, though. Figueres is the renowned Costa Rican diplomat who once led the UN climate program and presided over the negotiations that resulted in the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement. Shortly after al-Jaber’s speech, Figueres called his statement “very worrisome.” 

The Significance of Every Word

Let’s step back a moment. As you may know, COP28 is shorthand for the 28th Conference of the Parties. At these annual events, nations negotiate the implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, which was adopted in 1992. Every official statement and agreement that comes out of the COPs must be agreed to by all of the 198 countries that are party to the UNFCCC. As a result, every word is subject to seemingly endless scrutiny and negotiation.

Evolution of Climate Negotiations

At COP26, in Glasgow, countries for the first time agreed to include language in the concluding agreement that called for the “phasedown of unabated coal power.” The word “phasedown” was a last minute substitution for “phaseout,” made at the request of China and India. And of course the word “unabated” is doing some heavy lifting (more on that in a moment). Still, it was a surprise that any reference to coal made it into the pact at all. 

At last year’s COP27, India, which generates most of its electricity from coal, proposed a call for “the phasedown of all fossil fuels.” Although India was supported by 80 other countries including the United States, it was blocked by Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich countries, and the language was never included in the final statement.

Phasing Out Emissions vs. Fossil Fuels

So why would anyone who cares about climate be worried that the president of COP28 believes “we must be laser-focused on phasing out fossil fuel emissions?”  

The answer lies in the fact that he was calling for the phaseout of the emissions, instead of the fossil fuels themselves. Critics like Figueres believe that, by choosing that language, al-Jaber was endorsing roundabout solutions like carbon capture and storage, or CCS—technology that is supposed to capture and remove the carbon dioxide emitted during the burning of fossil fuels. That’s a problem because, despite billions of dollars and 50 years of effort, no economically viable method of removing the carbon from fossil fuel emissions has yet been invented.

To Figueres and others, anything that gives people the impression that a technological fix is just around the corner is a moral hazard, a dangerous distraction that fossil fuel companies will use to justify ongoing extraction. (Did we mention that in addition to heading COP28, al-Jaber is also the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company?)

Perhaps feeling the heat, al-Jaber has issued a subsequent Letter to Parties calling for “the inevitable and responsible phase-down of all fossil fuels.” Not the emissions. The fossil fuels themselves. And yet, later in the very same sentence, he put another codeword to work, calling for “an energy system free of unabated fossil fuels.”

Words matter. At Terra.do, we will be watching the COP28 negotiations very carefully. Come join the discussion.