Environmental groups and negotiators from countries that are most vulnerable to climate disasters assailed a draft of a final agreement, made public at the United Nations climate talks on Monday, that fell short of calling for a phaseout of fossil fuels.
The long-awaited draft said nations “could” take actions to slash greenhouse gas emissions, including “reducing both consumption and production of fossil fuels” by 2050, in line with what the science says must be done to avert the worst consequences of global warming.
But it said nothing about deeply cutting fossil fuel use this decade, which scientists say is required to keep global warming at relatively safe levels. And the use of “could” makes action optional, analysts said.
A spokesperson for Sultan Al Jaber, the Emirati oil executive who is leading the talks in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, said in a statement that the draft was “a huge step forward.” It would be the first time a United Nations climate agreement has even referenced fossil fuels, if those words remain in the final version.
But diplomats who have campaigned for a United Nations commitment to stop burning the fossil fuels that are dangerously heating the planet said their countries would oppose the deal as written. The deadline for an agreement is Tuesday, and the talks are now expected to go into overtime as negotiators haggle over language. Under U.N. rules, all 198 nations must reach consensus on an agreement; any one nation can scuttle a deal.
The burning of oil, gas and coal has raised average global temperatures by about 1.2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels. Beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, scientists say, humans will struggle to adapt to rising sea levels, wildfires, extreme storms and drought. To keep warming under that threshold, nations must cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 43 percent by 2030, scientists have said.
“The Republic of the Marshall Islands did not come here to sign our death warrant,” John Silk, the minister of natural resources for the nation of atolls in the Pacific Ocean, said. At its highest point, the Marshall Islands stands a little over six feet, or about two meters, above the sea.
“What we have seen today is totally unacceptable,” Mr. Silk said. “We will not go silently to our watery graves.”
Mona Ainuu, the minister of natural resources for the Pacific island of Niue, was brought to tears describing what she would tell her 12-year-old daughter about the results of this summit and pleaded for other nations to reconsider the draft.
“It saddens me that I came all this way,” she said. “We spent thousands of miles coming to COP and nothing has happened.”
The United States believes the language around fossil fuels should be “substantially strengthened,” Chad Houghton, a spokesman for John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy for climate change, said in a statement.
“COP28 is now on the verge of complete failure,” Former Vice President Al Gore said in a statement. “The world desperately needs to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible, but this obsequious draft reads as if OPEC dictated it word for word.”
Saudi Arabia is the main opponent of language that calls for phasing out or even phasing down fossil fuels. Environmental groups on Monday accused Saudi officials of working to weaken the text.
“I cannot hide that the text, as it is now stands, is disappointing,” Wopke Hoekstra, the European commissioner for climate action, said. “Overall, it is insufficient. Scientists are crystal clear on the need to phase out fossil fuels.”
Oil producing countries like Saudi Arabia and the fossil fuel industry have sought to frame the problem as one of emissions. If greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane could be contained or removed from the atmosphere, they say, the world could continue to burn oil, gas and coal. Others say that is technically impossible at the moment and that fossil fuels must be replaced with solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy.
Supporters of the draft agreement said late Monday that by prodding nations to reduce the production of fossil fuels, the deal would achieve essentially the same result as a phaseout.
Energy experts disagreed. Farooq Ullah, a senior policy adviser on energy for the International Institute for Sustainable Development, said “phasing out” means getting emissions as close to zero as possible, while “reduce” might be a marginal cut.
Mr. Ullah said the draft was “highly indicative of the fact that we are at a climate summit in a petrostate, and this is very much an appeasement of fossil fuel-producing countries.”
Brad Plumer, Max Bearak, Somini Sengupta and Jenny Gross contributed reporting from Dubai.