UN officials and activists ramp up the urgency as climate talks enter final days

 Visibly tired and frustrated top United Nations officials urged climate talks to push harder for an end to fossil fuels. Time seems to be running out both in the talks in Dubai and for action that could keep warming at or below the internationally agreed-upon threshold.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres returned to the summit on Monday and said it was “time to go into overdrive, to negotiate in good faith, and rise to the challenge.” He said negotiators at the COP28 summit in particular must focus on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and climate justice.

He said the global stocktake — the part of talks that assesses where the world is at with its climate goals and how it can reach them — should “phase out all fossil fuels” in order to reach the goal of limiting the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with pre-industrial times. That phase-out was, he said, ”a central aspect” for the summit to be considered a success.

“We can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” Guterres said in brief remarks. “We are out of road and almost out of time.”

“What is very clear is that the bar for success is high,” said EU Commissioner Wopke Hoekstra. “And that is not because these Europeans say so, or because small islands say so, or Africa or Latin America say so. But because scientists tell us that we have no alternative if we want to keep future generations safe.”

As the Secretary-General spoke about a dozen silent protesters held out cards that spelled “hold the line.”

Guterres brought back up the concept of a two-track phase-down of fossil fuels between wealthy nations acting faster and harder and giving more time and money to poorer countries. Other negotiators, including Norway’s Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide, have also floated the idea, but it hasn’t been prominent in negotiating texts.

Activists responded with skepticism of the plan.

Nnimmo Bassey, a longtime Nigerian environmental activist, said that the ultimate goal should be for “fossil fuels to be kept in the ground” as Indigenous communities around the world have often borne the cost of oil exploration.

“We can’t keep on running the tap while pretending we’re mopping the floor,” Bassey said. “We have to turn off the taps.”

The presidency of the conference — run by the CEO of the United Arab Emirates national oil company — “recognizes that for this to be viewed as a success, we need to find some agreement on fossil fuels,” said Steven Guilbeault, Canadian environment minister and one of eight super-negotiators tasked with helping find common ground. “I think if we can’t do that, people will see this as a failure, even though we’ve agreed on lots of other good things.”

But Guilbeault said, “I’m confident we can finish tomorrow.”

Simon Stiell, the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, told journalists Monday morning that the “climate wolves” remained at the world’s doors as negotiations reach their climax at the summit.

“We do not have a minute to lose in this crucial final stretch and none of us have had much sleep,” Stiell said. “One thing is for certain: I win, you lose is a recipe for collective failure,” he said.

Negotiators from powerhouses United States and China were working together Monday morning.

But signs of trouble were all around.

As Monday wore on, Emirati officials cancelled a hastily called news conference with COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber, then cancelled another with another official in the early afternoon. They offered no explanation for the cancellations, which drew into question an earlier promise by al-Jaber to bring the COP to an end sharply at 11 a.m. Tuesday. They were part of a series of cancellations by prominent negotiators.

Sticking points for the global stocktake are along familiar lines. Many countries, including small island states, European countries and Latin American nations, are calling for a phase-out of fossil fuels, responsible for most of the warming on Earth. But other nations want weaker language that will allow oil, gas and coal to keep burning in some way.

One of the major players in all this is India, which in 2021 torpedoed the idea of a “phase-out” of coal but then in 2022 proposed the idea of phasing out all fossil fuels, not just coal, which never got on the agenda in last year’s climate talks. It’s now the center point of discussion.

The world’s most populous nation, and No. 3 carbon dioxide emitter, is trying to be both ambitious yet keep the backbone of its economy, coal, said Vaibhav Chaturvedi of New Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water.

Alden Meyer, an analyst with climate think tank E3G, said Saudi Arabia was trying to mobilize the other members of the OPEC oil cartel to object to any inclusion of fossil fuels in the text – which he said would violate the terms of the Paris climate accord.

“This could be a very long week,” he said.

Canada’s Guilbeault said OPEC countries are “being very unwilling to even contemplate even a conversation, and I think that’s unhelpful.”

Joseph Sikulu, a Pacific climate warrior who was protesting outside of Guterres’ briefing, said, “we know that on the inside of the negotiations the high exploiting countries like the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Australia, are the ones who are blocking on the phase out of fossil fuels.”

“We need them to step aside … so that we can get the results that are needed from these negotiations,” Sikulu said.

Norway’s Barth Eide said “all countries want ambition, but some countries have their priorities one place and other countries another place. … So this can still both end up as a very successful COP, and it can also be much less successful depending on where we find the final language.”

As of early Monday afternoon, delegates were still waiting on a new draft of the global stocktake.

But Barth Eide said: “I am much more concerned about having a good text than an early text. So if the hours delay means that it will be better, I think that’s worth it.”

By Nadeem Faisal Baiga