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Climate Activists Outraged as COP28 Draft Text Drops Call for Fossil Fuel Phaseout

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At the COP28 U.N. climate summit, a draft agreement released Monday omits a call to phase out fossil fuels, proposing “reductions” instead. The United States, Canada and other rich countries have loudly championed a phaseout but are simultaneously approving new oil and gas projects eating up the planet’s remaining carbon budget, says Meena Raman, head of programs at Third World Network and president of Friends of the Earth Malaysia. “Developed countries must take the lead, and they must end fossil fuel production and consumption now, not in 2030, 2040 or 2050,” Raman says. We also speak with South African climate and energy expert Tasneem Essop, who says any phaseout of fossil fuels must be “just and equitable,” giving poorer countries room to develop and putting the onus on the rich Global North to decarbonize first.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We go now to Dubai, where the U.N. climate summit, COP28, has entered its final hours. On Monday, negotiators released a draft agreement that omits a call to phase out fossil fuels, though it mentions fossil fuels for the first time. Climate activists and leaders from many small island nations have denounced the draft text as a death warrant for the planet. The document released Monday instead calls for reducing both consumption and production of fossil fuels. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said on social media, “COP28 is now on the verge of complete failure.”

On Monday, a 12-year-old climate activist from India disrupted the high-level proceedings by storming the stage.

MAJID AL-SUWAIDI: And let’s deliver.

LICYPRIYA KANGUJAM: End fossil fuels now! Our leaders lie, people die! Leaders lie, people die! Act now! Our governments have to work together to phase out coal, oil and gas — the top cause of today’s climate crisis!

AMY GOODMAN: The 12-year-old activist, Licypriya Kangujam, was holding up a sign that read “End fossil fuels. Save our planet and our future.” She spoke after the action.

LICYPRIYA KANGUJAM: I was in COP25 in Madrid, Spain, when I was around 7 years old. And it has been five years from then, and there has been no concrete action from our world leaders. And our world leaders keep on firing our planet, keep on destroying our planet and our future. … You see, asking clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and clean planet to live is all our basic rights. And asking those basic rights is completely unnecessary, you know? We must be having those basic rights right now, and we are not having that at all. So how is that fair? And raising my voice in the plenary session and taking my badge just like that, how is that fair?

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests at COP28 in Dubai. Tasneem Essop is executive director of Climate Action Network International, an expert on climate, energy, poverty and social justice issues, the founding director of the Energy Democracy Initiative in South Africa. And we’re joined by Meena Raman, head of programs at Third World Network, also the president of Friends of the Earth Malaysia.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Meena Raman. Talk about this draft text and the outrage that it has been met by at the climate summit and around the world.

MEENA RAMAN: Yeah. Well, this is not the final text just yet, what we saw. It contained many options there, including a fossil — a phasedown of coal. It had references to fossil fuel phaseout, and it had the production and consumption of fossil fuels reduced and some other options. So it’s not final as yet. It went to the heads of delegations and states last night, ministers last night. Many of us were following what was happening. The room was actually quite divided.

And what was actually quite outrageous for us, if I may, the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan, Germany, the European Union as a whole, one by one, stood up to say that the fossil fuel phaseout language is not there, or it was insufficient and needs to be strengthened and that you need to keep the North Star — they kept repeating the “North” — about keeping the 1.5-degree Celsius limit alive, and they kept referring to the “North Star.” Now, what was sickening to me was these are the so-called biggest polluters and emitters, historical emitters, who refuse to acknowledge historical responsibility, and they do not want to talk about the equitable distribution of the carbon budget from historical times, where developed countries and the rich countries have overconsumed four-fifths of that budget with very little space left for developing countries.

So, that was the call by the rich North, pretending to be climate champions, because we know and we have read the reports of many research organizations, including Oil Change International, which have clearly shown that these very same countries, as they come here and pretend to be climate champions and talk about limiting temperature rise and also talk about ending fossil fuels, have signed and continue to sign licenses for expansion and production of fossil fuels. So, for us, it was absolutely duplicitous on their part to do that. And there was no reference to the means of implementation, which is the provision of finance, technology and capacity building for developing countries to do the phaseout. So it was not about justice. It was not about climate justice. It was not about equity, because all they do here — and they come here and pretend as if it’s all the fault of developing countries.

So, those of us who are here have been exposing this hypocrisy, and we are saying that the fossil fuel phaseout has to be fair, has to be just, has to be equitable, and developed countries must take the lead, and they must end fossil fuel production and consumption now, not in 2030, 2040 or 2050. And they have to do their fair shares of reductions, and they must take into account historical responsibility and must provide the finance, the technology transfer for the developing countries to move into the transition, because we can’t do it overnight. They talk about peaking of ambitions by 2025. That’s a global peak. You can’t have the rich world taking hundred-over years to peak, and preach to the developing world, much of whom do not have clean energy, do not have access to electricity, where there’s constant breakdowns, even in New Delhi. People live in blackouts. And, of course, Tasneem will talk more about what happens in South Africa. So, there is a need for a just transition, and it has to be — any outcome from here must be just and equitable. You can’t just look at whether fossil fuel language is there, but the issue is really whether it can get done so that the poor don’t have to be burdened even further. It cannot be applauded just because you have language on fossil fuels in the text.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Tasneem Essop, you’re executive director of Climate Action Network. Is this really any surprise, when you have the head of the U.N. climate summit, the head of the UAE’s national oil company — he’s an oil executive — who said, before the COP even began, that there’s “no science” behind a fossil fuel phaseout. This seems to follow exactly what he has said. As people know, a few days ago in Dubai, I followed him, asking him these two questions about being the head of the oil company and saying that there’s no role for a fossil fuel phaseout, and also the fact that at this U.N. climate summit there are more fossil fuel lobbyists — close to 2,500 — than, of course, at any COP before, something like four or three times more than there were in the last few years. Can you talk about the effects of that? Also, President Biden not showing up at this U.N. climate summit, Kamala Harris, the vice president, did. But what you’re calling for? And also, if you can talk about the protests that have and have not been allowed, as you demand everything from fossil fuel phaseout to a ceasefire in Gaza?

TASNEEM ESSOP: Yeah. Thanks, Amy.

So, I do want to be clear about the COP president’s role in relation to the text and where negotiations are right now. Look, you know, he’s made statements across the year since his appointment. I can say that we’ve been engaging the COP president, even though, you know, we’ve agreed to disagree. On the issue of our priority to get an outcome for a just and equitable phaseout of fossil fuels, he has been engaging NGOs. And so, he’s been pretty forthcoming in terms of the ideas that we’re presenting to him, especially in relation to ensuring that equitable approach to a phaseout of fossil fuels. That’s an important element that Meena also speaks about. We can’t just have phaseout language as if there’s no context to a phaseout of fossil fuels. And so you would have seen that his rhetoric over the year did change. It shifted. You know, when the language of it is inevitable that we should have a phaseout of fossil fuels — we heard that in Bonn already. He’s been really, really wanting to get an outcome, recognizing that we have to have an outcome on fossil fuels at this COP.

So, yes, of course, the context with, you know, fossil fuel industries being here, this is not a new phenomenon, Amy. We saw this starting — I mean, they’ve been in the process for many years, and the kind of visible presence already in Glasgow. These are all elements that we’re not surprised about. But we need to be focused about the outcome. And he has not been at all, in any active way, appeared to be obstructive about that outcome. In his engagement with us as NGOs, he was really keen to have an outcome on phasing out fossil fuels as a legacy from COP28. So, I just want to be clear about that and the engagements we’ve had with him.

In relation to the protests, yes, certainly, we came into this COP with a set of demands. One of them, of course, a just and equitable phaseout of fossil fuels. The idea of a package, an energy package, is what we came into this COP with. And the package would include an equitable phaseout. It would include an equitable phase-in of renewable energy and, importantly — and this is what’s missing right now — financial support. The kind of transitions that developing countries will have to take, whether they are least developing countries, small island states or middle-income countries, that transition is going to cost money. And we know that developing countries, particularly many of them reeling under debt burden, will need financial support. So, when Meena talks about the challenges surrounding end of fossil fuels or a phaseout without understanding the context that we have to have an equitable phaseout, and when developed countries do not understand that and will not commit to the levels of support required to achieve that equity, to lead — in fact, to lead — the text, the draft text on the table, didn’t make any reference to developed countries going first and fastest. And we know that reports, the IPCC said that there cannot be any new production, yet it is the developed countries that are still, as Meena said, signing licenses, expanding production, investing in fossil fuels. And so, we have to address this. This is the real political context. We do want an outcome on a phaseout of fossil fuels, but we do want it to be equitable and just. And this is where the developed countries will have to step up and do that and ensure that kind of outcome.

The other issue that we’ve been protesting about, of course, is standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Palestine and highlighting the unfolding genocide in Gaza — excuse me. So we have been very active in this space. As well, it’s been challenging, but we have been actively protesting on the genocide in Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask about a U.N. report finding Global South countries need nearly $400 billion per year to prepare for climate change, but only $21 billion was given in 2021, the report saying in addition to between $200 billion and $366 billion needed for every passing year. Talk about the demands of the wealthy — you’re making of wealthier nations and some of the worst polluters — for example, historically the biggest one, the United States; now the largest polluter, China. If you can address these issues? And what impact does climate change have on your country, in South Africa?

TASNEEM ESSOP: Well, we both have contributed to, you know, climate change, but we’re also extremely vulnerable to climate change. And we’ve had a number of extreme weather events recently, flooding, both in my city, Cape Town, in the Western Cape, and in KwaZulu-Natal. And there have been droughts in the country. So, of course, we are challenged and vulnerable.

On the issue of finance, though, we’re not talking about billions any longer, Amy. We’re really needing to talk about the trillions. And this is where the conversation has to pivot towards. We’re still hearing people talk about, you know, fulfilling a $100 billion obligation that they’ve not fulfilled yet, but we already understand that the accumulated needs now, whether we’re addressing the actions we need to take to reduce emissions, whether it’s the actions that we need to take to build resilience and for adaptation, and whether it’s the funding needed to address loss and damage, when we look at that, we’re really talking about trillions, and not billions.

And we have to look at all the measures to, you know, get that resources. Mostly for adaptation, loss and damage, it has to be public funding. It has to be. The developed countries right now are trying to, you know, shift us away from taking a public funding approach to it, and wanting to look at private sector funding, which is impossible, for, you know, private sector will not fund loss and damage. They won’t fund adaptation, because it’s not profit-making. Certainly, maybe, you know, for mitigation, yes, of course, but not for adaptation, not for loss and damage. And so, certainly, we’re needing to talk about public funding. We need to talk about developed countries looking at securing that funding and mobilizing it. And then we have to also look at what we’re calling the polluters pay principle, where we know the fossil fuel industry, those companies have to pay for their pollution. And they’ve been making huge profits. So, certainly, a windfall tax on fossil fuel companies is one of those options that we can look at. Yes, so, for funding — and I’m sure Meena will be able to add to this — developed countries have to step up. They can find funding so easily —

AMY GOODMAN: Meena —

TASNEEM ESSOP: — so easily, for wars —

AMY GOODMAN: Meena, we just have a minute.

TASNEEM ESSOP: — and to finance —

AMY GOODMAN: Meena Raman, I wanted to end with you on what is going to happen today. Is this climate summit actually going to end? Are you going to succeed in getting concessions? And are you concerned that the loss and damage fund will be initially run by the World Bank?

MEENA RAMAN: Well, I think the loss and damage fund issue has already been settled. Unfortunately, developing countries had to give a huge concession in allowing the World Bank to be the interim financial intermediary for four years, subject to conditions. So, that battle has already been locked in. So we will be watching whether the World Bank lives up to its obligations.

In relation to the outcome of the talks, we don’t know as yet. We are waiting for the text, which will land on us in any time in the next few hours. And we expect the talks to go on late into the night, as always the case. And we really have to see whether this is a text which will actually help protect the planet and the poor, or will it continue to allow the biggest polluters and the big rich nations to continue to escape their responsibility but pretend to be climate champions and continue fossil fuel expansion, production and consumption?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. We’ll continue this discussion tomorrow. Meena Raman is head of programs at Third World Network, president of Friends of the Earth Malaysia, and Tasneem Essop, executive director of Climate Action Network International, from South Africa.

Next up, the Texas Supreme Court has ruled against a woman who had to flee to another state to have an emergency abortion. And we’ll look at how Kentucky’s ban on abortion is being challenged. Stay with us.

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