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Phase Down, Not Phase Out: COP28 Deal on Fossil Fuels Disappoints Activists & Vulnerable States

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Image Credit: Mahmoud Khaled/COP28/Flickr

As the United Nations climate summit ends with nations pledging to transition away from fossil fuels instead of explicitly calling for a fossil fuel phaseout, we go to the COP28 site in Dubai for a debrief with Asad Rehman, spokesperson for the Climate Justice Coalition. He says the deal overseen by COP28 president and head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company Sultan Al Jaber is a “very weak text” with “lots of loopholes” that allows rich countries to avoid responsibility. “If you’re an oil and gas baron and CEO, you must be rubbing your hands with glee,” says Rehman. “This requires everybody to take action, but developing countries can only act if they’re given the support.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. climate summit in Dubai has ended with nations pledging to transition away from fossil fuels, but critics say the deal is filled with loopholes that will undermine efforts to combat the climate crisis. The final text fails to explicitly call for a phaseout of fossil fuels, language sought by over 100 countries. Instead, one key passage of the deal reads, quote, “Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science,” unquote.

The COP28 president, Sultan Al Jaber, who is the head of ADNOC — that’s the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company — described the deal as “historic.”

SULTAN AHMED AL JABER: We have confronted realities, and we have set the world in the right direction. We have given it a robust action plan to keep 1.5 within reach. It is a plan that is led by the science. It is a balanced plan that tackles emissions, bridges the gap on adaptation, reimagines global finance and delivers on loss and damage.

AMY GOODMAN: COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber declared consensus on the final document early today, even though a grouping of 39 island nations known as AOSIS — that’s the Alliance of Small Island States — was not even in the room. The Samoan negotiator, Anne Rasmussen, who is the chair of AOSIS, criticized the final text.

ANNE RASMUSSEN: It seems that you just gaveled the decisions, and the small island developing states were not in the room. We were working hard to coordinate the 39 small island states, developing states, that are disproportionately affected by climate change, and so we were delayed in arriving here. … The questions we have considered as the Alliance of Small Island States is whether they are enough. Zoning in on paragraph 26 and 29 of this decision, we have come to the conclusion that the course correction that is needed has not been secured. We have made an incremental advancement over business as usual, when what we really needed is an exponential step change in our actions and support.

AMY GOODMAN: Critics have called out the allowance of ill-defined transitional fuels as a major loophole of the deal, which also opens the door to false technological solutions, they say, to combat the climate crisis. African activists said the deal does not provide sufficient mechanisms or funding from wealthy, high-polluting countries like the U.S. and European nations for poorer nations to shift away from fossil fuels.

Joining us now from Dubai, where we just came from, at the site of the COP28 is Asad Rehman, the executive director of War on Want, lead spokesperson for the Climate Justice Coalition.

Asad, welcome back to Democracy Now! As we see you now as the final document has been accepted, can you respond to, overall, what’s said, and explicitly your concerns?

ASAD REHMAN: Welcome, first of all. Thank you, Amy.

You’re right: The document has been accepted. And there has been a lot of attention on the words around fossil fuel and whether this would signal the end of the era of deadly fossil fuels. And unfortunately, whilst the word is there, the signal is clearly not.

What we’ve seen is a lot of very weak text there, lots of loopholes. You mentioned the transition fuels. I mean, quite incredibly, they include one of the most polluting fossil fuels, gas, as a transition fuel. None of the transition is funded, so the scale of the transition, particularly for developing countries, will be unable to be met. And there are loopholes in terms of so much in risky technologies, dangerous and unproven technologies, to suck carbon out of the atmosphere.

I mean, if you’re an oil and gas baron and CEO, you must be rubbing your hands with glee. This is continuing to be a license to pollute. And whilst the words on the text might be applauded, the reality is you can’t fool science, and you can’t fool the reality that we actually need to transition fairly and equitably and speedily away from fossil fuels, but also addressing the real challenges many developing countries have with poverty, and particularly with energy poverty, as well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Asad, I’m wondering if you could comment on the presence and influence of industry trade groups, think tanks and public relations agencies with a track record of climate denialism participating in this summit.

ASAD REHMAN: So, often anybody who comes to these climate negotiations would be surprised at probably how big a trade fair sits alongside the actual negotiators, where companies and CEOs and lobbyists peddle their influence both on governments and negotiators, but also striking deals with each other. But the reality is, of course, it’s not just here in Dubai that those lobbyists are at work. They’re also at work in the capitals in Washington and London and Brussels.

And that’s why many negotiators, particularly from developing countries, and climate justice groups looked aghast at the fact that the European Union, the United States and the United Kingdom were all making speeches saying the 1.5 degrees is the North Star, their commitment to tackle fossil fuels, whilst, of course, being responsible for half — over half of all new fossil fuel expansion all around the world. People know the reality, that what’s being said here is empty words, and reality on the back — back home is that an expansion of those fossil fuels. So there’s a lack of trust that exists here. People have realized that over decades there’s been plenty of broken promises, whether it’s on finance, whether it’s on the United States saying, “We don’t want to even discuss the fact that we have not met our previous pledge to cut our emissions.”

What’s happening here in these negotiations is really a ripping out and gutting out of the responsibility of rich countries, who caused most of this problem, and shifting the responsibility to developing countries. And that’s both in the interests of these big private companies, because the few mentions that there are about climate finance are all around private capital, and private capital is about making profit. And what they’re proposing is that governments who are deeply in debt, who have got small public fiscal space, commit their money, public money, to basically underwrite private corporations’ ability to be able to make profit. And where they want to make profit, of course, is not in actually helping poorer people be able to adapt to the realities of climate violence or adapt to the fact that we’re facing huge economic, social and cultural losses from killer floods, fires and famines. What they want to do is take control of what little remains of these countries’ energy systems and other public systems.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about this whole issue of the most polluting nations assisting the developing world and the Global South in dealing with the climate catastrophe?

ASAD REHMAN: Well, that’s been, I suppose, the big fissure that’s been running through all of these climate negotiations for the last 28 years. It’s whether rich countries, you know, still overwhelmingly are responsible for the majority of the emissions that are in the atmosphere, and per capita how much each of us emit as citizens, that’s overwhelming still — you know, 11% of the population is in the Global North. They’re overwhelmingly responsible for the majority of emissions in the atmosphere. Would those countries not only cut their own emissions, but provide support in the form of finance and technology?

Now, a promise was made back in 2009 for $100 billion. That hasn’t been met. There’s a big discussion going to have to take place next year whether climate finance is going to be on the base of need, and a recognition that we’re really talking about is not just hundreds of millions, but, of course, billions and up to trillions. And what was really striking at the beginning of these negotiations was that the United States pledged merely a few million into the loss and damage fund, while, of course, it didn’t escape people that it was happy to make requests to Congress for hundreds of billions for bombs and bullets for wars all around the world.

So, there’s a disconnect between the reality of what’s happening on the need, the crisis developing countries face, not just from climate, but from being trapped in unjust debt repayments, from a broken and rigged economic system, from harming — their resources being exploited, but also the reality that, you know, rich countries who have grown wealthiest are simply turning their back. Now, this requires everybody to take action, but developing countries can only act if they’re given the support.

AMY GOODMAN: This is U.S. climate envoy John Kerry speaking earlier today at the closing session of the U.N. climate summit.

JOHN KERRY: The fact is that this document sends very strong messages to the world. First, the document highlights that we have to adhere to keeping 1.5 degrees within reach. That is the North Star. And we, therefore, must do those things necessary to keep the 1.5, everything we can to achieve this goal.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s John Kerry. Asad Rehman, if you can respond? And also, talk about — I think Gore said on the draft final text, this is an agreement by and for petrostates. Next year it’s going to be in Baku, in another petrostate, in Azerbaijan. And yet, can you talk about why this particular U.N. climate summit in the UAE was so important? Some are more important than others.

ASAD REHMAN: Well, the reason why this summit was very, very important was, back when the Paris Agreement was signed by every country in the world, everybody recognized that the promises that were being made, particularly by developed countries, were so low that they were not going to keep us below the 1.5 degree, the threshold and the guardrail, which we know, and the climate scientists have told us, we begin to face runaway climate catastrophe. And then, no matter what we do, the impacts get deeper, faster and more violent and affect more people. Now, after five years, we were meant to assess how much progress countries have made. How much have they cut their emissions? How much finance have they provided? How much support have they given to countries to be able to adapt to the fact that climate change is now happening, much faster than we thought, with much more severity than we thought? And that conversation is the global stocktake.

And what we’ve seen here actually is a document with the fingerprints of the United States, the U.K. and the European Union, because what it talks about is only about cutting emissions, but not about responsibility. So the idea of fairness is going. The idea of providing climate finance, public climate finance, that is really desperately needed, is being frittered away. Instead, the only mentions of finance are about private capital and a push to make developing countries have what they call an enabling environment. Now, we have seen in real life what that enabling environment looks like. We’ve seen it in Sri Lanka. We’ve seen it in Pakistan, other countries, which have faced these crises of both debt and climate. And what it means is you’re lowering your environmental standards. You’re lowering your workers’ rights standards. You make your economy much more attractive to private capital. That private capital needs to make profit. And what private capital wants is guarantees that it will make that profit. And so now the responsibility has fallen on developing countries to guarantee that profit. It’s utter madness. And so, this is just one part of actually what was being negotiated here.

We were meant to also negotiate a goal on adaptation. Again, how will countries, particularly in the Global South, who are on the forefront of climate impacts — how will they be able to adapt? Will they be provided with technology and support? Now, particularly the group of African countries, which have been severely impacted, wanted real concrete goals. They wanted a goal on finance, a goal on technology. How could they begin to plan? And developed countries have all said, “We don’t want any of that discussion. There will be no discussion about actual concrete action.”

And incredibly, the one window of hope that there is is, of course, that we know that if we are able to transition away from fossil fuels, if we are able to transition from our broken food system and from this unequal economic system, we actually will make people’s lives better, fairer, more just, not just in the Global South, but also in the Global North, where many, many people are struggling to make ends meet, where they can’t feed their families or heat their homes. And that is called the just transition pathway. But again there, the United States doesn’t want any concrete conversation, just wants talkshops.

AMY GOODMAN: Asad Rehman, we just have a minute, and I wanted to end by asking you about what you’re wearing. You’ve got a lanyard on that’s the colors of the Palestinian flag, and you’ve got a pin that is a pin of a watermelon, the colors of the Palestinian flag. We last saw you on Friday, when you were holding a news conference saying you are not allowed to protest about Gaza or say, issue — have signs that said “ceasefire now.” Yet on Saturday there was major demonstrations there that you were a part of. Explain the issue that you tried to raise, the historic nature of what you did during this U.N. climate summit, from Israel’s bombardment of Gaza to the mentioning of prisoners, political prisoners, in the UAE itself.

ASAD REHMAN: Well, the climate justice movements have always recognized that climate — the climate struggle is not about simply about carbon. It is about these interwoven issues of justice. And we are fundamentally a justice movement. And what binds this movement together is the idea of solidarity for those on the frontlines of crisis, whether they’re Indigenous movements, whether it’s antiracists in the Black community in the United States fighting around for Black Lives Matter, to the Palestinian people in its — we’re in a region where a few hundred miles away, you know, a people are facing ethnic cleansing, indiscriminate bombing, and, of course, many of our colleagues and partners are there.

In this place, huge restrictions were put on us about whether we could even make the call about ceasefire now, whether we could raise the question of Palestine. But I have to say, the power of our movements organizing here said, “We refuse. We absolutely will stand up on Palestine. We will make that call for ceasefire now. We are going to say with a very, very strong voice that there is no climate justice without human rights.” And just as we did in Egypt when we raised the issue of political prisoners there, we raised the issue of political prisoners here in the UAE, as well.

Ultimately, this is a struggle about justice and about an unequal and an unjust world, where the powerful can do what they want against the powerless. And what is shocking was yesterday John Kerry said — in trying to push through this text, he said, “We have never been in a position where the decisions we make will have life-or-death impact.” All of us gasped, since the United States last week vetoed a resolution that would have stopped the killing in Gaza. This is where politicians and our governments are so disconnected from the demands and realities of ordinary people.

AMY GOODMAN: Asad Rehman, we want to thank you for being with us, executive director of War on Want, lead spokesperson for the Climate Justice Coalition, speaking to us from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

Coming up, as the U.N. General Assembly votes overwhelmingly for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, we bring you an exclusive. We’ll speak with a Palestinian U.N. diplomat whose recent remarks in Geneva on Israel went viral. Stay with us.

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