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Interview | 'Despite Resistance from Rich Countries, What Developing Nations Got at COP28 Is Huge'

Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International (CAN), delves deeper into the issues and contestations which took place at the recently concluded COP28 in Dubai.
Climate activist Harjeet Singh. Photo: Climate Action Network International website.

Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International (CAN), an umbrella of civil society groups from over 130 countries, had a busy schedule at the COP28 summit in Dubai. Engaged in various kinds of activism, from organising protests and addressing panel discussions to coordinating between civil society members, Singh was in the thick of things.

He spoke to The Wire over the phone after the summit ended with the formal adoption of the text of the Global Stock Take, an appraisal of the world’s climate action, and a future roadmap.

Below are the excerpts from the interview:

COP28 finally reached an agreement following intense and prolonged negotiations, overrunning the schedule. How would you describe the outcome?  

From our perspective, the most crucial aspect was to secure the recognition that the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy must be just and equitable. This language has been accepted. Naturally, we demanded a much more robust wording: ‘fossil fuel phase-out’. Instead, we got the framing ‘transitioning away’. This is primarily due to strong resistance from countries, such as Saudi Arabia. Even the United States and the European Union were not entirely in favour of using stronger language, and it was actually they who proposed the ‘transitioning away’ terminology.

Would you consider the text a compromised one? 

Overall, I would still call it historic. What we got is huge. The level of discussion leading up to and during the summit, which centred on fossil fuels, was unprecedented. In fact, it is the first time after 30 long years we have discussed fossil fuels so comprehensively. In COP26, we talked mostly about coal. It has become clear now that we can’t just keep talking about emissions, we have to talk about moving away from fossil fuels. Of course, we are disappointed with the way finance has been tackled. In some places, the language has actually been weakened.

What are the major disappointments in this regard? 

There are references like “recognises the gap”, “notes” and “urges”, but they stop short of directly “calling” upon developed countries to fund the transition, or scale up adaptation finance. One excuse they have been using is that there is an ongoing process of New Collective Quantified Goal on Climate Finance, which has been kicked down the road. It’s set to be discussed next year.

There are other loopholes, such as references to nuclear power, abatement and removal technologies, low carbon hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems. Some of these things can act as loopholes and prolong the use of fossil fuels. We know that these technologies are unreliable and the claims they make are untrue. Nuclear is a risky technology.

COP28 summit in Dubai. Photo: Screengrab via X/@COP28_UAE

There seem to be some last-minute changes that happened after releasing the GST draft on December 11. One of them is the removal of the provision of “limitation” on new coal facilities. What transpired at the venue after the draft was released? 

In my discussions with countries heavily reliant on coal, like Pakistan, it was evident they were greatly concerned. Right from the day the conversation around fossil fuels started in 2021 with COP26, and going on in G7 and G20 meetings, countries who only have coal as a major source of energy are facing the unfair demand of limiting the use or moving away from it without any assurance of finance and technology. This is all the more so when the rich countries have been expanding oil and gas in their backyard. The US is now the largest fossil fuel producer and has the loudest voice in seeking an end to coal use. This is hypocrisy.

If you look at the global fossil fuel expansion plan, for oil and gas, the five countries that have more than 50% of the share of that expansion are the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and Norway. I’m quoting data from the report published by Oil Change International, titled ‘Planet Wreckers: How Countries’ Oil and Gas Extraction Plans Risk Locking in Climate Chaos’. Rich countries are going on with such expansion plans and imposing limitations on coal, which is crucial for countries like India, Pakistan, South Africa, China and Indonesia. So, there was a pushback, and that’s why the language changed.

Also read: COP28 Draws to a Close, 23 Hours Overtime: Historic but Also Disappointing, Say Experts

Doesn’t coal really have many adverse impacts?

Of course, as an Indian citizen, I would like to see coal phased out as early as possible, not just because of the climate goals but because of the adverse impacts of coal extraction such as the destruction of the local environment and displacement. Coal is not something we should rely on. However, from a global climate justice perspective, the initial draft would have indeed been unfair to developing countries like India.

The divide between the global north and the global south appeared quite sharp. Could you describe the situation at the summit? 

The divide has always been there, but it is becoming much more stark because rich countries are only paying lip service than any real action and they have also resisted providing finance and technology. That’s why, this time developing countries were stronger in their argument that we need to tackle all fossil fuels in a just, orderly, and equitable manner.

The coal versus oil debate has been going on for quite a few years. Two years ago, coal was formally included in the text but oil and gas never appeared in it. This time, even though fossil fuel has found a mention, there is no explicit mention of oil and gas, except for referring to gas as a ‘transitional fuel.’ How did the negotiations unfold? 

This was a power game. Rich countries first created a narrative that we have to phase out coal because it is highly polluting. There is no doubt that if you compare coal, oil, and gas, coal is the most polluting, followed by oil and gas. At the same time, if you look at the expansion plan of oil and gas, globally, they are far far more than coal. Even though coal is more polluting as a fossil fuel, the global expansion of oil and gas is far greater.

The developed countries have actually done most of the industrial burning of coal. Oil came much later. Now that they are dependent on oil, they want to demonise coal and countries dependent on it. They are smart. They know how to do diplomacy and how to build a narrative. They got the agenda in the G7 and G20 meetings.

What has been the role of India in this entire debate? 

India was pushing for the inclusion of the language ‘all fossil fuel’ at COP26. However, somehow, the statement that it made in public regarding “phase-down” instead of “phase-out” did not help India in arguing its case. But what it did, in hindsight, is that people started looking at those issues in more detail.

Civil society played a very important role in exposing the US and all other oil and gas producer countries, in insisting that you cannot just talk about one fossil fuel. We did not gain much traction in last year’s COP27. But the public campaigning that we have been doing has been very helpful in landing all fossil fuels in the text this year.

Did you notice the formation of any global south solidarity or have they remained divided over their own interests and priorities?    

There was a general consensus. Obviously, the most vulnerable countries, such as the Pacific Island states and the least developed countries, who are suffering the most, were putting more pressure on large countries to move away from all fossil fuels. They wanted action from all polluters, particularly the G20 countries. A just and equitable transition was more important for countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and India. But at the same time, the small island states and the least developed countries are also realising that if equity is not applied, the transition will never really happen as fast as it is needed, and they will suffer more. This realisation fostered a sense of overall unity.

How did the mitigation versus adaptation debate play out? The rich countries have always tended to attach lesser priority to adaptation.  

Rich countries were never concerned about adaptation. If we had left it to them, the Paris Agreements would not have found any mention of adaptation, or loss and damage for that matter. Adaptation is very important for developing countries, as they are already facing impacts and not getting enough support. For them, prioritising adaptation is quite natural. Rich countries have often pitted these issues against each other. When they want developing countries to move forward, they argue for a greater focus on mitigation. This dynamic was also evident at this summit. The text of the Global Goal on Adaptation was being traded against the mitigation text, or the fossil fuel text. Eventually, we got through both of them.

So, this was a win for the developing and the least developed countries?  

What we need to recognise is that it is all part of the same continuum. If you don’t reduce emissions, you’ll have to spend more money on adaptation, and if you fail to do adaptation, you’ll have to suffer more loss and damage. Significantly, adaptation is now important for the rich countries as well. The impacts are increasing. What they have to understand is that the developing countries need more support but the issue affects everyone.

Now that the goals have been set, what should be India’s priorities? 

We already have a direction of what we need to do – we need to move away from fossil fuels. What we did not have a direction for is how – how it is going to happen in a just and equitable manner. We have now come to the how part. We, as climate justice movements, have been advocating for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty that should deal with the how part. If we look at the Paris Agreement and the kind of discussions we had and the time it took to reach this language, detailed discussion and framework are necessary for us to move forward.

We need a new global framework dealing with how we stop explorations and expansions and how we support the workers while phasing out. How do we do it, who does it, and when? We have to figure out what ‘just, orderly and equitable’ means in practical terms. That’s why I think India should join countries like Colombia which has recently called for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty to be negotiated. That kind of framework would be really helpful for India to secure international cooperation for a just transition to non-fossil fuel-based energy systems.

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