John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy for climate change, said on Wednesday that the United States supported a phaseout of fossil fuels, his clearest statement yet on America’s position on one of the most intractable issues under debate at the United Nations climate talks in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Mr. Kerry said that “largely” ending the burning of coal, gas and oil was required to limit average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, which many scientists say is necessary to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change. The planet has already warmed by 1.2 degrees Celsius.
“We’ve got to do what the science tells us to do, and the science has been clear,” Mr. Kerry told reporters gathered at a news conference at the summit, known as COP28, which began on Nov. 30 and runs until Dec. 12.
But he also said that to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, nations would need to deploy technology to capture and store carbon emissions from industries for which there are no low-carbon or zero-carbon alternatives, like steel and cement manufacturing.
There have been growing demands from some countries at the summit for an agreement to phase out fossil fuels. Small island nations in particular say that it’s a matter of their survival, as rising seas linked to climate change threaten to wash them away. Some European countries, including Germany, have made a fossil fuel phaseout their top goal of COP28.
But Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing states oppose any efforts to reduce fossil fuels gradually, much less to end the use of the oil and gas that underpins their economies. Under U.N. rules, any agreement from the climate talks requires unanimous approval; any single nation can object and scuttle the deal.
If nations do agree in Dubai to phase out — or even phase down — fossil fuels, it would be historic. Past U.N. climate deals have shied away from even including the words “fossil fuels.” The closest nations came was in Glasgow in 2021, when negotiators tried to insert a “phaseout” of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, into the final agreement but China and India objected. They settled on a “phase-down” of coal-fired plants that don’t have the technology to capture their emissions, but no timeline was established.
Two negotiators from developing countries said on Wednesday that a group of nations led by Saudi Arabia and a separate bloc of Arab nations were blocking efforts by island nations to include language to phase out fossil fuels in any final COP28 agreement.
Mr. Kerry did not discuss a timeline for the end of fossil fuel use. He pointed to science showing that nations would have to slash global emissions by at least 43 percent compared with 2019 levels by the end of the decade if they hoped to stop adding net emissions to the atmosphere by 2050. Instead, global emissions have continued to rise.
“If you’re going to reduce the emissions, and you’re going to actually hit the target of net zero by 2050, you have to do some phasing out,” Mr. Kerry said. “There’s no other way to get to that target.”
Given the heavy investment in wind, solar and other renewable energy by the United States and other countries, as well as the private sector, Mr. Kerry said it was inevitable that the global economy would move away from fossil fuels.
“We will get to a global low-carbon, no-carbon economy,” he said. “The only question is, Will we get there in time to avoid the worst consequences of this crisis?”
Environmental activists praised the U.S. position.
“We think it’s good news, a positive sign that the U.S. government is engaging ambitiously on the goal of decarbonization,” said David Nicholson, the chief climate officer of Mercy Corps, a global aid group. “There is still a long way to go.”
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