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As COP28 winds down, climate advocate finds draft agreement "disappointing"


The science is clear - the world must urgently phase out fossil fuels to avoid the worst effects of global warming. And for the first time, those two words - fossil fuels - actually appear in the draft agreement that global negotiators are haggling over at the COP28 talks in Dubai. The part that's missing is the urgency. The draft doesn't say anything about the need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, even though if humanity burns all the fossil fuels that are currently being extracted, it will be impossible to keep global temperatures from increasing more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Above 1.5 degrees, the world will experience runaway sea level rise, mass extinctions and other catastrophic effects of climate change. Rachel Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists is following all of this at the meeting and joins us from Dubai. Welcome.

RACHEL CLEETUS: Thank you so much for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: These negotiations move fast in these final hours, and the language may change. But as we are recording this on Tuesday afternoon, Washington, D.C., time, the text of this agreement never mentions phasing out fossil fuels. And so how meaningful is it that the text references fossil fuels for the first time at all?

CLEETUS: Well, Ari, we're into overtime at this COP, and the last text that we saw yesterday is certainly very disappointing. It's not the fossil fuel phaseout - the equitable and fair fossil fuel phaseout - that we have come here to secure. So we're not done yet, though. This is still continuing. And we hope by the time we get out of here, we will get the kind of agreement that will finally put the world on track to transitioning away from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

SHAPIRO: Is it realistic to expect that dramatic of a change, though?

CLEETUS: Well, let's say when the text came out yesterday, there was almost universal disdain about the text. It is not aligned with science. There isn't the kind of climate finance that's necessary for low-income countries to transition away from fossil fuels. So it's clearly inadequate. And all parties - many, many parties yesterday were out complaining - the small island states, the Europeans, even the United States - saying the text was inadequate. So we hope that everyone has been working really hard this last day, and that we will get a better text from the presidency either late tonight or early tomorrow.

SHAPIRO: With so many parties describing the text as inadequate, I wonder why you think that's the language that came out. I mean, we've reported that the United Arab Emirates is one of the world's biggest oil and gas producers, and a record number of fossil fuel employees and lobbyists attended this summit. In your view, did that shape the text of this agreement?

CLEETUS: Well, the clear obstructionist here is Saudi Arabia and the OPEC countries, which have clearly, publicly said that they will not accept any kind of fossil fuel phaseout or phasedown. That resistance needs to be eroded and overcome. We're really looking for world leaders from Europe, from the United States, from all parts of the world to stand up for what's right, for safeguarding a livable future for this planet and people. Their fossil fuels - no doubt right now, there are many companies, many states that are raking in enormous profits from fossil fuels. And they're making a last-ditch stand here. I will say the United States right now is in the regrettable position of being one of the top producers of fossil gas and oil, which puts our nation at odds with climate goals.

SHAPIRO: Does this meeting leave you with any hope that the goal of keeping global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees Celsius is still achievable?

CLEETUS: Well, we are far off track right now, and that's for sure. From all the signs that we're seeing from the IPCC, from the U.N., the global emissions trajectory is far off track from where it needs to be. So we need urgent action now. And this COP is a moment it has to start. The era of fossil fuels has to come to an end starting now.

SHAPIRO: Rachel Cleetus is the policy director for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, speaking with us from the COP28 conference in Dubai. Thank you very much.

CLEETUS: Thank you so much, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF RENAO SONG, "LIFELINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Gurjit Kaur
Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.