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At COP28, Hopes Dim For Fossil Fuel Phaseout

DUBAI—Countries pushing for a United Nations agreement to phase out fossil fuels saw their hopes dim Monday as United Arab Emirates officials who are leading the talks dropped the idea in the final stretch of the climate conference here.

The U.S., Europe and a handful of nations on the front lines of climate change went into the U.N. conference, known as COP28, pushing for an agreement that would mark a turning point in the fight against global warming. Their hopes were buoyed by a draft of the agreement circulated late last week that called for “a phase out of fossil fuels in line with best available science.”

Instead, a new draft by the U.A.E. negotiators says “unabated” fossil-fuel burning—in which carbon-dioxide emissions aren’t captured and stored—could be substituted by a host of other energy technologies. Those include renewables such as wind and solar, nuclear, hydrogen and fossil-fuel burning in facilities that can capture and store emissions, the draft says.

Negotiators are now set to debate the new text in talks that are expected to stretch through the night. Countries seeking a phaseout vowed to continue pressing their case. The conference is scheduled to end Tuesday.

The new language is geared to bring on board Saudi Arabia and other big fossil-fuel producing nations that were adamantly opposed to a phaseout. But in bending to that pressure, negotiators from the U.A.E. risk losing support of dozens of countries that are demanding a phase out. All of the more than 190 governments must accept U.N. climate agreements for them to be approved.

“What we have seen today is unacceptable,” said John Silk, minister of natural resources and commerce of the Marshall Islands. “We will not go silently to our watery graves.”

Some of the new text appears close to the U.S.-China agreement that was signed last month in Sunnylands, Calif., that calls for replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. Some delegates said the Sunnylands agreement might serve as a blueprint for reaching an international consensus for COP28.

But even the Sunnylands agreement showed more ambition than the COP28 draft circulated Monday, because the U.S.-China accord called for all coal, oil and gas to be replaced—abated or not.

“I need all parties to show even more flexibility to get us to the finish line,” said Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of the U.A.E.’s national oil company, who is also leading the COP28 negotiations. “You know that I want you to deliver the highest ambition on all items, including on fossil fuel language.

Fossil fuel producers say carbon capture and storage could allow the world to continue burning fossil fuels, though reduced from current levels. The Biden administration, Europe and a host of other countries say the technology should only be deployed for a few industries where fossil fuels are hard to replace, such as steelmaking. Carbon capture and storage is only used in a few pilot projects around the world and would need to be massively scaled up to make a dent in global emissions, they say.

“The objective must be to eliminate emissions linked to fossil fuels, and for this carbon capture will not save us,” said French energy minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher.

Write to Matthew Dalton at Matthew.Dalton@wsj.com, Sha Hua at sha.hua@wsj.com and Stacy Meichtry at Stacy.Meichtry@wsj.com

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