(Bloomberg) — China’s climate envoy said his team at COP28 is in intensive talks with the US and others to find language on fossil fuels that can bring the two-week climate summit to a successful close.
Xie Zhenhua, 74, a fixture of global climate diplomacy for more than a decade, will retire after this year’s COP in Dubai and wants to end on a high. He told reporters on Saturday evening that compromise may lie in the agreement he reached with US counterpart John Kerry at the Sunnylands estate in California last month.
That would link the phase down of fossil fuel to the acceleration of renewables deployment. But the trouble for many diplomats in Dubai will be the Sunnylands statement focused on oil and gas used in power generation, not through the wider economy. Still, Xie, who spent much of Saturday locked in talks with US officials, remained optimistic.
The dynamic between the US and China is often seen as the key to success or failure at the annual UN-sponsored COP talks and Xie and Kerry have worked as closely as ever this year.
“We hope to find a clear and correct future direction with good vibes and the greatest inclusiveness, so that everyone can accept and be satisfied with the results,” Xie told a press briefing on Saturday. On fossil fuels, he said: “If we do not resolve this issue, I don’t see much chance in having a successful COP28.”
Including a fossil-fuel phase down has become the central issue in Dubai as talks enter their final three days. To date, the UN agreement on climate change only includes language on coal use and there’s a coalition on more than 100 nations in favor of broadening it — but Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing nations are pushing back.
The latest draft text released on Friday evening offered four options. The weakest is to drop any reference to dirty energy altogether, while the strongest calls for a “phase out of fossil fuels in line with the best available science.” Few expect an agreement on a fossil fuel phase out but there is some optimism compromise language around a phase down can be worked out.
Read More: What Is COP28 and Why Is It Important?
During the briefing that lasted more than an hour, the first held by the Chinese delegation group since the conference started on Nov. 30, Xie repeatedly referred to the joint statement after the meeting with his US counterpart last month in California. Asked if China backs a phase out of fossil fuels, he replied that both China and the US had seen the agreement as a solution to settle disputes in Dubai when they were drafting it.
The Sunnylands agreement does not include “phase out” but says that both sides “intend to sufficiently accelerate renewable energy deployment in their respective economies through 2030 from 2020 levels so as to accelerate the substitution for coal, oil and gas generation.”
China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has been cautious on wording about eliminating fossil energy use. Since a phase down of coal use was agreed at COP26 in Glasgow, China’s has continued to expand coal-fired power station to secure sufficient supplies despite the rapid expansion of solar and wind.
One major addition to the COP28 text is expected to the inclusion of a pledge to triple the deployment of renewable energy by the end of the decade.
Xie, who recovered from a stroke this year, is set to retire after the Dubai COP meeting as China’s top climate envoy. He is admired by negotiators, observers and researchers in both China and overseas for his relentless work ethic into old age and through ill health. He’s a well-known figure at COP and always greeted by well-wishers as he walks between country pavilions and negotiating halls.
READ MORE: US and China Inch Closer on Climate Ahead of COP28 Summit
Before the press briefing, China and US negotiators met for hours in the Chinese pavilion, with Xie and Kerry personally leading talks for about an hour.
China’s veteran envoy told reporters that he saw COP28 as the toughest he had ever experienced in his long career as a climate negotiator.
“There are so many issues to settle – 206 disputes in total,” Xie said of the negotiating text under discussion. “We have to do subtraction, not addition. It is always easy to add but difficult and necessary to subtract.
Beyond fossil fuels, one of the key issues at this year’s COP is progress on agreeing goals for adaptation to a warmer world.
The first draft of that part of the text was set out on Sunday morning. It contains a long list of voluntary goals to be achieved by 2030, including providing universal access to safe and affordable water, attaining climate-resilient good and agriculture, and halving climate impacts on infrastructure. It commissions a series of reports by 2025 and requests that the long list of goals have specific, quantified targets based on two years of work that will conclude in Brazil at COP30.
“A reasonable framework,” said Ana Mulio Alvarez, researcher at think tank E3G. “However, without robust means of implementation, the framework will remain hollow and toothless.”
—With assistance from Akshat Rathi and Jennifer A. Dlouhy.