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Ed Miliband at Cop28: Under Sunak, the UK can’t credibly call for fossil fuel phase-out

The shadow climate secretary said the UN summit could make a mockery of the government’s “extract every last drop” approach.

By Polly Bindman and Nick Ferris

For high-level dignitaries attending Cop28, each day will probably follow a pattern: picked up and whisked from your air-conditioned hotel, in a chauffeur-driven car, to the cool negotiating room. For those who can afford it, Dubai specialises in luxury and convenience, with barely need to even step into the heat outside.

If those dignitaries were to actually cross the threshold of their hotel for more than the few seconds it takes to walk to their cars, they would wince at the heavy smog that descends on the city most mornings. The UN climate conference, from 30 November to 12 December, is taking place just seven miles from the Jebel Ali Power Station, the world’s biggest gas-fired power station, which pumps out pollution and carbon dioxide 24 hours a day.

The incongruence of hosting a climate conference in such an environment felt most acute on Sunday, which was dubbed “health day”, but when air quality meters recorded 155 μg/m3 (a measure of mass per unit volume) of PM2.5 pollution. The World Health Organisation recommends that 24-hour averages should not excede 15 μg/m3 more than three or four times a year. 

During the first few days of Cop28 – when more than 100 global leaders descended on Dubai’s Expo City – much time could be spent celebrity-spotting. From the UK, a host of MPs and ministers appeared, along with Tony Blair, the former chief secretary to the treasury Danny Alexander, and the new foreign secretary, David Cameron.

“I have caught the bug – I enjoy it very much,” the former environment secretary Thérèse Coffey, told New Statesman Spotlight, when asked why she was in attendance at this climate conference (her fifth), despite losing her ministerial portfolio a few weeks before. “Suddenly here is a forum where all countries and peoples with different needs and strengths converge,” she said. “There is a real chance to turn ambitions into action.”

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Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, used his fleeting half-day visit to remind the world he had diluted a number of key net-zero policies, advocating a “pragmatic” approach that does not “cost people thousands of pounds”. 

Ed Miliband, the shadow climate change and net zero secretary, who is also at the summit, told Spotlight that for Labour, Cop28 has “been about building the bridges with everyone – from Brazil to China, to Spain, to the World Bank – to talk about how we can make sure that we can hit the ground running, if we win the election and we’re representing Britain at Cop29”. 

Miliband said that it’s “really striking” the number of attendees that Labour has met that have said Britain is “missing in action” on climate change. The UK’s lack of leadership, he said, is “terrible not just for Britain, but for the world”.

When asked about the importance of including calls to “phase-out” fossil fuels in the final Cop28 cover text, which all 198 parties to the UN framework on climate change will take back to their governments to drive policy for the next year, Miliband said: “Pushing countries to sign up to a clear commitment to fossil fuel phase-out is, in my view, incredibly important. But you can only argue credibly for that if you’ve got a credible position at home.” He noted that the inclusion of “phase-out” would “make a mockery of the current government’s position”, which is to “extract every last drop”. By contrast, Labour has said it will ban new licenses to explore oil and gas fields.

Even if the UK is publicly retreating, most countries are calling for more ambitious action. This contributed to an air of cautious optimism in the early days of Cop28, buoyed by the establishment of a “loss and damage” fund to compensate low-income countries affected by extreme weather events, as well as an unprecedented pledge to triple global renewable capacity by 2030

“I’ve been to a lot of Cops,” Warren Evans, envoy for the Asia Development Bank, one of the world’s largest financial institutions, said on day three, “and I have been very critical of their incrementalism, and the sense that they achieve nothing. I’m much more optimistic today than I was a few weeks ago, and a whole lot more optimistic than I was a year ago.”

The latest draft of the Cop28 cover text includes the language of “fossil fuel phase-out”, which has never been seen before. Were these words to remain, it would be a big moment. Al Gore, the former US vice-president, has said that calling to phase out fossil fuels would be “one of the most significant events in the history of humanity”.

But there is everything still to play for. Sultan Al Jaber, the Cop28 president, found himself in hot water over old comments that there was “no science” behind calls for a fossil fuel phase-down; he quickly responded in an emergency press briefing that “the phase-out of fossil fuel is inevitable. In fact, it is essential.”

The word on the ground is that the usual faultlines over the inclusion of fossil fuel phase-out remain intact, with the likes of Russia and Saudi Arabia firmly set against it. Other points of negotiation – notably a new global goal on adaptation – remain completely unresolved. With less than a week to go, it will be up to the UAE presidency to try to steer 198 sparring nations towards a satisfying outcome.

Follow Polly and Nick on Twitter: @pollybindman / @nichferris

This article first appeared on the Green Transition newsletter. Subscribe for free weekly analysis on the shift to net zero

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