The annual U.N. climate change negotiations are entering the homestretch, and the summit’s host, the United Arab Emirates, has tapped Canada to help land an agreement expected early next week.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault now finds himself, alongside a select handful of other countries, in a pivotal role brokering the fierce debates around phasing out fossil fuels that have defined COP28.

The debate boils down to language. Can countries agree to phasing out or phasing down fossil fuels? And will loophole language, like the word “unabated” that allows for continued, or even expanded, production of coal, oil and gas, as long as it uses carbon capture or similar abatement technologies, be included in the agreement?

In an interview with Canada’s National Observer, Guilbeault confirmed he has been asked by COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber to help find “landing zones” for countries to agree to language that would signal, for the first time, the era of burning fossil fuels is coming to an end.

Despite launching a loss and damage fund on the first day of the negotiations, in what many experts called a stunning achievement, the litmus test for success this year remains agreeing to language recognizing fossil fuel emissions must drop if the world is to hold onto the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

“I think the presidency understands that he needs this, which is why he's asked some of us to work on this with him,” Guilbeault said.

Guilbeault said over the first week of negotiations, the discussions have mostly been at the technical level between negotiators. But any agreement as consequential as phasing out fossil fuels is inherently political. As countries' environment ministers descend on Dubai for the final week, Guilbeault said he expects the negotiations to be elevated to the ministerial level where an agreement can be found.

It’s too early to say what an agreement might look like, but earlier in the year the G7 agreed to support calls for a phaseout of “unabated” fossil fuels, which could give space for increasing fossil fuel production as long as its equipped with carbon capture technology or taking other steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

“It'll probably be an agreement that displeases everyone sort of equally, but even that would be historic because… in the 30 years, almost, of COP negotiations, we've never been able to agree on any language on [fossil fuels],” Guilbeault said.

The annual U.N. climate change negotiations are entering the homestretch, and the summit’s host, the United Arab Emirates, has tapped Canada to help land an agreement expected early next week. #COP28

Fossil fuels were never even mentioned in a decision until 2021 when countries agreed to a phase down of coal, without reference to oil and gas. That upset some countries like India, who felt it was unfair to single out a fossil fuel it uses while ignoring fossil fuels predominantly used in Western states. At last year’s summit in Egypt, many countries pushed to phase out unabated fossil fuels, but could not find consensus.

Guilbeault said he understands many don’t like the word “unabated” slipped in, but said that qualifier is an important way to get countries like Canada, and other federal governments that don’t have jurisdiction over natural resource production, to agree to phase out terms.

When asked if there will need to be guardrails placed on the term in any potential agreement to prevent runaway fossil fuel production as long as it's equipped with carbon capture technology that only addresses a fraction of fossil fuel emissions, Guilbeault said “absolutely.”

“I think we have to [have guardrails],” he said. “I think it wouldn't be seen as credible if we [didn’t]. That's my message to people I talk to.”

Building leverage

It’s possible Canada is seen as “safe” to help finesse these negotiations because of its fossil fuel interests, said Matthew Hoffmann, a University of Toronto professor and co-director of the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. “But it's also about how Canada plays a role as middle power in global affairs.”

Other middle power countries tapped by the United Arab Emirates include Denmark, South Africa, Norway, Singapore, Chile, Australia and Egypt. Together, they work to bridge the gap between superpowers like the United States and China and countries with far less diplomatic weight. They were also asked by the UAE to serve as co-facilitators in the months before the negotiations officially kicked off.

[A press conference on Dec. 8 2023 hosted by the UAE with the minister’s asked to help find landing zones for agreement as the climate change negotiations enter the homestretch. Photo via UN Climate Change/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Deed)]

Hoffmann noted prominent Canadians have found themselves at the centre of important U.N. climate discussions in recent years, whether it be former environment minister Catherine McKenna chairing an expert body to set gold-standard rules around net-zero commitments to curb greenwashing, or former bank of Canada governor Mark Carney serving as the U.N.’s Special Envoy for Climate Ambition and Solutions with a focus on financial institutions.

The Canadian government played a significant role helping launch a fund to compensate developing countries for climate-related damage at last year’s climate change summit, after Guilbeault went out on a limb as the first minister from a rich country to publicly support the call from developing states. Later that year, Canada also teamed up with China to host U.N. negotiations about nature protection in Montreal that led to a pact that many called the biodiversity negotiations’ answer to the Paris Agreement.

“I think there's also been a conscious effort by the Trudeau government to change the perception of Canada in climate diplomacy, ” Hoffmann said, pointing to Canada winning the Climate Action Network’s lifetime 'unachievement' award, a decade ago. The inauspicious award came after five consecutive years of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government being recognized as the ‘colossal fossil’ – a satirical award handed out each year to a country inflicting the most damage on negotiations.

[Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault at a press conference in Dubai on Dec. 8 2023. Photo by John Woodside/Canada's National Observer]

One way Guilbeault is trying to build leverage at this year’s climate summit is by showing off a plan to cap oil and gas sector emissions. On Friday morning, he held a press conference near the entrance of the COP28 conference centre, surrounded by international media, to stake out Canada’s position of tackling fossil fuels emissions.

The final few days of the negotiations promise to be tense. In an address to leaders designed to rally greater ambition, executive secretary of the UN Climate Change arm, Simon Stiell, said eight billion people are now on the “frontlines of climate change.”

“This week I don’t want to see diversions and political tactics that hold climate ambition hostage,” he said. “I urge all ministers and negotiators to think outside the box. Climate action needs that paradigm shift.”

Pressure is also being exerted by another important negotiating bloc, the High Ambition Coalition, made up of countries like France, Spain, Kenya and others, which supports a phaseout of all fossil fuels, whether they use carbon capture or not.

“Until we stop adding carbon to the atmosphere, the harm we are causing, particularly to the poorest and those least responsible for the climate crisis, will deepen, and the need to continuously adapt will never end,” the group said in a statement earlier this year. “The costs will go up and up. We will count them in human lives.”

On Friday, an open letter signed by over 800 people, including world leaders, financial institution representatives, scientists, Indigenous peoples, civil society organizations and more, called for “an orderly phase out of all fossil fuels in a just and equitable way, in line with a 1.5C trajectory.”

“As we enter the final days of COP28, we are at a tipping point,” the letter reads. “It’s up to us to seize this opportunity – because what is achieved here in Dubai must mark a legacy moment which determines the fate of our future generations.”

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Love the headline soon after reading that "Canada is a joke" internationally because we stood up to Saudi, China, India. We're a lot more respected than some superpowers I could name.

My sentiment exactly. The Cons. in Parliament and their minions on social media love to claim Canada is irrelevant on the foreign stage, the laughing stock of the world etc etc.
Of course they will keep right on with said rhetoric and especially will be privately grinding their teeth that Canada is one of the nations tasked with brokering language on winding down or phasing out fossil fuels.
They also routinely show disdain for our Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault no doubt because of his past history working for Greenpeace and following the lead of Premiers Smith and Moe who are never happy with anything tabled that hampers their precious fossil fuel free for all.