I. Questioning the global objective of reducing the use of fossil fuels
At a climate summit in New York on 20 September 2023, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres emphasised the collective responsibility of states, particularly developed countries, to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. According to him, "[The G20 countries] must break their dependence on fossil fuels, stop new coal and take into account the findings of the International Energy Agency that the new oil and gas licences they are granting are incompatible with maintaining the 1.5 degree limit". This echoes the global position of governments, institutions, NGOs and much of civil opinion over the last ten years. In the Glasgow Declaration issued at the end of Cop27, governments committed themselves to a "progressive and unrelenting reduction of coal-fired power". But China seems to be on a different trajectory.
The Centre for China and Globalisation (CCG) organised its 9th Forum on China and Globalisation in Beijing. On this occasion, China's climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, gave a speech on 21 September 2023. According to a translation provided by the Centre for China and Globalisation, he said that a global phase-out of fossil fuels was unrealistic. He was quoted as saying that renewable energy depends on the weather, so "fossil fuels should be used as a flexible and backup energy source when technologies such as large-scale energy storage, electric power transmission, smart grids, micro-grids are not yet fully mature". He reportedly added that emissions from fossil fuel combustion can be reduced through carbon capture and storage technology. He made these remarks before an audience that included ambassadors from various countries in China, including the American ambassador Nicholas Burns and the European Union ambassador Jorge Toledo.

II. The beginnings of a position to defend at Cop 28?

As a reminder, during last year's COP27 climate negotiations, a broad coalition of countries lobbied for the decision text to use clear language committing to the gradual phase-out of fossil fuels. But these initiatives were blocked by oil and gas producers such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia, while China remained silent. In this context, on the eve of Cop28, do the comments suggest that China will not align itself with a possible fossil fuel reduction target in the forthcoming negotiations?
There is nothing in Mr Xie's proposals to guarantee this. As far as Cop28 is concerned, he confined himself to giving general suggestions and recommendations on the targets that need to be set and the means of achieving them. For example, he criticised the rich countries for failing to provide the $100 billion a year in climate funding that they promised by 2020. In his view, this undermines "trust between North and South". Mr Xie went on to say that the loss and damage fund should be set up at COP28. It should be accompanied by provisions to ensure that developed countries meet their target of doubling funding to help developing countries adapt to climate change.
That being said, these words resonate with those of the President of COP28, Sultan Al-Jaber, head of Abu Dhabi's national oil company. Last July, he made a speech that was interpreted by some observers as a retreat from the initial objective of moving away from fossil fuels. Indeed, some media, such as Climate Home News, pointed out that Mr Al Jaber had introduced a nuance that changed many things: he was now talking about the need for the world to gradually eliminate emissions linked to the exploitation and use of fossil fuels, rather than targeting the exploitation of fossil fuels per se.
In this context, is there still hope for a binding target for phasing out fossil fuels at the end of the COP28 negotiations? It won't be long before we find out. As a reminder, COP28 will take place from 30 November to 12 December 2023 in Dubai.