As COP28 enters its final days, discussions around the inclusion of calls to “phase out” fossil fuels in the conference’s final text have reached fever pitch, as a leaked letter from OPEC urged member countries to reject a fossil fuel phase-out.

On Friday, leaked documents seen by the Guardian, Bloomberg and Reuters, show that OPEC has warned its member countries with the “utmost urgency” to “proactively reject” any text that “targets energy, ie fossil fuels, rather than emissions”.

The letter, sent to OPEC’s 13 member states, says “pressure against fossil fuels may reach a tipping point with irreversible consequences”. It shows some interests “are running scared of any potential deal to phase out fossil fuels”, said Phyllis Cuttino, CEO of the Climate Reality Project, founded by Al Gore, in statement published on Saturday evening. 

Ana Mulio Alvarez, a researcher at think tank E3G, said the OPEC letter is “significant in the sense that it is continuing to show that there is interest trying to water down language on fossil fuels” at COP28. Speaking at an E3G press briefing on Saturday evening, she added that COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber must now “distinguish himself from from this group of countries, otherwise he cannot be seen as an honest broker”.

Following the OPEC letters’ publication, the COP28 presidency appeared to endorse a call to include a fossil fuel phase-out in the summit’s final declaration, sharing a post on X (formerly known as Twitter) by Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s federal minister for foreign affairs, which stated “It is not enough to pretend that it‘s possible to phase out fossil emissions. It is about #PhasingOut fossil fuels”. 

E3G’s Alex Scott told journalists she could not comment on the significance of the post, though she suggested that the number of individuals endorsing the X post “is a reflection of the direction of political travel towards really having a concrete fossil fuel phase-out come from COP28”.

On the first day of the conference, 106 countries came out in favour of a fossil fuel phase-out – a significant increase on the 80-odd countries that endorsed it at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, where the proposal failed. For those hoping that COP28 will see the proposal finally make it into the final text, there is cause for optimism: the latest draft of the Global Stocktake, published on Friday, currently includes four options for transitioning away from fossil fuels, and none of them include the words “phase down”.

The first option is a call to “phase out” fossil fuels “in line with the best available science”; the second, “phasing out” fossil fuels “in alignment with the IPCC’s 1.5 pathways, and the principles of the Paris Agreement”; the third is to “phase-out ‘unabated’ fossil fuels recognizing the need for a peak in their consumption in this decade”, while the fourth is “phasing out unabated fossil fuels and rapidly reducing their use to achieve Net Zero CO2 in energy systems by or around mid-century”.

“Here in Dubai, over the last 10 days, we’ve seen an unprecedented and growing level of momentum towards a deal on fossil fuel phase-out,” said Dr Natalie Jones, policy advisor on energy at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, speaking with Energy Monitor on Saturday evening. “The coalition dedicated to a fossil fuel phase-out has blossomed in size and grown stronger since COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh.”

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Jones added: “In parallel to the growing momentum towards a deal, we’ve seen an unprecedented level of scrutiny of Dr. Al Jaber’s leadership of the talks, especially in the last week….In nine years of attending climate COPs I’ve never before seen OPEC+ explicitly intervene in this way.”

“[It’s clear the fossil fuel industry feels] uniquely threatened by the state of progress here in Dubai,” she added. “In the coming days, the world will be watching to ensure Dr. Al Jaber does not let the OPEC+ intervention undermine his ability to shepherd the COP28 talks towards a successful conclusion.”