The United Nations climate chief has warned governments against “blowing up” current climate negotiations, where a decision on a crucial motion on fossil fuels hangs in the balance with just 24 hours left on the clock.

A resolution to “phase out fossil fuels” has gathered traction at COP28 in Dubai like never before at a COP summit – though they are the primary cause of climate change.

But a chasm remains between the more than 80 countries broadly in favour and those who are opposed, with major oil producer Saudi Arabia leading the fightback, supported by Iraq, and with Russia seeking to prolong gas production.

In an emotionally charged address, Simon Stiell, head of the UN’s climate body, UNFCCC, today warned countries against exploding the talks.

“Any strategic landmines that blow it up for one, blow it up for all,” he said, in what will be widely interpreted as criticism of Saudi Arabia.

The COP talks operate on consensus, meaning one country can derail the whole process and prevent a treaty from being struck.

Mr Stiell appealed to governments to “clear the unnecessary tactical blockades out of the way”.

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COP president and senior Emirati Sultan Al Jaber, who also runs United Arab Emirates’s oil major ADNOC, now has to corral countries into agreement. He has said a phase down of fossil fuels is inevitable, though it is not clear how firm a commitment the UAE wants.

Former US vice president turned climate advocate Al Gore said: “If you have the head of an oil company as the president of the COP in this region and Saudi Arabia objects, I guarantee you he’s going to see that hand go up and he’s going to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, we don’t have permission from Saudi Arabia to do what you want to do.’ So they control the agenda here.”

Oil-producing countries in the OPEC group were accused at the weekend of “panicking” after a leaked internal letter urged members to resist any language on fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels still supply around 80% of the world’s energy, and not only major oil producers are lobbying for the status quo. Some less vocal, developing nations also fear having to ditch fossil fuels without the finance to do so.

UN scientists say emissions need to fall by almost half by 2030 in order to limit global warming to safer levels, requiring a reduction in energy demand and faster shift to clean power.

Time for ‘overdrive’

With just a day left of the summit – which usually overruns – the head of the UN issued a last-ditch plea to ministers to “go into overdrive” and find a compromise.

Secretary-general Antonio Guterres urged a “single-minded focus on tackling the root cause of the climate crisis – fossil fuel production and consumption”.

He told a room of reporters from around the world that the final deal must “[recognise] the need to phase out all fossil fuels on a timeframe consistent with the 1.5 degree limit – and to accelerate a just, equitable and orderly energy transition for all.”

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Can we phase out fossil fuels?

The deal – also known as the “Global Stocktake” – is supposed to be a plan to get the world on track to limit warming to 1.5C. But countries are deeply divided over how to do that.

Who wants what?

Saudi Arabia argues against singling out fossil fuels – though they are responsible for around three-quarters of man-made climate change.

It has also warned against signing up to action to cut emissions – generally favoured by Western developed nations – without adequate commitments on adapting to climate change – a stronger priority for developing and vulnerable nations.

The West and island nations generally regard this as “throwing sand” – a tactic of distraction to stall progress overall.

But a negotiator from a developing country told Sky News that Saudi Arabia was just reasonably acting in the interest of developing country allies.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, they told Sky News: “Adaptation is important to countries like Egypt, a genuine priority for them, and other countries in the Arab group.”

The Arab States is a group of 22 developing countries including Saudi, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Qatar and United Arab Emirates.

Both Saudi Arabia and the United States are pushing hard for a role for technology to capture emissions from things like factories and bury them underground. However, this tech has so far failed to scale up and many projects have been cancelled due to cost.

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