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The ESG Review: Why “phase” is the word of the week at COP28

If you work in communications, and particularly if you have a focus on sharing a company’s action to decarbonise, it will not have escaped your attention that COP28 is underway.

It will also be pretty apparent that with this year’s global climate change conference being held in the United Arab Emirates, much of the pre-event media consternation has been about the optics of talks on reducing the use and impact of fossil fuels being hosted by an oil-rich nation.

A story even emerged earlier this week about the country having planned to use it to promote new oil and gas deals.

Recent COPs have drawn, perhaps inevitably, criticism over their lack of proportionate action on climate change, despite several landmark agreements.

But this one feels different for reasons other than where it’s being hosted. Principally, it’s about the words being used, and the debate over the transition they embody. An end to the “unabated” use of fossil fuels is one area of discussion, but the five letters that look set to dominate commitments and headlines over the coming couple of weeks are “phase”.

“Phase out” and “phase down” may seem similar enough, but the devil is in the detail.

The Independent summed it up perfectly this week: “Phase down” suggests a gradual, measured transition - a cautious step towards reducing fossil fuels that have been fulfilling the world’s energy needs since the Industrial era, without an immediate severance. On the other hand, “phase out” signals an abrupt departure, a decisive break from the status quo.”

The indicators are that whereas previous COPs have seen a geopolitical stand-off over the speed at which fossil fuels can give way to other forms of energy, this year we may see a more productive focus on the detail and timing of ‘phasing’.

A handy Reuters piece summarised the main talking points at COP28 to be the future of fossil fuels, technologies to tackle emissions, boosting clean energy capacity, financing for the costs of climate change and, as ever, side deals.

In a climate change special report this week, the Financial Times outlined why the UAE is in the spotlight and may play an important role in convening other oil-producing nations. That may be a very positive take on it, but a COP being held there certainly forces the issue and makes the spotlight unavoidable.

But as this New Scientist piece put it, the general public may question whether the largest nations haven’t already agreed to phase out fossil fuels, and may be confused both by new pledges and by the part they will be asked to play in helping to fulfil them.

For companies that have made specific long-term and mid-term commitments to decarbonise, COP28 may change little. But the words that the largest economies use in Dubai, and the response by media and the public to them, may impact how they share and shape their own progress.

The ESG News Review is written by Steve Earl, a Partner at PR agency BOLDT.

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