Spain’s Teresa Ribera: COP28 was a ‘very delicate balance’

In the immediate aftermath of the UN climate summit talks that went through the night, Teresa Ribera, Spain’s deputy prime minister and co-leader of the EU delegation, spoke to select reporters on December 13 about the final throes leading to a global agreement that recognised the role of fossil fuels in climate change.

Acknowledging that there were “things we would like to have seen developed in the text”, she nevertheless judged the outcome a “very good deal” for placing emphasis on “accelerating action in this critical decade.”

The last 36 hours of negotiations involved the overhaul of a draft text which had “displeased” not only the EU but also the majority of nations as being inadequate after obstruction by Saudi Arabia and Opec nations. “Even if all the words were there, they were not introduced with the verbs, with the implications, that were needed,” Ribera noted.

The final text agreeing to transition away from fossil fuels, but not going as far as to “phase out” their use, was negotiated by COP28 president Sultan al-Jaber, who had received Ribera’s vote of confidence as someone who could bring onboard oil and gas-reliant economies.

In this edited extract of the question and answer session with FT climate correspondent Attracta Mooney, Ribera talks through the controversial finale when Jaber brought down the gavel without the group of 39 island nations vulnerable to climate change present for the UN closing session.

The closing plenary session of COP28, where countries reached a deal to transition away from fossil fuels © Fadel Dawod/Getty Images

Attracta Mooney: What do you think was the key moment where you thought, OK, we’ll get a decent agreement? Because it did seem pretty bad last week with the Opec letter and some of the pressure coming from Saudi Arabia. And then the text that landed [on Monday night] was obviously was not very good.

Teresa Ribera: Yesterday [Tuesday December 12] at 9pm or 10pm. And [even then] it was a maybe, because we still needed to be reassured and we weren’t reassured until we saw the final text this morning. When we saw the final text . . . there were these things that were OK, not [ideal], but the balance was pretty good . . . in terms of this sense of direction being quite clear.

We were talking with the rest of the colleagues, [to get a sense if it could be] accepted by all, or if there could be someone raising the flag, saying ‘no I cannot accept’.

Because if anyone was going to raise the flag, saying ‘I’m not in a position to accept and I want to change whatever’, the package was so delicate that there would have been many others, of course ourselves too, raising their hands and saying we want to change this and that.

I think that this is also a very delicate moment in diplomatic terms, when you accept that the delicate balance you have in front of you is a victory and giving more time to try to improve it may jeopardise the whole exercise. And I think that this was crystal clear for everybody.

There is a common ownership for this whole package, which is very important. And certainly, there are many things that we could be missing, or, for some, there would be some things that they would not like to see.

AM: What about when we had Aosis (Alliance of Small Island States) come in after the agreement was gavelled. The Samoan chief negotiator came in afterwards and said, ‘Actually, we’re not happy with this text’. Do you think they deliberately weren’t in the room?

TR: I’m not going to say that. I don’t know. I fully understand that for some [islands whose existence is in peril because of rising sea levels], this is much more important than for any other well-intended person in the world. I fully understand that. And we have been working with them, and we will keep working with them.

For them, it may be true that the only solution is to stop [fossil fuels] from now onwards. I think that [their] expectations are always very high because the risk and the damages are very important.

According to the conversations we have had with them, sharing the goals, they would have liked to see much more [in the agreement].

They understand that it is very relevant what has been achieved, and they need everybody fully committed to keep on building to ensure that this delivers and develops in the right direction and there is no risk of lowering the speed.

They [Aosis] have co-ordination meetings that normally take [a] long [time], which is important when you have something in front of you that is quite large and complicated. I cannot say that they did it deliberately.

AM: When you said the balance was so delicate, that having an agreement is better for them than no agreement, one could see why they might then not go into the room.

TR: It is not that it is a bad agreement for them. It is a good agreement for them, but it is not the excellent agreement they would like to have had.

I went to talk to the minister of the Marshall Islands, who is leading the group this year, the high ambition coalition [group of nations calling for faster climate action] and [is in] the Aosis group.

I found him committed, happy for the support and willing to do more, and expressing the demand and willingness to keep on working to ensure that this goes to a much bigger engagement from now onwards.

AM: And was that meeting with him before or after the agreement?

TR: After the agreement. We have been talking . . . on many occasions. The alignment on the messaging has been quite consistent and quite firm. We shared our assessment with them.

They shared that they did have higher expectations, even if [there was an] understanding that there were the elements [in the text] to keep on going [with the agreement]. It probably took longer than what they expected, this co-ordination.

Teresa Ribera speaking at this year’s UN climate talks © Peter Dejong/AP

Attracta: Does this agreement matter? What are the real-world implications of a bunch of countries saying, OK, we’re going to transition away from fossil fuels?

TR: I think it is a very powerful signal. And it is not something that we will see from one day to the next. I mean, I don’t expect the huge reaction from the stock market from tomorrow, or a big slowdown of oil companies and the rise of high tech and renewables companies but . . . it’s a very relevant signal for investors.

We know what it means in Europe. The Americans know what it means when adopting their IRA [Inflation Reduction Act] package. And it is very important that the signal covers the whole world, which is what we have here.

Of course, now, investors, industrials and energy companies will be assessing how each country is developing the regulation environment, the context, the skills of people, of the labour market, the infrastructure to ensure that this takes place.

But this signal is important and will be increasingly important in the stock market, in investments and in general terms in the global economy.

So I think that, yes, it will go on. It has to take root. But of course it matters.

The other consideration is that when it is clear, people do take it into consideration and it introduces elements into their strategy discussion.

When it is not clear, when it is confusing, they stop and wait to see how things may evolve. So now it is very important that we have the capacities to develop all these signals back home.

And I am sure that part of the responsibility, when thinking [about] other parliaments outside Europe, is to work together to align the different elements, including the cost of capital, the backing and warranty of the investments, the capacity, and the infrastructures to be developed.

A barge carrying coal
An early draft of the COP agreement had dropped references to phasing out fossil fuels, and had to be overhauled in the final 36 hours of negotiations © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

AM: You talked about the different kind of choices countries can make. But there’s an argument to be made that there’s also a lot of loopholes [in the final agreement], for example, transition fuels, which some will read as gas. And there’s a lot about carbon capture and storage and abatement. Do you think all of those will give the wrong signal to business about what needs to happen next?

TR: I don’t think that this is going to happen this way. I think that the main signal to businesses is: ‘hey, this serious’. And then there will be a second level on how each country tries to define the context, the better environment for whatever their national policy is, or the preferences of investors or players.

There will be the instrumental requirements: what are the skills of your own people; what are the geographical and meteorological climate conditions for resources; what are the social preferences for one thing or the other; or the type of demand, if it is for households, if it is just for heavy industry; and what is your built infrastructure.

And then there will be a third group of elements that are also important: what is already available? And what is the price? What is their capital cost? How can we count on the warranties and the backing for whatever this decision [is that] I make?

Workers place a solar panel on a roof
The COP accord calls for a tripling of global renewable energy capacity by 2030 © Angel Garcia/Bloomberg

So it’s not that it’s going to be automatic, but the sense of direction is pretty clear for everybody. And the capacity to be attractive, to be appealing, will rely very much on how consistent we are back home. But this is something that governments know.

There will also be a race towards consistent decisions in the energy field. It’s not that everybody is going to do the same thing. It’s not that everybody’s going to play at the same time. But it will be growing.

The different options in this [key] paragraph [on the transition away from fossil fuels] cover a little bit of everything. But the important message is pathways being aligned with 1.5C, ensuring 1.5C is within reach.

Now, of course, we need to be serious and we need to develop what we’ve got in front of us.

AM: Europe is taking the lead on a lot of the climate action and we’re starting to see the pushback to that, as we saw with Germany [over heat pumps] and in the Netherlands. And do you think this deal is good enough to sell to voters back in Europe?

TR: I think the deal, and in general terms the climate agenda, is a fantastic driver for building Europe and the European spirit, the European response and European values to meet together both internally and in the international context.

And this is also important not only in terms of economics, building opportunities back home, building diplomatic relations and partnerships with the third countries, but also to feel that we can do things together.

I’m honestly quite proud of how the European Union has performed [at COP28], not only because of the footprint, but also how we have performed together and how the relationship between the different ministers and the involvement of each minister in a very co-ordinated manner helped with this outreach [on the agreement].

It has been quite powerful. I also think that there are many challenges around climate action that we know very well because we [in the EU] are probably a step ahead of others.

And we have already gone through difficulties, challenges that allow us to understand why there may be people that fear the change, how important it is to combine social sensitiveness, policies taking care of those fearing the transformation, and ensuring the capacity to build [the economy while taking into account climate change.].

We went through a very difficult situation last year in 2022, when a large part of Europe felt trapped because of their high reliance on fossil fuels coming from Russia. And we decided to respond jointly . . . in a flexible manner.

But there was a very important lesson to drawn from that crisis, which was [that] those being better interconnected, those depending much more on renewable energy solutions, those investing in [energy] efficiency were in a better position to resist and to avoid the highest impact of this reliance [on oil and gas].

That facilitated many things in strategic terms, how we can go up and end the fit-for-55 [per cent emissions reductions by 2030] package before the mandate for the current commission and parliament ends. Which is quite impressive. It’s a package that was adopted two years ago, and we have gone through almost all files and it has been done in a really speedy manner.

Getting rid of what has been [part of] our economy for such a long time is not easy. But we know that it is important. We are committed to do it. And we understand that the only way to get into these very intense transformations in such a short period of time is [by] combining the environmental requirements, the social demands and the fears, and the economic opportunities that we can build around.

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