The "phase-out" of fossil fuels was deleted on Monday from a long-awaited draft of the UN Cop28's flagship global stocktake and replaced with watered-down language, a day before the climate talks in Dubai were due to end.
Described as "the heart" of Cop28, the first ever global stocktake (GST) is intended to identify gaps in climate action and steer governments on a corrected course that will keep the planet within the critical 1.5C limit of warming.
The word "phase-out" – the subject of much agitation in and around the negotiating rooms – in relation to fossil fuels was removed from the new draft text released by the summit's UAE presidency.
Instead, it was replaced with looser ambitions on "reducing both consumption and production of fossil fuels ... so as to achieve net zero by, before, or around 2050 in keeping with the science".
Meanwhile "phase-down" was mentioned only once in reference to "unabated coal" and "unabated coal power generation".
Cop20 president Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, now the WWF climate and energy leader, told RFI that a clear deal to phase-out fossil fuels was crucial to the success of this year's summit.
"This political process must send a clear political signal – not only to the economy but to the people," he said.
"We have to recover hope and we have to recover credibility ... and that is why we are pushing for a clear statement to phase out fossil fuels."
While earlier GST drafts contained options calling for the phase-out of oil, gas and coal – observers worried about carbon capture storage technologies being used as an excuse to carry on burning so-called "abated" fossil fuels.
The global stocktake needed to have "good guidance", "strong recommendations" and "mandatory rules" for the next round of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) due in 2025, Pulgar-Vidal added.
Failure to achieve this would mean "losing seven years" given the stocktaking process follows a five-year cycle – meaning there won't be another until 2030, at the end of what is scientifically proven to be a critical decade for the climate.
Catherine Abreu, founder of climate advocacy group Destination Zero, told journalists the GST draft reflected "a desire to appease a small minority of countries who have been blocking the text".
She added: "We heard last night at the majlis [council of ministers] Saudi Arabia and Iraq speaking up specifically against including language on phasing out fossil fuels."
Addressing the summit after the release of the draft, Cop28 president Sultan Al Jaber admitted there was still "a lot to do" in order for countries to come together and reach a strong final deal.
"You know what remains to be agreed and you know that I want you to deliver the highest ambition on all items, including on fossil fuel language," he said.
Meanwhile UN climate chief Simon Stiell warned that each step back from the highest ambition would "cost countless millions of lives".