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As COP28 negotiators wrestle with fossil fuels, activists urge them to remember what’s at stake


Joseph Kenson Sakala, a farmer from Malawi, talks about how fossil fuel extraction polluted his soil and water sources at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Monday, Dec. 11, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Sakala is sharing the story of how fossil fuel development upended his life — and hoping that negotiators listen to many such stories and then move decisively to cut use of the coal, oil and gas warming the planet.(AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — In the bustling halls where global climate talks are being held, onetime farmer Joseph Kenson Sakala of Malawi is sharing the story of how fossil fuel development upended his life — and hoping that negotiators listen to many such stories and then move decisively to cut use of the coal, oil and gas warming the planet.
Sakala grew maize and produced enough to sustain his family and to help feed his broader community of Mchinji. But he was forced out by water and soil pollution from coal mining in his East Africa nation, he said, and Sakala now helps lead a non-governmental organization, Youth for Environment and Sustainable Development, that helps farmers adapt to climate change.
“Climate crisis and damages because of fossil fuel extraction destroyed me,” Sakala said. “Now in Malawi, there are just a few rich people who are making money at the expense of so many people like us who are suffering.”

At the COP28 talks in Dubai, the 34-year-old Sakala told his story in a meeting of African countries, spoke with Nepal leaders chairing the group of Least Developed Countries, and hosted an event on fossil fuel extraction’s effects on vulnerable communities. The health issues his community faced from pollution will come to others unless leaders agree to phase out fossil fuels, Sakala said.

The fate of fossil fuels is the central question at the United Nations-led talks, with activists and experts saying a quick phase-out is the only way to bring emissions down sharply enough to avert catastrophic warming. Some oil-rich nations argue instead for a slower and open-ended transition.

Alice McGown, a mapping specialist who has worked to identify fossil fuels in protected areas for the nonprofit Leave it in the Ground Initiative, said preventing the extraction of those fuels could prevent trillions of dollars in damages from climate change. It’s also essential to staying within the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) limit of warming since pre-industrial times called for in the Paris agreement, she said.

“It is clear that the vast majority of fossil fuels must stay unburned. The International Energy Agency has pointed to the incompatibility of new fossil fuel extraction projects with the Paris targets and keeping fossil fuels in the ground has been described as the next big step in climate policy,” she said.

Soumya Dutta, a researcher and activist, described the potential impact of coal mining in a central India forest that is home to a diverse ecology and tribal communities. Some mining has already taken a toll on Hasdeo Arand, a forest of about 656 square miles (1,700 square kilometers), and more is expected.

“The impact would be felt not just on Indigenous groups but the biodiversity too,” Dutta said. “Hasdeo Arand forest alone is home to 82 species of birds, 167 varieties of vegetation out of which 18 are considered threatened, and endangered butterfly species. The forest is a habitat and a major migratory corridor for elephants, and has had confirmed sightings of tigers.”

With most of India’s energy coming from coal and oil, it’s reluctant to commit to phasing out completely, said Dutta, a key coordinator with India-based Movement for Advancing Understanding on Sustainability And Mutuality, a coalition of more than 40 organizations and networks working on sustainability.

That’s despite evidence of increases in extreme weather — flooding, droughts and heat waves — that have hit India and other countries in recent years, he said.
Kjell Kuhne, director of the Leave it in the Ground Initiative, has pointed to major development that COP28’s host nation, the United Arab Emirates, plans for the Persian Gulf’s Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve, the largest marine protected area in the gulf. He called it “a huge contradiction” as nations meet in Dubai to try to figure out how to head off disastrous climate change.

“Drilling has not yet started and that is why we are here, because if UAE aspires to be in a leadership role in certain spaces and this is something it should not be done and there should be a definitive push to absolute phase out,” he said.

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