Why COP26 failed on fossil fuels

Published on 2 December 2021

University of Sussex

University of Sussex

For the first time at a key climate summit, the F word got a mention in the final text: fossil fuels. Yet even then, extensive lobbying ended with the word fossil fuels being prefaced with ‘inefficient’, leaving scope for generous interpretation, and only ‘unabated’ coal is to be ‘phased down’ rather than ‘phased out’, as the original text proposed.

There were, of course, glimpses of hope around decade-defining issues, such as fossil fuel finance. Initiatives were launched that could help bring an end to fossil fuels, like the Global Registry of Fossil Fuels and the Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance. However, whilst these provide a destination of travel and a focal point to organise around, many challenges remain.

The Glasgow Climate Pact explicitly mentioned only one of the root causes to the climate crisis: coal. It failed to extend this specificity to oil and gas, but that is no surprise given the oil and gas expansion plans of the USA and other wealthy nations.

The most daunting failure of the pact, however, was its inability to  address historical responsibility for the climate crisis. The obligation to curtail emissions and phase out fossil fuels lies with those nations – primarily in the Global North – that have amassed vast amounts of wealth through centuries of fossil fuelled-development.

The emissions from fossil fuels are highly unequal. In 2020, the 1.1 billion people living across 48 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa emitted just 0.361 GtCO2 from the combustion of fossil fuels. For comparison, a recent study from the Global Carbon Project updated the estimates of emissions from land use changes over the past decade, arguing that we have likely overestimated the emissions from these sources by between 1 to 2 GtCO2. This correction in emissions data eclipses the annual emissions from fossil fuels in Sub-Saharan Africa many times over.

But despite figures like this, and wealthy nations’ bullish climate rhetoric, they are unwilling to give up their fossil fuelled privilege to minimise the hardship and suffering facing communities and countries today, which did the least to create this crisis and have the fewest resources to adapt to it.

The F word

Coal’s inclusion in the text is a first for a COP outcome. The conference has infamously skated around specifically naming the main causes of a  warming atmosphere, primarily due to the vested interests of fossil fuel producing states, as well as the staggering influence of fossil fuel lobbyists, who had the largest delegation at Glasgow. The Paris Agreement, for instance, makes no mention of fossil fuels, despite being lauded as a landmark moment for international efforts to tackle the climate crisis.

The inclusion of coal in the text, as the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, marks genuine progress. But the language that surrounds it bears the hallmarks of diplomatic gerrymandering from wealthy nations that we have all become accustomed to. A previous draft of the final text set out demands to ‘phase out of coal-fired power’, but this was then replaced with ‘phase down of unabated coal’, ridding the text of any sense of finality and leaving it open to interpretation.

The same linguistic rigmarole impacted the inclusion of fossil fuel subsidies, which in the final text was accompanied by the qualifier ‘inefficient’. But what constitutes inefficient? The International Energy Agency, hardly a bastion of radical environmental demands, made it abundantly clear earlier this year that “in the next few years, all governments need to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies” if we are to reach net zero by 2050.

India and China quickly became the scapegoats for the watered down final text, with the likes of UK COP president Alok Sharma demanding that they ‘must explain themselves’. All this despite Australia, South Korea and the USA having higher coal power per capita emissions than both China and India.

This scapegoating omits the fact that India had made a verbal intervention a few days before the closing plenary that asked for the text to be considerably strengthened because “all fossil fuels need to be phased out, particularly by the developed countries”. This call from India, and other vulnerable nations, to specifically name oil, gas and coal in the final text, and call for the equitable phase out of all fossil fuels, has been conveniently forgotten in the media storm that followed COP26.

Equitable for who?

The sticking issue is equity – and India’s verbal intervention encapsulates this dilemma. Failing to include the equitable phase down of all fossil fuels and just focusing on unabated coal suits those powerful, wealthy nations like the USA that are banking on oil and gas expansion in the coming decade, while having a disproportionate impact on coal-dependent nations like India and China. The USA is not alone either, as Australia, Canada, the UK and Norway are all planning to continue expanding fossil fuel production.

If we are serious about 1.5°C, global production of coal, oil and gas must fall by 69%, 31% and 28% respectively between now and 2030. But the combined planned production of Australia, the UK, Canada, Norway and the USA – the Fossil Fuelled 5 – is set to increase oil production by 33% and gas production by 27%. Coal production is expected to fall among these five wealthy nations, but only by 30% – less than half what is required by the latest UN Production Gap report.

Given the staggering levels of oil and gas production planned by these powerful nations over the next decade alone, it’s no wonder that the language around winding down fossil fuel production was diluted. Many of these countries have made seemingly ambitious pledges to curtail their territorial emissions, but banking on fossil fuel production and continued exports will accelerate global emissions growth.

Silver linings?

Despite the dereliction of duty from wealthy nations to lead a global, rapid and equitable phase out of fossil fuels, there were a few glimmers of hope at COP26 that campaign efforts can crystallise around.

The first is the snappily named COP26 Statement on International Public Support for the Clean Energy Transition, which includes a commitment to end international public fossil fuel finance for coal, oil and gas by 2022 – next year. With over 30 signatories, including the USA and Canada, the pledge has the potential to shift nearly $25 billion in support to fossil fuels towards clean energy by next year. Questions remain, however, regarding export finance and opaque export credit agencies that fund overseas projects, and whether the signatories will rush through the approval of projects and infrastructure before the 2022 deadline. President Biden, for instance, has just begun auctioning off 80 million acres of oil and gas fields in the Gulf of Mexico.

Another glimmer of hope is the announcement of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA), led by the governments of Costa Rica and Denmark, which is made up of 12 core and affiliated national and sub-national governments aiming to facilitate the managed phase out of oil and gas in line with the climate science on 1.5°C. Momentum building behind this alliance, and through civil society and politicians’ embrace of a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, shows that some nations are no longer prepared to avoid the elephant in the room: fossil fuels. Members of the Fossil Fuelled 5, such as the UK, were obviously reluctant to join BOGA.

In spite of the watered down language around phasing out coal, it does appear that the writing is now on the wall for the dirtiest of fossil fuels. According to projections from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, the Glasgow Climate Pact will lead to the cancellation of 90 new coal plants (two-thirds of all planned coal outside China) and the phase out of 370 existing plants that didn’t have a close-by date before COP26. Approximately 95% of the world’s coal plants are now covered by emission reduction pledges that will require the shuttering of all of them.

So while oil and gas escaped the COP26 final text, progress is being made towards addressing fossil fuel production and the role of wealthy nations in driving it. This progress, however, is far too slow to ensure a habitable future for many communities in the Global South. And while the tap of fossil fuel finance may be slowly turning off, the flow is yet to be redirected towards clean technologies or reparations for loss and damage.

Language is clearly important. Coal is in line for a phase out, even if via phase down in the first instance. Now we just need to ensure that oil and gas go the same way. Gas exporters are already concerned about the direction of travel, bemoaning a supposed “cancel culture on hydrocarbons”. And this is something that we must rapidly accelerate, as every year that passes without deep mitigation makes bending the global emissions curve to zero ever more daunting.

This opinion blog was originally published by the Rapid Transition Alliance. 

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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