As COP27 grinds slowly towards its conclusion, the battle over what any final agreement might say about fossil fuels is reaching its peak.
Last year’s COP in Glasgow produced an agreement that finally actually admitted fossil fuels might be a problem, after nearly 30 years of ignoring the elephant in the room. The Glasgow Climate Pact said countries should accelerate “efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.”
This was the thrice-watered-down version. The original version said countries should phase out coal and fossil fuel subsidies. Overnight revisions driven but the US changed the wording to phasing out ‘unablated’ coal and ‘inefficient’ fossil fuel subsidies.
In Glasgow’s closing session China complained about the wording and India was allowed to change ‘phase out’ of coal to ‘phase down.’ Whatever that is.
The G8 group of rich countries made exactly this commitment on subsidies in 2009 but fossil fuel subsidies continue at the rate of around half a trillion dollars a year, including the UK’s £13bn or so. They must all be really efficient subsidies.
Another agreement from Glasgow saw 39 countries and institutions agree to stop funding fossil fuel projects overseas by the end of this year, potentially shifting $28bn from fossil fuels to clean energy. Denmark, France, Finland, Sweden, the UK and the European Investment Bank look like they are going to deliver but the big boys – Canada, Germany, Italy and the US – have yet to act.
Right now in Sharm el-Sheikh some countries are pushing for strong language on phasing out the use of fossil fuels, including (ironically) India, the EU and a range of endangered Pacific island state. Meanwhile the 600-strong group of fossil fuel lobbyists – 25% more than at Glasgow – are wandering the corridors and whispering in the back rooms to try to get no mention of coal, oil and gas at all, or even to get a supportive mention of gas as a transition fuel or support for eye-wateringly expensive technical fixes like carbon capture and storage.
The UK cannot be an honest player in this discussion, having recently agreed to consider more than a new hundred applications for oil and gas production. And the oil lobbyists will be doing their best to protect the $250bn of profit the global industry is expected to make this year, and to make sure that nothing as trivial as keeping the planet below 1.5ºC of warming gets in the way of the planned $1trillion of new oil and gas production over the next eight years.
When will we know who has won the fight in Egypt ? The COP is due to finish tomorrow but they almost always run over, sometimes into Saturday, occasionally into Sunday and in Madrid three years ago even into the next Tuesday, with negotiators having to check out of hotels and bring their luggage to the conference, and the talks continuing as the venue was being taken apart around them.
Having finally acknowledged fossil fuels, can the world inch forward to something that might actually start making a difference ? Whenever the final gavel falls, there will have been angry exchanges, secret deals and disingenuous public pronouncements aplenty.
A version of this blog was published in the Scotsman on 17th November 2022