There is “no science” behind demands to phase out fossil fuels, according to the current COP president. This level of cynicism at the top of the annual climate summit makes it less surprising that the conference has also been used as an oil trading venue.
A record number of fossil fuel lobbyists gained access to the conference this year. So it seems to presage a bright future for fossil fuels, when it should be a venue to discuss how to stop using them.
But this is not the first time that the international climate agenda has been “hijiacked” by oil companies. In 2015, a few months before COP21 – the summit that lead to the Paris agreement, a comprehensive global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emission by all countries in the world – six oil majors including BP, Shell and Total, wrote an open letter calling for a carbon tax on companies’ CO2 emissions. Under such a scheme, the more a company pollutes, the more it is taxed.
The oil majors suggested a two step approach. First, implement a carbon tax in all countries. And then – and this is where it gets complicated – they wanted all nations to get in a room and agree on the scheme. In their letter, the six oil majors said they wanted to “create an international framework that could eventually connect national systems”.
But carbon taxes are difficult to implement because of the international coordination they require to be effective. To make a carbon tax work, every country in the world would need to participate. Otherwise there would be what policymakers call carbon leakage.
This is when businesses simply transfer production to other countries with no – or more relaxed – emissions rules. If China started taxing its companies for the CO² they emit but the US refused, for example, it would be less competitive – its taxed products would be more expensive than those from the US.
Getting Russia, China and the US to agree on an international deal today seems near impossible. So any talk that advocates for an international carbon tax is cheap.
As some of the world’s most polluting companies, oil producers surely have an interest in avoiding such taxes. But my recent research shows that 54% of oil and gas companies with a policy on carbon taxes support them (78% of the 50 largest firms by reserves). Among the 100 largest globally, I found 19 in favour of carbon taxes and 16 against them. 49 fossil fuel companies, mostly smaller operators, have no public position on the issue.
So why do oil companies support a carbon tax?
In June 2021, undercover interviews conducted by Greenpeace activists who posed as headhunters to interview a lobbyist for ExxonMobil, showed the lobbyist claiming to support a carbon tax because it would be politically impossible to implement.
The lobbyist concerned later apologised, saying he was embarrassed that he “allowed myself to fall for Greenpeace’s deception”. And ExxonMobil’s Woods condemned the statements made during the interview. He said they don’t “represent the company’s position” and that the lobbyist was never involved in developing corporate policy on the issue.
Nevertheless, that’s one theory for fossil fuel company support – if there’s no real risk of a carbon tax being implemented. It’s like supporting the introduction of CO²-eating unicorns to reduce atmospheric CO². The idea is beautiful but impractical.
One way around potential deadlock is to establish a carbon border tax. The EU wants to do this with its Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM). This would place a carbon tax on any goods produced abroad that have not already been taxed in their country of production – it’s essentially a customs tax for countries that refuse to implement a carbon tax.
This tax could be a solution, if the World Trade Organization (WTO) doesn’t deem it against free trade rules. It recently launched a taskforce to review the CBAM after some WTO members called it “protectionist”.
But while everyone waits for “unicorn” climate solutions to be implemented, major oil companies continue to profit and generate more emissions. For real change to happen, fossil fuel companies need to be encouraged to transition to cleaner energy using incentives, as well as stronger limits on fossil fuel extraction – an issue set to be top of the agenda during the last days of COP28.
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Image above [1/4] Delegates walk at the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 8, 2023. REUTERS/Thaier Al Sudani/File Photo Acquire Licensing Rights
Some members balk at fossil fuel phase-out inclusion
Saudi, Russia push for focus on emissions not fuels
Nations most affected by climate change demand its inclusion
DUBAI, Dec 9 (Reuters) – Some countries are resisting a pledge to phase-out fossil fuels in a COP28 climate deal, jeopardising attempts for U.N. climate talks to deliver a hard commitment for the first time in 30 years on ending the use of oil and gas.
Observers in the negotiations said Saudi Arabia and Russia were insisting that COP28 focus only on reducing climate pollution – with no mention of the fossil fuels causing it.
Earlier this week, OPEC sent a letter urging its members and oil producing allies to reject any mention of fossil fuels in the final summit deal. The letter warned that “undue and disproportionate pressure against fossil fuels may reach a tipping point” in the talks.
In a statement to Reuters, OPEC Secretary General Haitham Al Ghais declined to comment on the letter, but said OPEC wanted to keep the summit’s focus on reducing climate-warming emissions, and away from their main source – coal, oil and gas.
[2/4]United Arab Emirates Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology and COP28 President Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber attends a press conference at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 8, 2023. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya/File Photo Acquire Licensing Rights
“The world requires major investments in all energies, including hydrocarbons,” he said. “Energy transitions must be just, fair and inclusive.”
It was the first time OPEC’s Secretariat has intervened in the U.N. climate talks with such a letter.
“It indicates a whiff of panic,” said Alden Meyer of think-tank E3G.
Saudi Arabia is an OPEC member. Russia is a member of the so-called OPEC+ group.
By insisting on focusing on emissions rather than fossil fuels, the two countries appeared to be leaning on the promise of expensive carbon capture technology, which the U.N. climate science panel says cannot take the place of reducing fossil fuel use worldwide.
[3/4]Haitham Al Ghais, Secretary General of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), attends a news conference in Mexico City, Mexico March 9, 2023. REUTERS/Henry Romero/File Photo Acquire Licensing Rights
On the other side, at least 80 countries including the United States, European Union and many poor, climate-vulnerable nations are demanding that a COP28 deal call clearly for an eventual end to fossil fuel use.
Other countries including India and China have not explicitly endorsed a fossil fuel phase-out at COP28, but have backed a popular call for boosting renewable energy.
Ireland’s former president, Mary Robinson, who heads a group of former world leaders known as the Elders, said the letter showed OPEC was “worried” about the trajectory of the COP28 talks.
[4/4]OPEC logo is seen in this illustration taken, October 8, 2023. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo Acquire Licensing Rights
“Russia and Saudi Arabia are on the wrong side of this and will probably be pushing hard,” Robinson said. “We really have to make sure that the tipping point tips the right way.”
With the summit’s scheduled to end on Tuesday, government ministers from the nearly 200 countries at the Dubai summit have joined in trying to resolve the fossil fuel impasse.
Climate-vulnerable countries said a rejection of a fossil fuel mention at COP28 would threaten the entire world.
“Nothing puts the prosperity and future of all people on earth, including all of the citizens of OPEC countries, at greater risk than fossil fuels,” said Marshall Islands climate envoy Tina Stege in a statement.
The Marshall Islands, which faces inundation from climate-driven sea level rise, currently chairs the High Ambition Coalition group of nations pushing for stronger emissions-cutting targets and policies.
To meet the global goal of holding climate warming to within 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures, the coalition “is pushing for a phase out of fossil fuels, which are at the root of this crisis,” she said. “1.5 is not negotiable, and that means an end to fossil fuels.”
The latest version of the negotiating text, released Friday, shows countries were still considering a range of options – from agreeing to a “phase out of fossil fuels in line with best available science”, to phasing out “unabated fossil fuels”, to including no mention at all.
Germany’s climate envoy Jennifer Morgan said counties were “moving into the critical stage of negotiations”.
“It is time for all countries to remember what is at stake,” she said. “I am concerned that not all are constructively engaging.”
Asked about the OPEC letter, COP28 Director General Majid Al Suwaidi avoided the term “fossil fuels” but said the United Arab Emirates, as president of the summit, wanted a deal to get the world on track to limit warming to 1.5 C.
“Our COP president … clearly wants to see an outcome that is as ambitious as possible, and we believe we are going to deliver it,” he told a news conference.
Speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, Samoa’s environment minister, Cedric Schuster, worried that this year’s talks were getting bogged down by disputes.
“We are extremely concerned about the pace of negotiations given the limited time we have left here in Dubai,” he told the summit from the main stage on Saturday.
“A target for renewables cannot be a substitute for a stronger commitment to fossil fuel phase-out and an end to fossil fuel subsidies,” he said. “COP28 needs to deliver both.”
According to the president of COP28, the latest round of UN climate negotiations in the United Arab Emirates, there is “no science” indicating that phasing out fossil fuels is necessary to restrict global heating to 1.5°C.
President Sultan Al Jaber is wrong. There is a wealth of scientific evidence demonstrating that a fossil fuel phase-out will be essential for reining in the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. I know because I have published some of it.
Crucially, our research also highlighted that the production of oil and gas needed to start declining immediately (from 2020), at around 3% each year until 2050.
This assessment was based on a clear understanding that the production and use of fossil fuels, as the primary cause of CO₂ emissions (90%), needs to be reduced in order to stop further heating. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that net zero CO₂ emissions will only be reached globally in the early 2050s, and warming stabilised at 1.5°C, if a shift away from fossil fuels to low-carbon energy sources begins immediately.
If global emissions and fossil fuel burning continue at their current rates, this warming level will be breached by 2030.
Since the publication of our Nature paper, scientists have modelled hundreds of scenarios to explore the world’s options for limiting warming to 1.5°C. Many feature in the latest report by the IPCC. Here is what they tell us about the necessary scale of a fossil fuel phase-out.
Fossil fuel use must fall fast
A recent paper led by atmospheric scientist Ploy Achakulwisut took a detailed look at existing scenarios for limiting warming to 1.5°C. For pathways consistent with 1.5°C, coal, oil and gas supply must decline by 95%, 62% and 42% respectively, between 2020 and 2050.
However, many of these pathways assume rates of carbon capture and storage and carbon dioxide removal that are likely to be greater than what could be feasibly achieved. Filtering out these scenarios shows that gas actually needs to be eliminated twice as fast, declining by 84% in 2050 relative to 2020 levels. Coal and oil would also see larger declines: 99% and 70% respectively.
In fact, oil and gas may need to be eliminated even quicker than that. A study by energy economist Greg Muttitt showed that many of the pathways used in the most recent IPCC report assume coal can be phased out in developing countries faster than is realistic, considering the speed of history’s most rapid energy transitions. A more feasible scenario would oblige developed countries in particular to get off oil and gas faster.
A fair and orderly transition
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has added to evidence in favour of phasing out fossil fuels by concluding that there is no need to license and exploit new oil and gas fields, first in a 2021 report and again this year.
This latest IEA analysis also estimates that existing oil and gas fields would need to wind down their production by 2.5% a year on average to 2030, accelerating to 5% a year from 2030 (and 7.5% for gas between 2030-40).
A separate analysis of the IPCC’s scenarios for holding global warming at 1.5°C came to the same conclusion. Since no new fields need to be brought into development, global production of oil and gas should be falling.
This message was reinforced by the UN’s recent production gap report, which concluded that producer countries including the United Arab Emirates need to be moving towards a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels, not expanding production. Instead, the report estimated that in CO₂ terms, planned fossil fuel production in 2030 is projected to be 110% higher than the required phase-out trajectory to meet 1.5°C.
The evidence for a fossil fuel phase-out is clear. The debate should now turn to executing it.
A fair and orderly transition from fossil fuels must acknowledge the differing capacity of countries: developing countries are more economically dependent on fossil fuels and have less money to switch to cleaner technologies. Some investment in oil and gas will be needed for existing infrastructure. This would maintain the minimum level of production necessary for a carefully managed transition. Overall though, fossil fuels should now be in rapid decline.
Rich countries need to phase out fossil fuels now and raise the funding to help developing countries make the transition.
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UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Sunday  sent a strong message to the oil and gas industry: the pledges made at COP28 in Dubai fall well short of what’s needed to meaningfully tackle the climate crisis.
As the fourth day of this year’s UN climate conference got underway, the UN chief stated: “The fossil fuel industry is finally starting to wake up, but the promises made clearly fall short of what is required.”
Reacting to the pledge announced on Saturday by several major oil and gas companies to reduce methane leaks from their pipelines by 2030, Mr. Guterres said it is a “step in the right direction”, but the promise failed to address a core issue, namely, eliminating emissions from fossil fuel consumption.
Methane (CH4) is a primary component of natural gas and is responsible for about a third of the planetary warming we see today.
It is short-lived but is more powerful than carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas most responsible for climate change. Without serious action, global anthropogenic methane emissions are projected to rise by up to 13 per cent between now and 2030.
Dubbing the oil and gas companies, the “giant behind the climate crisis”, the Secretary-General also pointed out that the pledge did not provide clarity on the pathway to reaching net-zero by 2050, which is “absolutely essential to ensure integrity.”
“Science is clear: we need to phase out fossil fuels within a timeframe compatible with limiting global warming to 1.5 Celsius,” he reiterated, referring to one of the keystone targets set by the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement.
“There must be no room for greenwashing,” he said, referring to the dangers involved in promoting deceptive marketing and false claims of sustainability.
Find out more here about the tactics of ‘greenwashing’.
Early Warning for All
The groundbreaking Early Warnings for All Initiative launched by the Secretary-General last year aims to protect everyone from hazardous weather, water or climate through life-saving early warning systems by the end of 2027.
“This is an ambitious goal – but it is achievable. To make it a reality, we need all hands-on deck – collaborating and cooperating in a way that has not been done before,” he told delegates at Sunday’s main event on the issue.
Mr. Guterres also launched a new report prepared by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) and the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which shows that more lives are being protected from extreme weather and dangerous climate change impacts, but the pace of progress remains insufficient.
So far,101 countries reported having an early warning system, an increase of six countries compared to last year, doubling of coverage since 2015.
Yet, half of countries globally still do not have adequate multi-hazard early warning systems, the report finds.
The head of UNDRR Mami Mizutori said: “The progress is encouraging but we must not be complacent … with an 80 per cent increase in the number of people affected by disasters since 2015 and half the world still lacking access to early warnings.”
“Early warnings are the low-hanging fruit of climate adaptation. They are not a luxury but a must,” added WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.
Basic tool to save lives
The UN chief said Early Warnings for All systems are “the most basic tool for saving lives and securing livelihoods” in a world defined by “escalating climate injustices”.
Worryingly, countries that are vulnerable to extreme weather, especially small island developing States and least developed countries, as well as the entire African continent, have a rate of protection is well below the global average.
“And delayed action leads to more extreme weather events. More deaths. More destruction,” stated the Secretary-General.
Progress so far
Highlighting the progress made over the past year, Mr. Guterres shared examples from several countries:
Maldives, Laos and Ethiopia now have dedicated national action plans;
Benin has strengthened communications to reach communities at greatest risk; and
Fiji’s flash flood warning has been expanded to benefit nearly one million people.
He pointed out that in a world on a fast-track to temperature increase of 3 degrees Celsius, climate vulnerability is bound to escalate.
Therefore, it is critical to cut carbon pollution at an accelerated pace and invest in protecting vulnerable communities from the impact of more frequent and severe climate-related events.
The estimated cost of bringing everyone under the protection of early warning systems would be around $3 billion, “a tiny fraction of the hundreds of billions made by the fossil fuel industry last year.”
Mr. Guterres called for a windfall tax on these profits, and for the money to be used to protect those suffering the worst impacts, encouraging countries to be “bold and ambitious and to double the speed and scale of support in 2024”.
Race to net-zero
During a roundtable on the latest report from his High-Level Expert Group on Net-Zero, the Secretary-General said COP28 is about turning things around, but national governments cannot do it alone.
“Businesses, financial institutions, civil society, cities, states and regions are all critical in the race to net-zero,” he said.
In simple terms, ‘net-zero’ means cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible.
In March 2022, the UN chief established the expert group to develop stronger and clearer standards for pledges by non-State entities and speed up their implementation.
Ten recommendations in its report, as a ‘how-to’ guide for credible, accountable net-zero pledges.
Reminding the room of his ‘Acceleration Agenda,’ Mr. Guterres called on governments and non-State actors to radically speed-up efforts to cut emissions, for which he highlighted five key elements:
Genuine decarbonization effort to cover all activities, across every link of value chains;
Detailed targets for 2025, 2030 and 2035, in line 1.5 degrees target of the Paris Agreement;
Disclosure of all lobbying, policy engagements and communication campaigns;
Information on efforts to change business models and internal operations to phase out fossil fuels; and
Move towards a just, equitable and accelerated renewables transition.
Considering, and rethinking, the role of fuel in our lives helps put in perspective the wars and climate disasters caused by fuel. At the same time, such an exercise also reveals the role of fuel in both creating and mediating global insecurity. Simply put, while it may still be a necessity, fuel is no longer the solution to insecurity that it may have once been.
As COP28 gets underway today in Dubai, world leaders need to focus attention on fuel and the central role it plays in both the climate crisis and human insecurity. Only by doing so can we hope to address the failures of the past few years to grapple with the urgency of climate change action.
But the absence of fuel in South African power stations, hospitals in Gaza or for heating Canadian homes in winter also makes people in these places insecure.
Too much fuel in drying forests is aggravating wildfires. Too little fuel in generators presents numerous hazards when electricity isn’t available. Both increasingly require a security response to keep people safe and shore up social arrangements stressed by the disruptions. Security in these circumstances is about maintaining minimal public order so that evacuations can be arranged and relief supplies can be distributed.
Breaking up with fuel
Societies need energy, but if climate insecurities are to be reduced, we need to get it without burning fuel. This will help with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing down climate change and all the disruptions that it is causing. But it will also improve peoples’ safety in other ways, too.
A motorist fills up the fuel tank of a vehicle at a Shell station in Englewood, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Renewable sources of energy, wind power, solar panels, hydro and so on don’t use fuel and are less susceptible to supply disruptions. While there are concerns about the international supplies of key components of renewable energy systems, once solar panels are installed in your neighbourhood, you don’t care if a war in the Middle East causes supply issues; your power supply comes from close by, not the other side of the world.
But there is no time to lose in confronting our dependence on fossil fuels, both at the COP and everywhere decisions about energy use are being made.
Despite the dominance of fossil fuel interests in Dubai, COP delegates must demand measures to rapidly reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. Promoting new initiatives like a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty to prevent further fossil fuel developments would be a good start.
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