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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Freddie Daley is currently working as a researcher at the University of Sussex exploring sustainable behaviour change, supply-side policies and the political economy of the climate crisis. He is also an activist with Green New Deal UK and has published opinion pieces on UK climate policy in OpenDemocracy and Tribune, amongst others
Peter Newell is Research Director of the Rapid Transition Alliance. He is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. His research focuses on the political economy of low carbon energy transitions and global climate change politics. He is currently an ISRF Political Economy Research Fellow and is on the Board of Directors of Greenpeace UK and Carbon Market Watch in Brussels. His books include Climate for Change, Governing Climate Change, Climate Capitalism and The Politics of Green Transformations.