December 14

Cop’s pledge to move away from fossil fuels is a farce


So, a deal has been reached. The world has agreed on what Cop 28 president Sultan al-Jaber has called a ‘robust action to keep 1.5 Celsius in reach’. The world is to ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels.

And meanwhile, back in the real world? If the world really had just made a meaningful commitment to end the use of fossil fuels, you might have expected shares in oil companies to have crashed this morning. But have they heck. Shell, BP, all are unmoved. It is expansionary business as usual. The UAE has invested $150 billion (£120 billion) to increase oil production by half to five million barrels a day by 2027. In the US, oil and gas production reached a new record last year. Even coal production was up 2 per cent. There is enough new gas production in the pipeline to increase output from 11.4 billion cubic feet of gas per day to over 20 billion cubic feet. We can be very thankful for that in Europe – it is us, feeling the absence of Russian gas, who are the main customers. The US agreed to spend a piffling £20 million of aid money on poor countries. The US can’t be blamed for seeking energy security, but can anyone say what was the real difference between having the Biden administration at this conference and having a Trump administration snub it?

As for China, it has built 182 new coal-fired power plants in the past two and a half years – since president Xi Jinping announced he was setting his country a target to reach Net Zero by 2060, comfortably beyond his own reign, in spite of his moves to guarantee himself lifetime presidency. Brazil, which was pressing right up until the last day for Cop 28 to agree to ‘phase out’ fossil fuels rather than simply transition away from them? It plans to expand oil production in its offshore fields to become the world’s fourth largest producer by 2030. Canada, which joined Brazil in demanding a ‘phase out’? It has increased oil production by 375,000 barrels per day over the past two years.

Never mind Cop 28 and its 98,000 gas-guzzling, private jet-using delegates – never has there been such a bonanza in fossil fuels. If this is supposed to be the ‘beginning of the end’ for fossil fuels, as the EU’s climate envoy put it, it is a mighty strange one.

Those who have been carefully watching proceedings over the past couple of weeks may have noticed a subtle difference between the language being used by different countries. While activists and numerous groups were certain they were demanding a phase out of all fossil fuels, US climate envoy John Kerry was talking only about ‘unabated’ fossil fuels. Britain, too, was using this language. The difference is that the US position allows for carbon capture and storage – which could allow for the burning of fossil fuels with no, or with very low, emissions. There is, though, a very big question over this strategy: who is going to pay for carbon capture, if indeed it can succeed as a commercial technology at all? We have had carbon capture since the 1970s – when ironically it was devised by the oil and gas industry as a means of forcing more fossil fuels out of declining wells. But if it is going to be used without that incentive, someone is going to have to pay – as well as finding the room to store all the carbon. Moreover, it is one thing to capture the carbon from the chimney of a gas-fired power stations, quite another to try to capture it from the exhaust of a jet plane.

Don’t, though, be fooled by grand words of transitioning away from fossil fuels. There is scant sign that the world intends to live up to its grand words.


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