Activists protest against fossil fuels

Activists protest against fossil fuels on the sidelines of the COP28 United Nations climate summit in Dubai on December 5, 2023.

(Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images)

COP28 Stocktake Draft Reveals Vital Battle Over 'Unabated' Fossil Fuels

The draft offers "the fossil fuel industry a lifeline with dangerous distractions, like carbon capture and storage, and other abatement technologies," said one campaigner.

With a week left until the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference wraps up with a long-awaited "Global Stocktake" that will measure countries' progress towards the objectives of the Paris climate agreement, a draft of the document released Tuesday revealed a strong push to include a major loophole for the biggest fossil fuel producers—in the form of language that would allow so-called "abated" emissions.

More than 100 countries reportedly support a clause in the Global Stocktake that would call for "accelerating efforts toward phasing out unabated fossil fuels"—emissions that are not "captured" through technological fixes like carbon capture and storage (CCS) before they reach the atmosphere. That option in the text also calls on countries to "rapidly" reduce unabated fossil fuels "so as to achieve net zero CO2 in energy systems by or around mid-century."

The Biden administration, among other wealthy governments, has backed an expansion of CCS, offering $1.2 billion in grants for two projects this year. Analysts warn the technology would actually increase energy consumption by 20%, ultimately increasing the carbon emissions that CCS proponents claim are "abated" by the technology, as well as worsening environmental injustice by ramping up smog, benzene, and formaldehyde emissions in fenceline communities.

Other options in the draft text include a call for "an orderly and just phaseout of fossil fuels," which more than 25 countries support, according to BusinessGreen, and no mention at all of a phaseout.

Another paragraph in the draft included an agreement that countries will rapidly phase out "unabated coal power this decade" and ban the building of new coal power plants, and a second option would omit any mention of phasing out coal.

Romain Ioualalen, global policy manager for Oil Change International, acknowledged that just "three years ago, it would have been unimaginable to see governments consider an inclusion of fossil fuel phaseout in any [Conference of the Parties] agreement," which organizers and governments in the Global South have aggressively campaigned for in recent years.

The ultimate goal for the Global Stocktake, however, said Ioualalen, is "an agreement to immediately decline fossil fuel production and use... as well as a full, fast, fair, and funded fossil fuel phaseout."

The draft released on Wednesday goes in the opposite direction, he said, giving "the fossil fuel industry a lifeline with dangerous distractions, like carbon capture and storage, and other abatement technologies."

"We urge parties to hold a strong line against these failed technologies and refuse any language that allows fossil fuel companies to justify continued oil and gas extraction," said Ioualalen.

Pivoting to technologies like carbon capture and storage instead of focusing on sharply dialing down all carbon emissions, he added, would "blow us well past 1.5°C [in planetary heating], and lead to catastrophic climate consequences."

As author and co-founder Bill McKibben wrote in a column earlier this week, countries that are embracing technologies like CCS are playing into the hands of fossil fuel giants.

"It's abundantly clear that coal, oil, and gas are breaking the climate system; it's also abundantly clear that the people who own coal, oil, and gas reserves don't care," wrote McKibben. "In an effort to keep burning them, so they can continue to collect the returns, they propose building vast engineering projects alongside fossil-fuel generating plants, to capture the carbon dioxide from the exhaust stream. That is, they want to 'abate' the damage of their product."

Scientists have warned that eight years after the Paris climate agreement was finalized with a goal of limiting planetary heating to 1.5°C—or as far below 2°C as possible—the world is currently on track to warm by 3°C this century.

Global carbon emissions have continued to rise in recent years as countries including the U.S. and the U.K. have approved major fossil fuel projects despite warnings from energy and climate experts that oil, gas, and coal extraction have no place on a pathway to 1.5°C.

The final Global Stocktake, said Shirley Matheson, the World Wildlife Fund's global nationally-determined contribution enhancement coordinator, must force governments to "face up to the consequences of their collective inaction, and commit to strengthen climate ambition and action in line with limiting global warming to 1.5°C."

Matheson called the current draft "bloated" and expressed hope that countries in attendance at the conference (COP28) will adopt a Global Stocktake with the best options included in the draft.

"Good language on phasing out fossil fuels is included as an option, and new text options have been added that call for stronger ambition in the national climate plans, and a new collective goal for 60% emissions cuts by 2035," she said. "These signals are essential to create the conditions for more ambitious commitments and more international cooperation to achieve them."

"Time is running out for negotiators to agree on a draft text with clear political options for ministers later in the week," she added. "Countries must work together to achieve science-aligned guidance and ways forward for a dramatic course correction of climate action. This will give us the best chance of securing a livable planet."

As Common Dreams reported Wednesday, a record number of fossil fuel industry lobbyists are also attending COP28, leaving campaigners concerned that the final agreements out of the summit will include significant loopholes for the industry.

“Global leaders have to deliver a full package," said Ioualalen. "We will not accept weak outcomes only on coal or renewables, and without addressing the primary driver of the climate crisis, fossil fuels."

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