During UN climate change negotiations in Egypt on Wednesday, the United States signaled its support for adopting language calling for phasing out fossil fuel use — a major symbolic change for the world’s largest oil and gas producer.
Any amendment to an agreement between 190 nations that is under discussion is symbolic and would have no enforcement mechanism. Instead, just as the current climate deal, the Glasgow Climate Pact, requires participating countries to pursue a goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the goal of phasing out fossil fuel use will be ambitious.
Climate change activists who campaigned for the climate change conference, known as COP27, to incorporate a goal to move away from fossil fuel use, hailed the news as a triumph. At previous climate change conferences, the United States and other major oil and gas producers had refused to subscribe to similar language.
“It is a major step forward for the United States to support a global phase-out of fossil fuels after nearly three decades with no mention of them in these climate deals,” said Jean Su, director of the energy justice program at the Center for Biological Diversity, in an emailed statement to Yahoo News.
But the new US support comes with one proviso: that the phase-out refers only to “nonstop” fossil fuels, meaning those burned without technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions at the smokestack. That technology, known as carbon capture and storage, or CCS, is in use at just 18 facilities worldwide, almost all of them industrial. CCS has only been used in one coal-fired power plant in the United States, but could potentially enable the use of fossil fuels with less climate damage if it were widely adopted. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, which will spend $369 billion to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions over 10 years, includes funding for research and development of carbon capture technology.
Special Presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry, who leads the U.S. delegation to the conference, known as COP27, told Bloomberg News Wednesday that the Biden administration will agree to a broader call for a phased-out of fossil fuels than the built-in one. in COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland last year. At that conference, the Glasgow Climate Pact included only a pledge to phase out coal use without stopping.
“It has to be nonstop oil and gas,” Kerry said in an interview in Sharm el-Sheikh. “Phase down, relentlessly, over time. Time is a question, but ‘phase down’ is the language we have championed.”
The use of “phase down” – which is softer, shall we say, than the “absolute end” of fossil fuel use sought by many environmental and Indigenous rights activists – also gives countries such as the United States room for maneuver. .
However, at this year’s conference, India also pushed for a broader amendment against fossil fuels. The European Union said on Tuesday it would join the United Kingdom and a coalition of small island nations backing India’s proposal.
Climate change activists, many of whom oppose the use of carbon capture as a way to keep fossil fuels in the energy mix, have expressed reservations about Kerry’s condition.
“Limiting such a phase-out to fossil fuels ‘nonstop’ could open a polluters Pandora’s box of false solutions like carbon capture that only extend devastating damage,” Su said. “We need words that reflect the reality that new fossil fuels doom us to an unlivable planet.”
Whatever word gets into the final text at the end of this week, no one is going to guarantee that a country will actually shut down its gas-fired power plants and replace them with solar panels or wind turbines. No one is discussing specific hard targets to reduce fossil fuel use, and even if they are, the climate deal under discussion is not a legally binding treaty.
But many nations, including the United States, had previously resisted anti-fossil fuel language because the direction set out in the agreement influences policy. The Biden administration, for example, has been firmly committed to trying to get the United States to meet the goal first promised in the 2015 Paris climate accord of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. President Biden’s Build Back Better proposal was designed to achieve that goal. After opposition from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin, DW.Va., forced Biden to abandon some of the climate provisions, Manchin agreed to support the Inflation Reduction Act, which is expected to achieve a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030 through subsidies for electric vehicles and clean energy.
Similarly, a coalition of countries including the United States and Japan announced on Tuesday that they will provide $20 billion in public and private grants and loans to help Indonesia retire coal-fired plants and replace them with power generation. clean, although there are no binding agreements in place.
Since the fracking boom, the United States has become the world’s largest oil producer and the world’s largest producer of natural gas, making opposition to fossil fuel production and use politically complicated for American policymakers. Projecting the death of the coal industry, which has been in decline for decades, has prompted a fierce backlash for Democrats, including Hillary Clinton. Earlier this month Biden said “we will shut them down [coal] plants across America and with wind and solar. This prompted Manchin to call the president’s remarks “outrageous and divorced from reality,” forcing the White House to backtrack.
Kerry’s requirement that the provision apply only to undiminished fossil fuels could potentially dampen domestic criticism. However, other major oil and gas producing nations may reject the proposal. Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said in interviews at COP27 that the country continues to see a role for oil and gas for the foreseeable future and is looking to minimize emissions from production of oil and gas as it builds its capacity to produce and one day export clean energy as well. And in the US, Wednesday’s Republican takeover of the House of Representatives will likely mean the end of new clean energy spending, regardless of what’s in this year’s climate deal.
The conference is expected to end on Friday, but observers already predict that a remarkable event will occur when thorny issues such as the future of fossil fuels and compensation for the poorest countries suffering from climate change-related natural disasters are addressed.