Fossil fuel subsidies got a new lease on life, vulnerable countries saw only limited progress on climate finance, and the push for faster, deeper carbon cuts was still being slow-walked in the latest draft decision documents published by COP 26 President Alok Sharma at 7:13 AM GMT today.
The subtle but damaging shifts in language in the yet-to-be-finalized documents had observers at the COP venue in Glasgow, Scotland pointing to the influence of 503 fossil industry lobbyists, petro-states like Saudi Arabia, and wealthy countries like the United States and Australia in blocking progress on the conference widely described as the “last, best hope” to get climate change under control. Among those using that language before and during the conference were Sharma and U.S. climate envoy John Kerry.
But at this 12-day conference, the pervasive fossil influence on negotiations was “like hosting an Alcoholics Anonymous conference and inviting the alcohol industry to be the biggest contributor,” said human rights activist Kumi Naidoo.
With the fossil industry and its political allies seen as the biggest winners with this draft, many of the make-or-break bottom lines for COP 26—a fair share approach to climate finance, and greater “ambition” to strengthen countries’ commitments under the 2015 Paris climate agreement—remained out of reach.
Softening the ‘F-Words’
In the latest version of the COP documents, the “heavily negotiated language on fossil fuels” is “much weaker than the earlier draft,” the U.S. Center for Biological Diversity said in an alert this morning. That shift comes despite earlier hopes the United Nations climate process would take decisive steps on fossil fuels for the first time ever.
“Many of us have said many F-words at COP,” said Tzeporah Berman, chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, in a media conference earlier this week. Now, “it’s time to say some particular F-words at COP, like ‘fossil fuels’. Phasing them out ‘fast, fair, and forever.”
But what Treaty Initiative Director Alex Rafalowicz called the “severely weakened” language in this morning’s draft doesn’t get there, even though the “F-words” themselves survived the latest round of revisions. The text calls on countries to “accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up clean power generation”—so far, so good—“and accelerating the phase-out of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels.”
The reference to “unabated” coal throws a thin lifeline to coal-fired power plants that can try to stay in operation by wrangling taxpayer subsidies for expensive, ineffective carbon capture and storage systems. But adding the word “inefficient” on fossil fuel subsidies isn’t as pejorative as it sounds—it harks back to a 2009 decision by the then G8 countries to phase out subsidies considered economically inefficient, but retain those deemed to have a functional purpose.
More than a decade later, Canada claims to have phased out most of its “inefficient” fossil subsidies, but provincial and federal governments still lavished the industry with C$18 billion in taxpayers’ dollars last year. In October, the International Monetary Fund calculated global fossil subsidies at US$5.9 trillion in 2020, a mind-bending $11.2 million per minute.
In the latest COP 26 text, “the aim to phase out all fossil fuel subsidies has now been rowed back to just ‘inefficient’ subsidies—which begs the question of what an efficient use of public money to bankroll the fossil fuel industry could possibly be,” said Murray Worthy, gas campaign leader at London, UK-based Global Witness. The revised language “leaves an enormous space for countries to claim their subsidies aren’t ‘inefficient’,” he added.
‘Blocking Progress’ on Loss and Damage
The draft decision creates a mechanism, or “facility”, to address the irremediable loss and damage that climate change is already bringing to vulnerable countries in many parts of the world. But merely “‘acknowledging’ loss and damage will not bring back the submerged homes, poisoned fields, and lost loved ones,” said Oxfam International Head of Delegation Tracy Carty. “Rich countries must stop blocking progress and commit to doing something about it.”
After weeks of scorching criticism over rich nations’ failure to hit their self-declared 2020 target to deliver US$100 billion per year in climate finance to developing countries, the decision document notes the developing world’s “deep regret” at the missed deadline and “urges” developed countries to deliver by 2025. COP watchers have repeatedly observed over the last few weeks that the original $100-billion figure was arrived at after no consultation with developing countries, nor any assessment of their actual needs, and an annual figure of $1.3 trillion is already circulating as a target for post-2025 financing.
The G77 group of developing countries had proposed a finance plan on loss and damage last night, Carty added, and its absence from this morning’s draft was the “most glaring” gap in the new draft.
Too Slow to Halve Emissions
The other (literally) burning question is how effectively this COP will push countries to drive down the greenhouse gas emissions causing the global climate emergency. Climate diplomacy veteran Ed King reports that “the elements of the text aimed at speeding up action to close the gap towards emissions goals are there—with no radical changes from the previous version and dates still intact.” The UN is to report back to next year’s COP with a “work programme” to scale up GHG cuts, he writes.
Over the next year, the decision “urges” countries to table new Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris deal if they haven’t already done so, “urges” them to deliver 2050 net-zero plans, “requests” that they raise their targets in line with targets of 1.5 to 2°C, and launches an annual UN assessment of climate plans. (In COP jargon, “urges” is considered stronger language than “requests”.)
COP-watchers said those instructions amounted to a missed moment from a negotiating process that has run out of moments to waste.
“A key part of this COP was the first five-yearly ‘ratchet’, encouraging countries to increase their ambition” and commit to faster, deeper emission reductions, said Oxford Net Zero Director Dr. Steve Smith. “They have, but not by nearly enough. We have nine years to halve emissions for 1.5 degrees. At this rate of ratcheting, it will take us 30.”
“Emission reduction targets over the next decade have us careering towards climate catastrophe,” said Oxfam’s Carty. “We need an unambiguous deal in Glasgow that commits governments to coming back next year, and every year after that, with improved targets that will keep the goal of 1.5° alive.”
‘False Solutions’ on Article 6
In the highly contentious negotiations on carbon markets and offsets, Climate Home News is reporting a possible breakthrough this morning. “Brazil is reportedly willing to accept tighter integrity rules for carbon trading, pointing to a potential landing ground for an elusive Article 6 deal,” the UK-based news site writes.
Climate Home also has a possibly bizarre account from inside the Article 6 negotiating room: “The mood in the room was really good,” one negotiator said. “Maybe we missed each other. I enjoyed the last week.”
That apparently jovial mood didn’t carry over to the commentary outside the negotiators’ bubble.
“A rushed decision on Article 6 plagued by weak rules, carryover, double-counting, and no protections for human rights will undermine ambition, blow an Exxon Valdez-sized hole in any progress toward a fossil fuel phaseout, and harm people and the planet,” said Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law. “The latest proposed text opens the door to a Pandora’s Box of false solutions like carbon capture that will lock in new fossil infrastructure, accelerate the climate emergency, and put human rights and human lives at greater risk everywhere.”
But the largest share of the criticism of this morning’s draft focused on the weakened language on fossil fuels.
“Trying to stop climate change without mentioning a phaseout of all fossil fuels is like trying to stop the pandemic without mentioning the COVID-19 virus,” Destination Zero Executive Director Catherine Abreu said in a release.
“The latest text out of Glasgow shows the oily imprints of fossil fuel influence,” said Jean Su, the Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice director. “The credibility of these talks is in question if landmark language around fossil fuels gives them a lifeline through carbon capture technologies and continued subsidies.”
With negotiators now working toward the next version of the decision text, “we are getting to crunch time,” Climate Home writes. “Today is when brewing tensions over ambition, finance, and fairness will come to the surface and trade-offs begin between different priorities.”
“As the minutes tick down, accepting responsibility and how to ramp up climate finance should be the theme of negotiations,” said Rachel Kennerley, international climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth UK. “We need to leave oil and gas where it is, accelerate emissions reductions, and increase financial support from richer countries responsible for climate chaos.”
“For those in the Global South, keeping warming to 1.5°C is no guarantee of survival,” Naidoo added. “All of the countries that experienced the terror and indignity of colonialism are suffering again due to climate change, and failing to stand up for justice for them—people of colour—is more racism. Let’s call it as it is. Subsidies for fossil fuels are taxes. Taxes we are investing in our children’s and their children’s deaths. We cannot continue to play political poker with our future.”