During UN climate change negotiations in Egypt on Wednesday, the United States signaled its support for the adoption of language calling for phasing down the use of fossil fuels — a major symbolic shift for the world’s largest oil and gas producer.
The possible amendment to an agreement between 190 nations that is under discussion is symbolic and would not have any enforcement mechanism. Instead, much like how the existing climate agreement, the Glasgow Climate Pact, calls for participating countries to pursue a goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the goal of phasing down fossil fuel use will be aspirational.
Climate change activists who attended the climate change conference, known as COP27, to incorporate a goal of moving away from fossil fuel use greeted the news as a triumph. At previous climate change conferences, the United States and other major producers of oil and gas had refused to sign on to similar language.
“It’s a major breakthrough for the United States to back a global phase down of fossil fuels after nearly three decades with no mention of them in these climate agreements,” said Jean Su, energy justice program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement emailed to Yahoo News.
But the new US support comes with a condition: that the phase out refers only to “unabated” fossil fuels, meaning those burned without technology to capture the carbon dioxide emissions at the smoke stack. That technology, known as carbon capture and storage, or CCS, is in use at the moment, almost all of which are industrial. CCS has only been used at one coal-fired power plant in the United States, but it could potentially allow fossil fuel use to continue with less harm to the climate if it were widely adopted. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, which will spend $369 billion on reducing US greenhouse gas emissions over 10 years, for research and development of carbon capture technology.
Special presidential climate envoy John Kerry, who is leading the US delegation at the conference, known as COP27, that the Biden administration will accept a broader call for a fossil fuel phase down than what was incorporated into COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland last year. At that conference, the Glasgow Climate Pact only included a pledge to phase down the use of unabated coal.
“It has to be unabated oil and gas,” Kerry said in an interview in Sharm El-Sheikh. “Phase down, unabated, over time. The time is a question, but ‘phase down’ is the language we support.”
The use of “phase down” — which is softer than, say, an “absolute end” of fossil fuel use sought by many environmentalists — also gives countries like the US wiggle room.
Still, at this year’s conference, India has also pushed a broader anti-fossil fuel amendment. On Tuesday, the European Union said it would join the United Kingdom and a coalition of small island nations that are backing India’s proposal.
Climate change activists, many of whom, because it is seen as a way of keeping fossil fuels in the energy mix, expressed reservations about Kerry’s conditions.
“Limiting that phaseout to ‘unabated’ fossil fuels could open a polluters’ Pandora’s box of false solutions like carbon capture that only extend devastating harms,” Su said. “We need words that reflect the reality that new fossil fuels condemn us to an unlivable planet.”
Whatever words make it into the final text at the end of this week, none will guarantee that any country will actually shutter its gas-fired power plants and replace them with solar panels or wind turbines. No one is discussing specific hard targets for dropping fossil fuel use, and, even if they were, the climate agreement under discussion is not a legally binding treaty.
But many nations, including the US, had previously resisted anti-fossil fuel language because the direction set in the agreement does influence policy. The Biden administration, for instance, has been firmly committed to trying to get the US to meet the goal first promised in the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by the year 2030. Biden’s “Build Back Better” proposal was designed to reach that target. After opposition from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin, DW.Va., forced Biden to drop some of the climate provisions, Manchin agreed to support the Inflation Reduction Act, which is projected to reach a 40% emissions cut by 2030 through subsidies for electric vehicles and clean energy.
Similarly, a coalition of countries including the US and Japan announced Tuesday that they will be in public and private grants and loans to help Indonesia retire coal plants and replace them with clean energy generation although no binding agreements are in place.
Since the fracking boom, the United States has become the world’s and the , making opposition to fossil fuel production and use politically tricky for American politicians. Projecting the death of the coal industry, which has been in decline for decades, has provoked fierce backlash for Democrats including Hillary Clinton. Earlier this month, President “we’re going to be shutting these [coal] plants down all across America and having wind and solar.” That prompted Manchin to call Biden’s remarks “outrageous and divorced from reality,” and forcing the White House.
Kerry’s requirement that the provision only apply to unabated fossil fuels could potentially blunt domestic criticism. Nevertheless, other large oil and gas producing nations may reject the proposal. Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, in interviews at COP27 that the country continues to see a role for oil and gas for the foreseeable future and that it is trying to minimize emissions from oil and gas production while it builds up its ability to also produce and one day export clean energy. And in the US, an expected Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, will likely mean the end of new spending on clean energy, regardless of what’s in this year’s climate agreement.
The conference is scheduled to end on Friday but observers are already predicting that it will run into overtime as thorny issues such as the future of fossil fuels and that suffer climate change-related natural disasters get resolved.