Cop 27: Impasse on fossil fuels despite last hour push

  • : Crude oil, Natural gas
  • 22/11/24

The final text from the UN Cop 27 climate summit fell short on efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with no mention of additional curbs on fossil fuels, the largest contributors to global warming, although the issue was debated until the very last minutes of the conference.

This year's Cop was set against a backdrop of rising energy costs and concerns about energy security, with the summit designed to tackle the climate crisis — the third issue of the energy trilemma.

More than 80 countries supported phasing out unabated fossil fuels, EU executive vice-president and lead negotiator Frans Timmermans said. "Sadly, we don't see this reflected here [in the final text]", Timmermans said in his closing speech as the plenary wrapped up on 20 November.

The call for language around curbing fossil fuels did not seem to be one united effort, and the EU cautioned against including coal and gas in the same group, given how much more polluting coal is.

The inclusion of fossil fuels in the final text remained up for discussion until the final few hours of the conference — which ran over by almost two days, and was the second-longest Cop on record — delegates told Argus on the sidelines. Countries with varying degrees of ambition but supportive of phasing out fossil fuels — including Norway, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the UK, Colombia and several vulnerable and small island developing states — made "very strong statements", but they faced a battle even to uphold last year's Glasgow Climate Pact, ministers said. The text was "backsliding" from Glasgow's, even in the final hours of negotiations, Tuvalu's finance minister Seve Paeniu told Argus.

"Those of us who came to Egypt to keep 1.5° alive… have had to fight relentlessly to hold the line", UK lead negotiator and Cop 26 president Alok Sharma said in his closing speech on 20 November, in reference to the Paris Agreement's commitment to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

"Many parties, too many parties, are not ready to make more progress today in the fight against the climate crisis. There were too many attempts to even roll back what we agreed in Glasgow", Timmermans said on 20 November.

The final text treads very lightly on any language around fossil fuels, instead calling on parties "to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phase down of unabated coal power and phase out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies". This is a repeat of the Cop 26 text and represents no increase in ambition on the topic.

Tough sell

Saudia Arabia was one of several countries that pushed against the use of language targeting fossil fuels in the final text, delegates said. "The convention needs to address emissions and not the origin of the emissions", a member of the Saudi delegation, speaking on behalf of the 22 countries in the Arab League, said on 20 November.

The inclusion of broader language on fossil fuels was destined to be tricky in Egypt. The country's oil minister Tarek el-Molla said last month that natural gas will continue to play a key role in the future energy mix, calling it "the cleanest hydrocarbon fuel" at a meeting of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum.

It could be an even tougher sell in the UAE, which will host Cop 28 next year and which holds some of the largest spare reserves of the Opec+ coalition. The country's president Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, speaking at the opening of Cop 27, said that the UAE will continue to supply oil and gas "for as long as the world needs it", stressing the country's role as a responsible supplier.

The global energy crisis was a clear undercurrent at Cop, largely framed in energy security terms. The final Cop 27 text referenced the "unprecedented global energy crisis" and the "urgency to rapidly transform energy systems to be more secure, reliable, and resilient, including by accelerating clean and just transitions to renewable energy during this critical decade of action". It also said that the "increasingly complex and challenging global geopolitical situation… should not be used as a pretext for backtracking, backsliding or deprioritising climate action".

Energy security pressures

But the energy crisis weakened developed countries' hands this year, as they sought to replace Russian fossil fuel supplies. Many developing countries concentrated on this, setting out their arguments for producing oil and gas, and noting European "hypocrisy" on fossil fuel use.

Germany, seeking to cut its dependency on Russian gas, has signalled its interest in working with Senegal to develop its gas resources. Timmermans, speaking at a Cop side event on 16 November, told economic advisor to the Namibian government James Mnyupe: "I don't want to prevent you from using your fossil fuels, and especially natural gas". But for imports, the EU has been clear that additional gas infrastructure must be pre-fitted so that it can carry hydrogen.

Scrutiny was directed in particular towards the EU — which has of late ramped up coal-fired power generation as it swerves from Russian gas imports — and ministers saw off criticism. The bloc is on track to reduce emissions by 57pc by 2030, from 1990 levels, Timmermans reiterated during Cop. The EU repeatedly said that the only way to bolster energy security and boost energy access in Africa was through renewables.

"Low-emission" fuels

But even the mention of enhancing a clean energy mix through renewable energy proved difficult to push through, which led to the last-minute addition of "low-emission" energy.

The elasticity of the language potentially keeps the door open for significant amounts of technology — nuclear, biomass, biofuels, carbon capture and storage (CCS), and even gas. The language is even pliable enough to keep the use of carbon offsets on the table — an option that factors heavily in corporate decarbonisation plans. UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has cautioned against the lack of "rigour" in voluntary carbon market credits, while biomass and biofuels often attract concerns over indirect land use change and deforestation, and CCS remains an emerging technology.

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