By Chris Lang
For the first time, fossil fuels have been mentioned in a text coming out of a UNFCCC meeting. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its first report in 1990. 31 years later, the UNFCCC has at last mentioned the main driver of climate change.
Since that first IPCC report, the world has emitted more greenhouse gas emissions than in the entire period up to 1990. And emissions are accelerating.
Coal and COP26
Here’s the paragraph from the COP26 cover decision that mentions fossil fuels (I’ve highlighted the relevant text in bold):
The Conference of the Parties . . . Calls upon Parties 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 the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances and recognizing the need for support towards a just transition;
This post will look at the implications of use of the word “coal” in the text. Of course we need to stop burning coal in order to address the climate crisis, but why did the discussions in Glasgow focus on coal, but not on oil and gas?
Alok Sharma’s crocodile tears
Governments are to accelerate “efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power” according to the final COP26 cover decision. Earlier versions of the text used the words “phase out” of coal. The change from “phase out” to “phasedown” caused quite a kerfuffle at the end of the COP26 negotiations.
Alok Sharma, the President of COP26, looked like he was going to cry when he announced the COP26 text. Sharma was quick to point the blame: “China and India will have to explain themselves and what they did to the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world,” he told the BBC.
But Sharma also has some explaining to do. He has received donations from Dr Ravi Kumar Mehrotra, the executive chairman of Foresight Group International, a UK-based firm with investments in offshore and onshore oil drilling.
In May 2021, the International Energy Agency put out a report titled “Net Zero by 2050”. When the report was released, Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director told the Guardian:
“If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year.”
Sharma welcomed the report, and added that it, “shares many of the priorities we have set as the incoming COP Presidency – that we must act now to scale up clean technologies in all sectors and phase out both coal power and polluting vehicles in the coming decade”.
In the UK, the fossil fuel industry currently has plans for 37 oil and gas projects and three new coal mines. In addition, the UK recently pledged US$1.15 billion in export finance to support an offshore liquefied natural gas project in Mozambique.
The myth of “clean coal”
The Glasgow text gives no deadline for phasing down coal. The word “unabated” was added to the text after the first draft. Unabated coal power means coal-fired power stations without carbon capture and storage. That leaves the myth of “clean coal” alive and kicking.
There is currently only one coal-fired power station anywhere in the world that uses carbon capture and storage: Unit #3 of the Boundary Dam Power Station in Canada. The captured CO2 is piped 66 kilometres to the Weyburn Oil Field, where it is pumped underground to extract oil.
By 2030, the Global CCS Institute anticipates just six more carbon capture and storage systems at coal-fired power plants.
And carbon capture and storage makes coal-fired power plants less efficient. Which means more coal mining, more coal transport, and more coal burned.
COP26, like every other COP before it, did not even get close to discussing the solution to the climate crisis: leaving fossil fuels in the ground.
Why did the COP26 cover decision, for the first time, mention just one fossil fuel? Where was the suggestion that oil and gas should be “phased out” or “phased down”? Why coal?
During the first week of COP26, more than 40 countries signed on to a “Global coal to clean power transition statement”. Once again, coal was the focus.
As Brandon Wu, Director of Policy and Campaigns at Action Aid USA, points out an excellent illustration of the reason for the focus on coal at COP26 is provided in an April 2021 report by the Stockholm Environment Institute.
The reality is that the focus on coal affects countries, like India and China, far more than it affects rich countries, like the United States.
The Stockholm Environment Institute’s report “Trends in fossil fuel extraction” includes three graphs looking at projected change in annual oil, gas, and coal production in 2030 compared to 2019:
As if to emphasise the point, during COP26 the European Commission presented a draft list of projects to MEPs that included 30 gas projects worth a total of €13 billion.
And Joe Biden’s administration is planning to hold Lease Sale 257 in the Gulf of Mexico – the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in US history. In September 2021, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the sale on behalf of Healthy Gulf, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and the Center for Biological Diversity .
UPDATE – 29 January 2022: Earthjustice won! (at least in part): “[T]he D.C. District Court invalidated the Department of Interior’s decision to offer 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas leasing, marking a pivotal victory in the fight to defend Gulf communities and the planet from the worsening climate crisis. The court held that Interior failed to accurately disclose and consider the greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the lease sale, violating a bedrock environmental law.”