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Late-night fossil fuel fight leaves bitter taste after Cop27

After a late-night battle over fossil fuels, climate negotiators and observers left Cop27 accusing each other of “bad faith” and hypocrisy.

On one of the talks most explosive issues – loss and damage – the summit produced a major breakthrough. The EU reached an agreement with developing countries, ending decades of rich country refusal to set up a fund to help climate victims in vulnerable countries recover.

But it’s a fight on fossil fuels that dominated the last-hour political wrangling. For hours on Saturday night, negotiators engaged in heated, but ultimately futile, debate on whether to call for a phaseout of coal, oil and gas.

An alliance of more than 80 developed and developing countries backed a call to wind down fossil fuels. That wasn’t enough for Egypt to open it up to negotiation.

The Cop27 presidency kept disagreements behind closed doors and didn’t include the proposal as an option in the cover text – to the frustration of many. The final decision text barely changed from the penultimate draft.

German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, who, under the EU’s umbrella, had called for stronger carbon-cutting language, blamed “stonewalling and organisational shortcomings”.

An Egyptian official told Climate Home that developing countries could cut emissions more aggressively if rich countries had, as promised, provided them with the funding to do so.

Others accused rich countries of hypocrisy, pointing to continued oil and gas expansion in some the world’s richest countries, notably the US.

The strife gives a taste of what is to come. Calls to wind down the fossil fuel industry will only intensify at next year’s Cop28, hosted by major oil and gas producer UAE.

What’s at stake

Producing and burning coal, oil and gas account was responsible for 64% of all human-caused emissions in 2019. But 25 climate summits passed without any mention of fossil fuels in decision texts.

At Cop26 in Glasgow, countries committed to accelerate “the phasedown of unabated coal” – naming the most polluting energy source for the first time. The language was repeated by the world’s 20 largest economies at summit in Bali in parallel to the Sharm el-Sheikh talks.

Campaigners hoped Cop27 would extend coal’s censure to all fossil fuels. Egyptian petroleum minister Tarek el-Molla had other ideas.

Ahead of the meeting, he said Cop27 would promote gas as a “perfect solution” to climate change. Buoyed by Europe’s scramble for gas supplies, Egypt has been seeking new gas deals.

The battle lines

It was India that first proposed to apply the phase down language to all fossil fuels. Coal accounts for 70% of India’s electricity generation and its officials felt the fuel was unfairly singled out in Glasgow.

A broad range of countries seized on the proposal. The EU, UK, Australia, US and eventually Canada came on board. Small island states and Latin American governments like Chile and Colombia rallied behind the call.

Oil and gas producers Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia opposed it. Speaking on behalf of the Arab Group, Saudi Arabia’s lead negotiator Albara Tawfiq told the plenary that the UN climate convention “needs to address emissions and not the origins of the emissions”.

Others remained silent. China was quiet throughout while the African Group of Negotiators (AGN) avoided taking a public stance. Asked whether fossil fuel phase-out is needed, Ghana’s special envoy to the Climate Vulnerable Forum, Henry Kokufu, shot back “for developed or developing countries?”

“Renewable energies remain the best option,” he said, but added that Ghana has a petrochemical industry. Petrochemicals are derived from oil and gas.

‘Trench warfare’ 

The future of fossil fuels was not on the formal agenda, so the only place for a statement to land was the “cover text”. Egypt favoured a short document that summarised the outcomes of the negotiations. Others, including the EU and the UK saw the text as an opportunity to advance carbon-cutting ambition.

Every stage of the process of drawing up the cover text came later at Cop27 than the previous summit. The first “elements” were published on Tuesday, compared to Sunday at Cop26.

The Egyptian presidency presented a second draft to negotiating groups at around 1:30 on Saturday morning – beyond the scheduled finish time.

Heads of delegation were given 20 minutes to read the document and provide feedback. They could not take a copy of the text away to share with their teams.

“[I] was told that this was a take it or leave it text,” one developed country diplomat told Climate Home.

The EU was not impressed. Shortly after 10:00, with ministers from member states beside him, climate chief Frans Timmermans threatened to walk away from a deal.

Elsewhere in the venue, Cop27 president Sameh Shoukry was telling the media there was “equal dissatisfaction in all quarters” but the majority of countries were “receptive” to the basis on which the text had been formulated.

Cop27 president Sameh Shoukry updates the press on the negotiations on Saturday morning (Photo credit: Kiara Worth/UNFCCC)

Hours later, the EU and developing countries reached a compromise on loss and damage. The EU walking away from talks would now mean junking this breakthrough.

The draft text that the presidency consulted on behind closed doors overnight was released early on Saturday afternoon. It did not include fossil fuel phaseout or a target for global emissions to peak by 2025 – both demands from the EU and small island developing states.

A group of ministers from Europe, small islands, Chile and Colombia scrambled to organise a press conference under the banner of the “high ambition coalition”.

The members of the High Ambition Coalition gather on stage for their last day press conference (Photo credit: Kiara Worth/UNFCCC)

“The Cop27 decision must reflect that we hold fast to our commitment to 1.5C,” said Tina Stege, climate envoy for the low-lying Marshall Islands. That, she said, should reflect scientists’ findings that global emissions must peak before 2025 to keep 1.5C within reach and “put the world on a path to phasing out all fossil fuels”.

A meeting of heads of delegations followed which New Zealand’s climate minister James Shaw later described as “five hours of trench warfare”.

Despite pleas from the Egyptian presidency’s Wael Aboulmagd not to “venture into the realms of renegotiation,” countries raised issues with the 11-page text.

The coalition of countries calling for a fossil fuel phase out staged an overnight push to include it in the text. Saudi Arabia resisted, questioning the need to mention energy in the cover decision. It argued “low-emission strategies such as carbon capture and storage” should be included as a way to reduce emissions.

South Korean called for “other clean energy” sources to be promoted alongside renewables. The Seoul government was elected in April promising to expand the use of nuclear energy.

Negotiators gather for “five hours of trench warfare” on Saturday night (Photo credit: Kiara Worth/UNFCCC)

The meeting concluded shortly after 22:00. “This will make us just go for another week,” said a Honduran negotiator, of the gulf between different countries’ positions.

Negotiators went back to their offices or to doze alongside campaigners and journalists on cream-coloured sofas outside the plenary hall.

Diplomats gathered back in the plenary hall at 04:00 on Sunday. Cop27 president Shoukry acknowledged disgruntlement with the process: “Our team and I have done our best to ensure… we are fair, balanced and transparent in our approach. Any missteps that have occurred were certainly not intentional and were done with the best interest of the process in mind.”

The historic agreement on loss and damage was gavelled through as negotiators discovered the latest version of the cover decision. There was no fossil fuel phase-out or emissions peaking date in it. But language on “low-emission” energy had been added to text supporting renewables.

Timeout

Switzerland’s Franz Perrez, on behalf of the Environmental Integrity Group, asked for a 30-minute break to read the text and “take informed decisions”.

The alliance pushing greater ambition held frantic talks on the conference floor about how to proceed. Most small island leaders had already flown home.

Negotiators from Colombia (left), Switzerland (centre) and the UK (right) huddle in the plenary hall (Photo credit: Kiara Worth/UN Climate Change)

The depleted and tired group did not object and the agreement was approved shortly after sunrise.

Exhaustion

“It was a difficult process, not transparent, certainly not inclusive, and interaction between [countries] was very difficult,” said a developed country official.

Another called it “negotiation by exhaustion” as diplomats were overwhelmed with new text in the early hours of the morning.

Chile’s environment minister Maisa Rojas told Climate Home she was “very disappointed”. Tuvalu’s climate minister Seve Paeniu said this had been a “missed opportunity for a truly successful Cop”.

For all the EU’s grandstanding, Timmermans accepted the language on the table.

“This deal is not enough on mitigation but do we walk away and kill a fund that vulnerable countries… have fought so hard for for decades? No,” he said.

‘Protecting petro-states’ 

Large oil and gas producers, led by Saudi Arabia, were quickly blamed for the pushback.

“It is more than frustrating to see overdue steps on mitigation and the phase-out of fossile energies being stonewalled by a number of large emitters and oil producers,” said Germany’s Baerbock.

Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation, accused the Egyptian presidency of producing a text “that clearly protects oil and gas petrostates and the fossil fuel industries”. 

In the months ahead of Cop27, oil-producing Gulf states poured $22bn into Egypt to avert its economic collapse. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, restrictions on wheat imports and soaring inflation hit Egypt hard. Saudi Arabia alone pledged to invest $10bn into the north African state and deposited $5bn into its central bank.

In the wake of the bailout, “it’s likely that Saudi Arabia’s voice… carried more weight than others,” Glada Lahn, a senior research fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House, told Climate Home.

Egypt defended its approach. “I am surprised that some claim that they wanted to shift to phase down of fossil fuel where the same [countries] agreed to a different language just three days before” at the G20 in Bali, an Egyptian official told Climate Home.

Gas loophole?

Several negotiators told Climate Home they had been no discussion about the inclusion of the “low-emission” language.

Cop26 presidency Alok Sharma, of the UK, complained the text had been “weakened in the final minutes”.

The EU’s Timmermans seemed unaware of the late change. “I don’t know what you’re asking me, I’m too tired,” he told reporters.

Each country seemed to adopt its own definition of what “low-emission” means. Nuclear energy, hydrogen and gas with carbon capture and storage was understood by many to fall under the term, including the Egyptian presidency.

“Low-emission energy” is “vague but likely aims to justify a longer lifeline for fossil fuel use – particularly gas”, said Lahn.

That’s the message a number of countries, including the Egyptian hosts, have taken to Cop27.  A number of African countries made clear gas will be part of their journey to renewable power. The African group  described the outcome as “ambitious and balanced”.

“For most developing countries, just transition cannot be equated with decarbonisation but with low-carbon development,” India’s environment minister Bhupender Yadav told the final plenary. “Developing countries need independence in their choice of energy mix and in achieving their [sustainable development goals].”

The Egyptian official said going any faster in moving away from fossil fuel would require more funding on the table, “which didn’t happen”.

Wealthy countries failed to deliver $100bn a year by 2020 to help developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to climate change – a collective target set in 2009. Rich countries are exploring bespoke packages to accelerate the transition to clean power for a narrow number of large emerging economies, including South Africa and Indonesia.

Hypocrisy

While rich countries rallied around stronger language on winding down fossil fuel production, some are doing the opposite at home.

The US is planning a bigger oil and gas expansion than any other country in the world for the period to 2025, according to analysis by Oil Change International. Canada, Norway and Australia are also expanding production.

“We need to remain focused on what high emitters do at home after they had made their messianic speeches at Cops, ” Faten Aggad, of the African Climate Foundation, told Climate Home. “The biggest challenge in meeting the emissions target at this point is not the global south. Pretending that that is a problem is only meant as a distraction.”

The US is planning a bigger oil and gas expansion than any other country (Photo credit: Oil Change International)

Meena Raman, director of Third World Network and adviser to developing countries at Cop27 said that if the EU and UK are serious about phasing out oil and gas, they should start by halting their own fossil fuel expansion. Only four European countries have joined the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance.

“[It’s] not enough to play to the gallery but act if they really want to save the planet and not hide behind 2050 net zero targets, which will bust the remaining carbon budget for 1.5C,” she said. Instead, they should reach further and faster to get to real zero suck more carbon out of the atmosphere than they emit.

The post Late-night fossil fuel fight leaves bitter taste after Cop27 appeared first on Climate Home News.

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