Progress Possible at COP 28 Despite Fossil Fuel Industry Deception

December 10, 2023 | 8:26 pm
Jan Zakelj/Pexels
L. Delta Merner
Lead Scientist, Science Hub for Climate Litigation

Last week, I joined my colleagues at COP28 in Dubai, as negotiators and civil society push for a fossil fuel phaseout to meet climate goals.

This year there has been a lot of attention on the more than 2,400 oil and gas lobbyists  at the climate meetings. The industry is pushing a narrative that misleadingly calls out emissions, not fossil fuels as the problem. My colleague Rachel Cleetus has clearly laid out the imperative for fossil fuel phaseout.

I’m happy to report that at this moment, it seems that the nations of the world may stand up for people over fossil fuel industry interests.

No official text has been decided, but more than 100 of the 195 countries here–including the 27-member European Union, the 39-member Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), and the United States–have supported the phaseout of fossil fuels, albeit with qualifiers. As of early Sunday morning in Dubai, a commitment to phase out fossil fuels is one of the possible options in the final COP28 declaration draft text. Success at COP28 is likely to be measured by the inclusion of strong fossil fuel phaseout language, free from loopholes, in the final agreement.

Global net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions 1990–2019. Global net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions include carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes, net carbon dioxide from land use, land use change and forestry, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. Source: IPCC Sixth Assessment Report.

The fossil fuel industry is the problem, not the solution

Despite their well-funded campaigns to convince us otherwise, here are five reasons why we need to be skeptical about fossil fuel industry engagement in global climate policy.

  1. Let’s start with the obvious: the burning of fossil fuels is the main driver of climate change. The fossil fuel industry has profited for decades, at the expense of the planet and the people who inhabit it, while emitting billions of tons of greenhouse gases. The industry’s main goal isn’t to create a sustainable future, but rather to make money, often at the expense of the environment and human health. According to the IPCC, growth of all types of human-caused, heat-trapping emissions has persisted since 1990, as shown in the graph below. By 2019, the largest growth in absolute emissions occurred in carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and industry.
  2. The fossil fuel industry continues to lead campaigns to mislead the public. Companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, and others have spent billions of dollars on disinformation campaigns, working to sow doubt about climate change. The Guardian reported that in the last three decades, five major US oil companies spent at least $3.6 billion on advertising. They fund organizations that dispute scientific consensus to maintain a status quo that benefits them. Instead of investing in clean energy, the fossil fuel industry perpetuates the problem and erodes public trust.

    These companies talk out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to climate policy—many claiming to support the Paris agreement, while simultaneously funding business groups to lobby against policies to implement and enforce national commitments.

    Standing in Dubai among ExxonMobil billboards that praise new technological solutions designed to keep oil and gas in play, it’s easy to see that major oil and gas companies are greenwashing, exaggerating their climate commitments and investments in clean energy.

    The fossil fuel industry has a long history of portraying itself as environmentally responsible while continuing to prioritize profit over the planet. Greenwashing is incredibly problematic because it works to slow and prevent climate action. As one example, according to an analysis by Client Earth, in 2019 Chevron’s disclosed emissions amounted to 697 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Between 2010 and 2018, Chevron is analyzed to have dedicated only 0.2% of its long-term investments to sources of low-carbon energy like wind and solar.

    The industry has shown its true colors, it loves to talk about green energy, but it doesn’t put its money where its mouth is.
  3. The fossil fuel industry has a vested interest in keeping the economy tied to its unsustainable, toxic products. The cost of wind and solar power have been falling for over a decade, making them the world’s cheapest source of new electricity. As our world leaders discuss tripling renewables and doubling energy efficiency by 2030, it’s essential that we explicitly connect this important growth with the displacement of fossil fuels.
  4. Fossil fuel production and products harm public health. On the first-ever Health Day at a COP, more than 40 million health professionals joined the call to action by the World Health Organization (WHO) and civil society organizations, to prioritize health in climate negotiations at COP28. Fossil fuel emissions, such as particulate matter and ozone, contribute to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, as well as deaths. Phasing them out will help address climate change and lead to local health benefits from less burning of the fuels. It will also avoid possible soil and groundwater contamination that occurs during extraction, as well as oil spills, which jeopardize both human and animal health.
  5. The fossil fuel industry is propped up in part by government subsidies, which help preserve an unsustainable industry that could not compete with renewables if it took into account its true costs to society. According to the International Monetary Fund, globally, fossil fuel subsidies were $5.9 trillion or 6.8% of gross domestic product in 2020 and are expected to increase. A staggering 99% of coal and 47% of natural gas are priced at less than half their actual cost. The study shows that the lion’s share of these subsidies, a substantial two-thirds, is concentrated in just five nations—China, the United States, Russia, India, and Japan. What makes this even more significant is the fact that all five countries are part of the G20, which committed back in 2009 to gradually eliminate “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies in the medium term.”           
In November 2021, the Glasgow Climate Pact called on countries to “phase-out … inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable.” During COP28 we need to address subsidies that are making an unsustainable industry seem economical. Source: United Nations.

Real solutions will not come from the same entities that caused the problem

At the end of the day, the unavoidable fact is current fossil fuel industry’s business model is fundamentally incompatible with climate action.

The fossil fuel industry profits by extracting, producing, and selling as much oil, gas, and coal as possible. Real solutions will not come from the same entities that caused the problem. Instead, solutions will come from bold, innovative leadership in sustainable energy and climate justice that prioritizes the health and well-being of people and the planet over profit. Instead of turning to an industry with such a troubled past, it’s time for policymakers and the courts to hold them accountable for their actions and demand meaningful, bold action to create a better future for all.

While I’m at COP28 I’m looking to other leaders. For starters, it means recognizing the wisdom of countries such as Vanuatu, which has been providing meaningful solutions and demanding action for more than 30 years through the COP process. It’s looking to Indigenous leaders who have been protecting the majority of the world’s forests. It’s turning to the youth who understand the problems they will inherit and are setting new standards and values for society.

A COP28 agreement for a fair, fast, and funded fossil fuel phaseout can provide these leaders with a powerful new tool to hold governments and corporations accountable.