Getting rid of fossil fuels at a climate summit is harder than you’d think

The most significant step came in last year’s Glasgow Cop26 when countries reached a pained consensus supporting a ‘phase down’ of coal power

You could be forgiven for thinking getting rid of fossil fuels might be the easy point of agreement at a global summit to address the climate crisis. But you would be wrong. Instead, the issue has become a major point of contention as the Cop27 conference in Egypt staggers into its final stage.

Despite vast amounts of evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there has never been formal agreement at climate talks that the world should reduce fossil fuel use. The most significant step in that direction came in last year’s Glasgow pact, which reached a pained consensus supporting a “phase down of unabated coal power”.

It did not land on that language until the final moments, when China and India demanded “phase out” be watered down to “phase down”. It was an ambush that drove the exhausted Cop26 president, Alok Sharma, to tears.

This week’s conference in Sharm el-Sheikh has moved on from that unfortunate exchange, and turned its focus to the next step – whether to support the phasing down of all fossil fuels. If accepted, it would be the first acknowledgment in a Cop text of what should be an obvious, evidence-based point: that the use of gas and oil must also be reduced.

The most recent major work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made this clear: the world must halve emissions by 2030, a change that would require urgently reducing fossil fuel use across the board, if it is to keep alive the hope of limiting global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Beyond that, climate catastrophes become substantially worse.

The main proponent of the change has been India, bucking the narrative of the fraught ending in Scotland. It has received heavyweight support from the UK, EU and, as of Wednesday night, the US.

John Kerry, the US climate envoy, said he supported the broader language “as long as it focuses on projects with unchecked emissions” – a nod to the hope, so far largely forlorn, that some fossil fuels can continue into the future by using carbon capture and storage.

The updated position has been a strong focus of civil society groups, including activists from Africa challenging claims that the continent must be allowed to develop all its fossil fuel resources to meet development goals.

They want the language to go further and promise that all fossil fuels will be phased out. They also (correctly) make the point that if the major developed powers want to tell the developing world that they should not exploit its oil and gas resources then they had better quickly follow through with a long-promised climate finance plan to help pay for clean energy development.

There has been some scepticism about India’s motivation in arguing for the new language. Some observers have suggested it likes the widened definition because it uses little gas itself and knows some countries – Saudi Arabia, for example – would not support a statement that oil and gas must be reduced.

But activists working on anti-fossil fuel campaigns give the Indian government more credit. They point out New Delhi supported this language more than a year ago, and its objection in Glasgow was rooted in an argument about fairness. India still significantly relies on coal, but many developed countries supporting a coal phase out no longer do. They ask: where was this support from the wealthy to getting rid of coal when it was their primary energy source?

It is unlikely Cop27 will agree to phase down all fossil fuels, though it remains a live issue. The language was missing from a draft agreement released by conference organisers.

As debate stretched into Thursday night, Saudi Arabia, speaking on behalf of other Gulf states, argued countries should be talking about emissions, not energy sources. Iran’s delegation was opposing to even phasing down coal, reversing its position a year ago. But Norway joined Tuvalu, Colombia, France, Denmark, Spain and Ireland in supporting the commitment. Tuvalu and Vanuata have gone further, calling for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty.

This is how change happens. Now it is on the table, pressure will grow for the inclusion of a fossil fuel phase out at some point. Given everything we know, this can not come soon enough.


cover photo: John Kerry, the US climate envoy, says he supports reducing fossil fuel use ‘as long as it focuses on projects with unchecked emissions’. Photograph: Nariman El-Mofty/AP