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The COP26 climate agreement could mention fossil fuels for the first time

Britain's President for COP26 Alok Sharma speaks with UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa and other members of his team following an informal stocktaking session at the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow on Nov.12, 2021.BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

With the crucial UN climate summit in Glasgow nearing its close, negotiators from some 200 nations are scrambling to find common ground for a final international agreement, and it’s not looking good to climate advocates. A new draft of the accord released early Friday indicates that world leaders are not prepared to fully phase out fossil fuels or adhere to the more ambitious goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

“The latest text out of Glasgow shows the oily imprints of fossil fuel influence,” said Jean Su, energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in an emailed statement. “The credibility of these talks is in question.”

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Though the conference, known as COP26, was originally meant to wrap up on Friday, negotiations will likely continue through the weekend, meaning the agreement language is subject to change.

The new text, released early Friday, retains many provisions from a previous draft published earlier this week. Like the older version, the document states that countries recognize the need to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avert the worst consequences of the climate crisis.

Without radical change, though, this target will be out of reach. An analysis released Tuesday shows that countries’ current emissions reduction plans will likely usher in catastrophic 2.4 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels.

Despite this dire situation, some key aspects of the text have been watered down, including an intently watched section on the future of fossil fuels.

“The new draft text shows a clear weakening of ambition,” Collin Rees, senior campaigner with nonprofit research group Oil Change International, said.

The burning of fossil fuels, including coal, oil, and gas, is the single greatest contributor to the climate crisis. Yet no international climate treaty has ever directly mentioned these sources of pollution, let alone called to phase them out.

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It looks like COP26 will change that. Wednesday’s preliminary draft called on nations to “accelerate the phasing out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.” In spite of reported efforts from some highly-emitting countries, the provision stayed in.

The language, however, has been weakened: The text now calls for “accelerating the phaseout of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels.”

In international climate negotiations, the term “unabated” is often used to maintain the possibility for nations to keep the polluting fuel source online as long as they use carbon capture and storage, or CCS, to suck up power plants’ planet-warming emissions and scrub them from the atmosphere.

CCS forms a cornerstone of many energy giants’ climate plans because it can in theory allow for the continued use and expansion of fossil fuels. But these technologies do nothing to address the local impacts of extraction like air pollution, and more to the point, they are unproven to work at scale. The US has only ever had one coal plant with such capabilities, and it shut down earlier this year.

The climate think tank E3G says that even a reference to ending “unabated” coal power could push the industry to its death.

“It enables regulators to call the bluff of utility companies and coal mining interests that have proclaimed their desire for CCS in theory for the last 15 years but have consistently opposed its application in practice,” Chris Littlecott, E3G’s associate director, said.

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“CCS is feasible but it is technically challenging and expensive, thereby making coal power plants even more unattractive when compared to ever-cheaper renewables,” he continued. He expects few coal companies will actually pay to implement the technology, amounting to a de facto ban.

To see if that shakes out, implementation will be important. Letting nations keep coal plants with CCS capabilities online is one thing. But some activists fear that the UN will permit plants that have the space to support the technology one day, but don’t yet have it in place.

“There’s no agreed global standard for CCS, so it’s a dangerous Pandora’s box that could allow far too much wiggle room to be abused,” said Rees. “Any commitment on abatement must be clear that fully equipped CCS is the requirement.”

The language ruling out “inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels” also raises more questions than answers. The world spends billions of dollars each year on direct subsidies for coal, oil, and gas. The U.S. government alone spends hundreds of billions of dollars on these benefits annually—ten times as much as it spends on education. It’s not clear which of these programs the new COP26 draft would leave intact.

Some experts argue that the world should not remove all subsidies at once. A 2018 report in the journal Nature argues that though they promote the use of dirty fuel, in poor countries, they’re a useful tool to keep energy affordable. But climate activists say that as written, the vague provision will simply protect the status quo.

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They have reason to be concerned. The G20, an international convening of the world’s wealthiest nations, agreed back in 2009 to phase out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies. But signatories have made “almost zero progress in actually ending handouts to the fossil fuel industry,” said Rees.

The weakening of the language on fossil fuels should come as no surprise. At the climate talks, fossil fuel producers are working diligently to protect their interests. A report from the advocacy group Global Witness, released Monday, revealed that more than 500 lobbyists and others with ties to the fossil fuel industry are participating in the UN negotiations, either as members of trade industry organizations or as part of country’s delegations. That’s despite the fact that the UN formally banned energy companies from sponsoring any official COP26 events.

Even a mere mention of fossil fuels in the final agreement would be notable. But when it comes to meeting the scale of the climate crisis, said Rees, the language is wholly insufficient.

“Fighting over fossil fuel language is a welcome change after decades of complete silence on oil, gas, and coal at the COPs, but mounting climate impacts don’t negotiate,” he said. “We need a clear directive for an equitable phase-out of fossil fuel production and consumption.”

Leaders are expected to blow past the planned Friday deadline to reach an agreement in Glasgow, with negotiations set to continue into Saturday. A final document is expected sometime this weekend.

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Dharna Noor can be reached at dharna.noor@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.