To achieve historic COP28 goals, nations must leave oil & gas behind, for good
In the 2021 allegorical satire Don’t Look Up, the two central characters in the film—astronomers scrambling to warn leaders of a comet hurtling toward a collision that will end life on Earth—soon realize few seem to care... until it’s too late.
The comet is a fill-in for climate change, and the collective indifference represents today’s oil and gas industry, governments, financial institutions, the media and the general public, as apathy toward the existential issue of our time defies our ultimate interest.
With the conclusion of the COP28 summit this week, the big question emerging after the latest international agreement aimed at avoiding catastrophic global temperature increase, is if the oil and gas sector has finally been put on notice, or if the latest language binding signatories to the agreement leaves polluters plenty of room to keep producing fossil fuels unabated.
The latest deal comes after a year where daily life was increasingly impacted by human-caused changes to Earth’s atmosphere.
Emissions continue to rise, and 2023 is on track to be the hottest year on record. October reached the highest peak temperatures ever recorded, with average global temperatures 1.7 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The entire year is set to be approximately 1.43 degrees above temperatures in the mid-1800s. We are dangerously close to the 1.5-degree threshold that marks the tipping point established by climate scientists around the world. As we near this ominous point of no return, the effects are being felt on a daily basis, with atmospheric conditions, weather patterns and temperatures changing our planet and the way we live on it.
This was the context surrounding the COP28 global conference held this year in the United Arab Emirates. A prior report published by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned the world could reach 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels—the target temperature set in Paris in 2015—by 2027. This means COP28 could be the last chance to avoid some of the most disastrous consequences of a warming climate. The best time for real climate action was decades ago. The second best, is today.
Fossil fuels are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions globally. According to the International Energy Agency, fossil fuel combustion accounts for approximately 80 percent of emissions, making them the biggest driver of climate change. Research pinpoints direct links between the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, and environmental catastrophe. A peer reviewed study published earlier this year in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that 37 percent of the land burned in western Canada and the United States between 1986 and 2021—a total of 80,000 square kilometres, or approximately the combined size of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island—can be traced back to 88 major fossil fuel companies and cement producers.
Despite these indisputable facts—and with this year’s COP28 president, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber (who heads the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company) claiming there is “no science” behind the need to phase out fossil fuels—governments and the financial sector remain unwilling to transition away from carbon-based energy.
The Canadian economy is heavily tied to the oil and gas industry centred in Alberta.
The influence and presence of the fossil fuel sector was a striking sight at this year’s COP. According to an analysis by Environmental Defence of the UN’s Provisional List of Registered Participants at COP28, Canada gave Party badges to 35 people with ties to the fossil fuel industry, up from eight in 2022. The federal government said the lobbyists were included in Alberta’s list of delegates, something Ottawa has no control over.
In total, 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists were registered at this year’s event, compared to 636 last year, according to the coalition Kick Big Polluters Out. As a proportion of the total number of registered participants (which increased drastically from 30,900 in 2022 to 84,000 people this year), the representation of fossil fuel stakeholders remained relatively unchanged at around two to three percent, but as a total number, there were more representatives of the fossil fuel industry present than representatives from any country, save Brazil and host country UAE.
“It’s alarming just how much influence the oil and gas industry still has, and how little influence the sectors that are really where the growth opportunities in the future are [have],” Tom Green, senior climate policy advisor at the David Suzuki Foundation, told The Pointer.
Al Gore, the former US vice president, declared fossil-fuel interests had taken control of COP.
The BBC and the Centre for Climate Reporting alleged, based on a joint investigation, the UAE intended to leverage its role as COP host to sign “secret” contracts with oil and gas companies during the summit, away from public view.
Recognizing our window to fight the climate crisis is rapidly closing, activists rallied outside of COP28 all week.
(UN Climate Change/Flickr)
Despite the profit-driven presence of the oil and gas sector, the agreement reached at the eleventh hour, as COP28 drew to a close, provided hope amid decades of inaction around similar climate agreements and global protocols.
After nearly 30 years of climate change conferences held by the United Nations, the COP28 governance panel received a standing ovation when, for the first time, signatories agreed to include standards to transition away from fossil fuels.
Early Wednesday morning, 198 member states signed onto what is being dubbed the UAE Consensus, outlining the following standards:
- Tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030;
- Accelerating efforts towards phase down of unabated coal power;
- Accelerating global efforts to net zero energy systems, with the use of zero and low-carbon fuels before or by mid-century;
- A just, orderly and equitable transition away from fossil fuel dependent energy systems, with accelerated action this decade to meet net zero by 2050;
- Accelerating the growth of zero and low emission technologies including renewables, nuclean, carbon capture and storage (particularly in hard to abate sectors), and low carbon hydrogen production;
- Accelerating the reduction of non-carbon dioxide emissions globally, in particular methane emission, by 2030;
- Accelerating reduction of emissions from road transport, including development of infrastructure and enhanced deployment of zero and low-emission vehicles; and
- Phasing out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies ignoring poverty and just transitions, as soon as possible.
The agreement also highlights that approximately $4.3 trillion (USD) needs to be invested per year in clean energy up until 2030 with an increase to $5 trillion thereafter until 2050 in order to reach net zero.
“Yes, it's monumental. Yes, it's disappointing. It's flawed, and yet, it's transformative,” Green said.
The celebration almost never happened. Following the first draft of the agreement, a group of nations including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, refused to sign, claiming they would not be “co-signatories” to “death certificates” of small island states. Gore tweeted that the first draft read “as if OPEC dictated it word for word”, stating the conference was “on the verge of failure”. While the final draft of the agreement saved face, one nation, Samoa, speaking for the small island states, said while it would not block the agreement, it warned that little was actually achieved to prevent the 1.5-degree threshold from being reached and surpassed.
Respected environmental organizations were quick to commend countries on the agreement, while simultaneously identifying loopholes that will stall real progress.
“We're finally naming the culprit behind climate change, which is fossil fuels, and we're acknowledging that they can't have a role, that we need to be transitioning away from them,” Green said. “That is progress, and I think that's why some people are rightly celebrating. All the while, I think many climate scientists are lamenting that we're still not going at the pace we need to avoid dangerous climate change.”
One of the criticisms of the agreement is its vague language to force action. There is no clear pathway set out for how to increase renewable energy consumption while simultaneously prying governments away from dirty coal, oil and natural gas. While some of the highlighted goals include timelines, others just simply express an amplification of certain ideals and the technologies to meet them, with no real guide of how nations can do so.
The David Suzuki Foundation “remains concerned about the fossil fuel industry’s influence on the UN climate negotiations and climate policies in Canada. The call on governments to transition away from fossil fuels places a new onus on historical emitters like Canada to halt further oil and gas expansion,” a statement from the organization reads.
Canada and just four other countries are responsible for over half of currently planned oil and gas expansion. These nations, with deep ties to the economic benefits from fossil fuels, are being asked to transition away from those ties, while establishing new ones with stakeholders who represent the future, clean-energy economy.
Despite running on a green platform, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have come under intense scrutiny for their lackluster climate policies and major expansions of oil and gas projects.
(Government of Canada/X)
The agreement suggests some of these big players may be getting off too easy. China has every intention of continuing to produce coal along with renewable energies. Similarly, India’s growing coal production will continue. The United States has pledged just $20 million in financing for developing countries, with Canada trailing even further behind at $16 million. As a collaborative, the world's richest countries have committed just $700 million to the global loss and damage fund, or 0.2 percent of the $400 billion the agreement says is required. The text of the agreement also notes the goal of developed countries mobilizing a joint $100 billion (USD) per year for meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation by 2030 was not met.
“This inability to meet the challenge of the climate crisis will be misconstrued as unwillingness and will sadly be misused by laggard countries—many of whom are in the Global North—as an excuse to continue to shirk their own responsibilities and instead continue to expand their oil and gas industries and increase their exports of fossil fuels while claiming to be working toward net-zero domestically,” Melanie Snow, federal legislative affairs specialist at Ecojustice, told The Pointer.
Organizations also caution that, while there is the caveat that the agreement is intended to address “hard to abate sectors” (for example steel, cement and petrochemicals), it promotes the use of technologies whose effectiveness remains a question, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS). In its latest Emissions Gap report, the United Nations Environment Programme noted the world will not meet its climate targets without implementing these technologies, but urged caution (CCS is the process of capturing and removing carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere, transporting it and storing it underground). It has long been touted by the oil and gas industry as a way to help producers move to net zero, but has never been proven as a wide scale solution.
The reality, despite the claims of the COP28 President, who heads a large oil company himself, and others across his industry, is that fossil fuels cannot exist in a zero emissions world. Contrary to the misleading comments from industry representatives who descended on COP, the 1.5-degree threshold cannot be avoided without dramatically reducing the production of oil and gas for use as energy sources.
The strategy behind the agreement could render the continued interference by polluters irrelevant. As targets for alternative energy sources and infrastructure are now set, governments and financial institutions who continue working with the oil and gas sector, will effectively ensure their own demise, as competitors reap trillions of dollars in profits from the largest economic shift the world has ever seen. The International Monetary Fund estimates the net global gain just to transition away from coal is $78 trillion (USD) through the end of this century (this does not include the benefits from moving away from oil and gas). To put this figure into perspective, the entire global gross economic production was valued at approximately $85 trillion in 2020.
While the oil and gas sector, and countries who rely almost exclusively on the industry to fuel their domestic economy, try desperately to continue their polluting practices, the agreement is being heralded by many advocates as a sign that the rest of the world is moving on. Canada and its powerful banking industry will have to decide if they want to be part of a meaningful transition, making trillions of dollars in the process, or if they want to be left behind while continuing to rely on the shrinking short-term benefits of oil and gas.
Making claims about efforts such as CCS only mires Canada in the past. The technology, trumpeted by governments and the oil and gas sector has taken much longer to develop than anticipated — according to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, there are only seven active projects across Canada, despite early conditions in the delayed federal Clean Energy Regulations stating that no new oil and gas production could continue past 2023 without CCS technology. These carbon capture projects contribute very little to emissions reductions, removing approximately 2.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a mere 1.3 percent of the sector’s pre pandemic emissions.
“It is unfortunate that the outcome suggests a role for dangerous distractions such as large-scale carbon capture utilization and storage and ‘transitional fuels’,” Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, global climate and energy lead at the World Wildlife Fund and COP20 president, said in a press release. “For a liveable planet we still need a full phase out of all fossil fuels and will continue working towards that.”
The answer, made clear at this year’s conference, is to stop extracting oil, gas and coal from the earth to produce energy.
While Sultan Al Jaber, the chief executive of the UAE’s national oil company received criticism as the COP28 President over his obvious conflict of interest, and reporting suggested his country was using the conference as a front to make backroom deals with oil companies, his own company planned a massive increase of its oil production.
Meanwhile, Canada’s Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, who has also been criticized for approving major oil and gas projects, and Natural Resources Minister Johnathon Wilkinson, announced a framework for a cap on emissions from the Canadian Oil and Gas industry. Environmental groups have identified numerous problems with the Liberal government’s strategy, particularly its slow roll out and the ability of industry players to simply pay to continue emitting more greenhouse gases. But perhaps the most contradictory statement made by the ministers is that the cap is intended to limit emissions, not production. Through the cap, the Canadian government is making no effort to reduce the production of oil and gas across the country.
Days before the announcement of the cap, the Liberal government released a methane reduction strategy to draw a roadmap for achieving a 40 to 45 percent reduction of methane emissions below 2012 levels by 2030. While the strategy is novel—a first effort to target gas, which in its first 20 years has 80 times the potency of carbon dioxide as an atmospheric pollutant—it puts the federal government at odds with provinces like Ontario that are expanding the use of natural gas, a fuel source that is 70 to 90 percent methane which can be released in any part of the burning process.
Some environmental organizations argue public accountability will be one of the most effective mechanisms for ensuring governments stick to their targets.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
The growing language of international agreements and the domestic laws that fall out from them will put increased pressure on polluters, including provincial governments, as the courts are increasingly being used as part of the transition strategy to clean energy.
Despite a dismissal of a case brought forth by seven young people against the Doug Ford PC government for its weakening of climate targets, the judge’s decision set a crucial precedent for the ability of citizens to use the courts to demand climate action. A similar challenge was taken against the federal government for its failure to protect Canadians from climate change and the federal appeals court recently decided to allow the youth who brought the case forward to see their day in court. A landmark case in Montana that pitted 16 youth against the state government for its failure to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions made headlines in August when the judge handed down a decision in favour of the youth, the first such decision in North America.
Youth taking a strong stand in leading the movement are now being joined by traditional industries and even major corporations are taking part. More than 130 global companies signed a letter in advance of COP28 pleading with governments to begin a phase-out of fossil fuels. Of the signatories, notable companies like IKEA, Volvo, Nestle and Heineken, all with their own targets for reaching net zero by 2050 at the latest, urged governments to achieve these targets in cooperation with the private sector. Unlike corporate leaders with their head in the sand, satirized throughout the film Don’t Look Up, forward thinking CEOs recognize their profits will vanish if pollution continues to radically alter our daily life.
More organizations, many led by leaders from younger generations, now caution that we are not moving fast enough, questioning the effectiveness of large international conferences and agreements.
The world erupted with a sense of salvation in 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol established the first global emissions reductions targets. It was the same in 2015 when the Paris Agreement binded countries to the 1.5 degree target. Decades later emissions are continuing to rise. Canada has been perhaps the worst of all signatory countries, failing to meet every one of our nine established emissions reduction commitments.
“Historically, a certain amount of accountability has come from being named and shamed on the international stage. However, much of the efficacy of that tactic has worn off after years of countries promising to do better, signing historic agreements and failing time and again to deliver on their promises,” Snow said.
“It's like peer pressure,” Green added. “Every country is expected to show up with these goals, and citizens pressure, and if you don't show up, then that can affect how willing countries are to collaborate with you on another issue.”
One of the shortcomings of the international agreements is that they are not legally binding. Other than the peer pressure that Snow and Green emphasized, countries cannot be fined for not adhering to the agreement. Instead, progress reports are submitted by each country periodically, but no consequences are included, and there is no enforcement mechanism or punitive feature. Article 15 of the Paris Agreement did promote compliance with the agreement but Snow notes “promotion is not synonymous with true accountability”.
Accountability is left up to domestic legal systems. Canada joined the United States and Australia in announcing a new nature accountability Bill that will come onto the legal stage in 2024. The intent is to hold the government accountable for its duty to protect biodiversity within its borders, but the announcement came with little detail on what this accountability will look like.
While the COP28 agreement may not provide a legal basis for accountability, Green emphasized that each time nations agree to something groundbreaking and new, it provides a basis for public action to hold government’s responsible.
“It gives new tools or leverage for all the citizens and civil society to put pressure on their governments and corporations to perform better,” he said. “In developed countries, we can demand accountability of our governments and we need to keep putting in place regulations so that we will achieve our targets.”
“The world has spoken, and some governments that are offside now or political parties that don't have real climate plans, it's time to look at where the world is going and get aligned with that. Or you're just gonna miss out on all sorts of opportunities, and you're gonna leave your citizens in the lurch when change comes and suddenly you’re not prepared.”
Email: [email protected]
At a time when vital public information is needed by everyone, The Pointer has taken down our paywall on all stories to ensure every resident of Brampton, Mississauga and Niagara has access to the facts. For those who are able, we encourage you to consider a subscription. This will help us report on important public interest issues the community needs to know about now more than ever. You can register for a 30-day free trial HERE. Thereafter, The Pointer will charge $10 a month and you can cancel any time right on the website. Thank you
Submit a correction about this story