By John Ainger, Bloomberg
Near the end of the United Nations climate summit in Sharm El-Sheikh last year, European Union climate chief Frans Timmermans offered a grand bargain to break the deadlock in the two-week negotiations.
The 27-member bloc would consent to the creation of a finance facility to pay for loss and damage caused by climate change, fulfilling a demand made by developing countries. But the EU’s support would come only if all countries agreed on a stronger commitment to eliminate the use of fossil fuels. The loss-and-damage fund promise made it into the final deal at COP27; the stronger agreement to phase out fossil fuels did not.
That defeat still stings for Timmermans. “There’s no way — no way — we’re going to achieve any of our goals if we do not do more on mitigation,” he said at last week’s Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin, an event aimed at boosting ambition before the annual UN climate summit in Dubai at the end of the year. Without stronger action against emissions, “whatever we do on finance, on adaptation, on loss and damage, will fall short of what we need.”
Last year’s defeat for the EU and its allies on emissions cuts at COP27 has now set up what will be one of the hardest fights ahead of COP28. The host nation, the United Arab Emirates, is a wealthy petrostate whose economy depends on exports of oil and gas. Emissions-cutting hawks will have to contend with the UAE’s pick as president of COP28: Sultan Al Jaber, head of Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., the world’s 12th largest oil and gas producer. The state oil company he leads has some of the most aggressive plans to expand fossil fuel production.
Timmermans has science on his side. The cost of reducing emissions — leaving less extreme climate impacts to contend with — will be much less than paying for the higher damages of a warming world. But the politics will become even more difficult.
Al Jaber said at last week’s climate event that diplomats should focus on phasing out emissions from oil and gas, rather than eliminating those fuels themselves. That’s seen as leaving the door open for burning oil and gas while scaling up carbon capture technologies.
EU diplomats aren’t convinced. “I don’t think carbon capture is going to get us there,” said Jennifer Morgan, Germany’s climate envoy, in an interview with Bloomberg TV. “What we really need to see, and I think that countries of the world will bring that forward, is the end of the fossil fuel era and the build up of renewables.”
So the question is how the EU will go about its goal to speed up the pace of emissions cuts. In Sharm El-Sheikh last year, the bloc was part of a push by India to expand language adopted at COP26 on phasing down coal to gas and oil. Timmermans also wanted a pledge to peak emissions from the energy sector by 2025. The effort failed amid lobbying from Saudi Arabia, China and Russia, which convinced the summit’s Egyptian presidency to drop the idea.
This year, the EU’s leaders are clearly anticipating opposition to language calling for a rapid reduction of emissions. European officials — from Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to Germany’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock — have started calling for a global target for rolling out renewables. Such a measure would imply a drop-off in emissions as wind and solar eat into fossil fuels’ share of the energy supply.
Last month the EU agreed to boost its own renewables to 42.5 per cent of the energy mix by 2030. The International Energy Agency, which will be involved with coming up with a global renewable target, estimated that the share of those technologies in the total global energy supply was a mere 5.2 per cent in 2021.
A summary of the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin included a reference to renewable energy capacity needing to be tripled. Al Jaber said in his speech at the event that tripling should happen by 2030, with another doubling to follow by 2040.
Tom Evans, a policy advisor for think tank E3G, said it’s essential that any goal is directly linked to the phasing out of fossil fuels rather than allowing coal and gas plants to keep working. “We’re seeing that inevitable tension of a petrostate presidency trying to square the circle, but it comes up against major problems when you look at what it would mean for the planet,” Evans said. “I’m concerned we haven’t seen leaders make that link to the fossil fuel phase out.”
The cost to roll out renewables, especially in developing countries, is likely to be enormous. Wealthy nations have repeatedly failed to meet a $100 billion-per-year finance goal — something they hope will be met this year — but poorer nations have already said that that number needs to be in the trillions and come without strings attached. Plugging that gap could require innovative new financing instruments, like global levies on air travel and maritime bunker fuels. Or perhaps an overhaul of multilateral development banks, an idea touted by Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley.
In the meantime, a separate global goal to boost energy efficiency could be easier to achieve, according to a European official familiar with the matter. The EU has already agreed on a target to reduce energy consumption. This official said that at COP28 there may be a push for a global goal that instead focuses on lowering energy intensity, or the amount of energy needed to generate a unit of output.
“Why aren’t we more forthcoming in here about the reduction of our energy use?” Timmermans said at last week’s climate event. “Especially the major emitters, the major industrialized countries. There is much, much more that we can do on energy efficiency than we are doing now.”
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