The document containing the recent conclusions from the UN climate change conference in the United Arab Emirates (COP 28) is an egregious example of an official statement crafted to appear to be addressing a crucial problem, whilst skilfully disguising the fact that many decisions taken will actually worsen that problem. A perverse narrative has been forced through, hiding a complete lack of real action.
At the heart of this deception is the fact that COP 28 is not marking the beginning of the “transitioning away from fossil fuels”, whatever mainstream media have been tricked into believing. Although it’s true that the words are mentioned in a COP’s outcomes for the first time, they are accompanied by such a plethora of adjectives, conditionalities, contradictory provisions and loopholes that big polluters are off the hook and hoping to be able to promote their false ‘solutions’, while the world ignores the huge climate debt owed to the peoples of the Global South.
Tellingly, the objections of a number of developing countries most likely to be impacted by climate change were ignored when the fossil fuel executive presiding over the summit, Sultan Al Jaber, banged the final gavel and ignored their objections. Far from seeking a fossil fuel-free future, COP president Al Jaber was entirely open about the fact that his own firm intends to continue investing in oil.
A key loophole that is still not widely understood is that COP28 (and preceding texts) do not call for real reductions, but for measures to achieve ‘climate neutrality’ or ‘net zero’ by 2050. This is a deceitful concept that means that greenhouse gas emissions can continue and even increase if they are ‘compensated’ or ‘offset’ through carbon markets and/or by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, through so-called ‘nature-based climate solutions’ or by yet-to-be-invented technological ‘removals’ (another name for geoengineering).
The deliberately ambiguous concept of ‘unabated’ fossil fuels also serves to keep the fossil fuel industry alive and kicking. This term is scattered throughout the many decisions of COP 28, and was pushed heavily by the COP presidency and big oil interests. In essence, it is being used to imply that if coal, oil and gas production is connected to carbon capture (use) and storage facilities or other forms of ‘removal’, such as direct air capture and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, then it´s ‘abated’ and doesn´t need to be reduced.
The Global Stocktake (GST) of the climate commitments completed in the eight years since the establishment of the Paris Agreement also calls for the acceleration of and subsidies for the deployment of dangerous, failed and unproven technologies and fuel resources, such as nuclear energy, hydrogen fuels and many forms of geoengineering:
(e) Accelerating zero- and low-emission technologies, including, inter alia, renewables, nuclear, abatement and removal technologies such as carbon capture and utilization and storage, particularly in hard-to-abate sectors, and low-carbon hydrogen production.” (In paragraph 28 of the GST text)
In fact a key feature of COP 28 was the centrality it accorded to Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and related geoengineering technologies, even though they are under moratoria in the United Nations. CCS was invented by the oil industry to access deep oil reserves by injecting carbon dioxide to push those reserves up to the surface. It was originally called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR).
However, after many decades of R&D, the industry has still not developed this technology at scale because of high costs and high energy demands. The sector has also experienced many other problems, including the explosion of pipelines and leakage, which are dangerous for people and nature, especially as concentrated CO2 is highly toxic. Yet it is now being rebranded as a climate technology that will come to our rescue.
Using this false narrative the industry can seek public subsidies and carbon credits, financing the extraction of more fossil fuels and generating new streams of profit through carbon capture and carbon markets. Of the CCS facilities that exist today, three quarters are for EOR, i.e. to extract more oil. Yet numerous studies denounce their failure and their lack of energy, climate and economic viability. A recent study by Climate Analytics, that calls CCS a looming ‘carbon bomb’ shows that relying on CCS to ‘phase out’ fossil fuels could emit more than 86 billion tonnes of additional carbon dioxide by 2050 (https://tinyurl.com/2tzchk4s).
Vested interests are undoubtedly at play. Industry sees huge profits on the horizon with CCS and other geoengineering ‘removal’ technologies, and attended COP 28 en masse. Among the 2400+ fossil fuel industry lobbyists that registered, CIEL reports that 475 specialized in carbon capture and storage.
COP28 was also unprecedented in terms of the dozens of side-events that industries, startups and billionaire-sponsored institutions, academics and NGOs were allowed to organize to promote marine and even solar geoengineering (despite the above-mentioned UN moratoria).
Most geoengineering promoters were no doubt hoping for a deliberately vague ‘definition’ of removals within articles 6.2 and 6.4 of the Paris Agreement, and a lax approach to requiring proof of the efficacy of the technologies they are selling, including in terms of their ability to permanently sequester CO2. This would open a huge carbon market for unproven and risky technologies such as marine and solar geoengineering.
The one bright spot in the COP 28 proceedings was that this did not happen. They had to leave without a decision on article 6.2 and 6.4, which was postponed after critical inputs by many governments in relation to the discussions of the article 6.4 Supervisory Body. This was the direct result of the extensive opposition of the broad civil society coalition against carbon markets, offsets and geoengineering that has been active since the discussion of this article started before COP 27 in 2022.
The official message from COP 28 is nothing other than a sugar-coated poison pill: reliance on CCS, geoengineering, offsets, carbon markets and other dangerous proposals will not contribute to the phase-out of fossil fuels. Instead it will increase emissions and worsen the climate crisis. It will also carry new risks to nature, health and the environment and expand the violation of human rights that carbon markets and offset projects have already triggered.