COP27 ends with no emissions agreement: The oil era is ending anyway — because it must
“This article earlier published in Salon”
COP27, the UN climate conference held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, this year, ended with the dismantling of one climate-diplomacy stone wall — which was very good news — and the construction of another, which most definitely was not. Thirty years of stonewalling by rich nations over even discussing how to finance the growing global bill for climate-turbocharged weather disasters ended with a reluctant U.S. concession that the topic could at last be formally discussed, and agreement to set up of a fund as one important mechanism to help pay those bills.
This limited progress on the loss and damage caused by the climate crisis was unmatched, however, by any meaningful progress on prevention — meaning measures to ensure that climate pollution is curbed in time to respect the 1.5℃ warming red line that remains the world’s hypothetical goal. No agreement was reached on how to lower the chances that the climate chaos unleashed by greenhouse-gas pollution simply wipes entire human communities off the map. Very few of the nations that are major emitters have complied with the spirit of the Paris Agreement by further ratcheting their emission commitments down toward zero. This left the world on track for as much as 2.9°C warming by the end of this century.
India, ultimately joined by 80 other countries — including the U.S., U.K. and EU — had called for a qualitative broadening of Glasgow’s “phase down coal” target to include oil and gas. This became the focus of negotiations on the emission reduction front. That effort ultimately died in the back rooms, as Saudi Arabia and Russia — with initial support from Canada — made it clear they would refuse to sign any final agreement containing a commitment to move broadly beyond carbon-based fuels.
This refusal by major oil and gas exporting nations to support international action to phase out fossil fuels — the absolutely essential element in any plan to protect the climate — is not truly a new stonewall. Saudi Arabia laid the foundation stone of this barrier at the dawn of climate diplomacy in 1991, when it insisted that UN climate agreements would require not just consensus but unanimity of member states. This suggests, as Bloomberg’s David Fickling points out, that while the world must move rapidly beyond fossil fuels, agreements at UN conferences will not be a fruitful pathway to doing so.
The Saudis have used their implicit veto to stall progress at previous COPs as well. As long as the focus was on coal, negotiators were able work around the recalcitrant desert kingdom and find compromises with coal-dependent countries like India. But by putting oil and gas in the center of the discussion — where they most certainly belong — India forced the Saudis to finish building their wall. This at least makes it clear that there will be no international agreement to end reliance on oil and gas: Not this year, not next year at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates, not ever, as Fickling correctly points out. This is not exactly surprising — however deplorable the diplomats of oil-importing nations made it sound.
That doesn’t mean the era of oil isn’t coming to end — of course it is. Nor does it mean that international collaboration isn’t the key to accelerate that petroleum sunset — it is. But oil will depart not because of a diplomatic deadline, but because cleaner, cheaper and better substitutes, primarily electric, are embraced by businesses, cities, and consumers, as well as by oil-importing nations. The role of governments is not to negotiate the end of oil but to maximize their economic dynamism by financing its replacement. Oil can then linger on as a vestigial throwback, like horse-drawn transportation: a niche product deployed for tourist entertainment in Central Park, or for back-country hauling in Afghanistan.
The demolition of one stone wall, and construction of another, should send a powerful message to climate defenders. We must focus less on seeking to shackle fossil fuels through international diplomacy. Instead, we should loudly celebrate the reality that by replacing gas, oil and coal we can turbocharge the global economy. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia, and their allied economics interests in Texas and Alberta, will continue to obstruct the transition to cleaner, cheaper renewable energy. In doing so, however, they are not only the enemies of climate security, but also opponents of an inclusive, prosperous, and sustainable global economy.
As the transition away from fossil fuel and toward clean energy accelerates, a new topic will become central to the climate-diplomacy agenda — how to assist nations and regions dependent on coal, oil and gas to diversify their economies. Realistically, that may not happen until we have deployed enough clean energy that coal, oil and gas markets begin their irreversible decline. So whatever winds up on the annual negotiating agenda for the UN’s climate convention next year, the brass ring to reach for is clear enough: deeper, faster deployment of wind and solar electricity; advanced batteries and electric vehicles; heat pumps and net-zero buildings; green hydrogen and clean manufacturing. It’s the growth of those things that will drive carbon’s decline. We frequently ignore this, at our peril. Creating gigajoules of clean energy, not drafting pointless communiques, is what matters.