December editorial: Greenwashing fossil fuels in Sharm el-Sheikh and Brussels

At a time when we need to shift our collective climate action up a gear, the influence of the fossil fuels lobby is succeeding in slowing down ambition both at COP27 and in the EU.

COP27 produced one significant breakthrough – the agreement on a fund to compensate vulnerable and poorer countries for the loss and damage they experience due to the climate crisis. Beyond that, the results were meagre. Particularly disappointing is that the first ever commitment on fossil fuels made in Glasgow, namely “the phasedown of unabated coal”, disappointing as that was at the time, was not followed up, in Sharm el-Sheikh, with a commitment to exit all fossil fuels. 

There was a diplomatic battle for it, but it didn’t succeed because of opposition from major fossil-fuel extracting countries and the absence of interest from some developing countries who won’t support an exit from fossil fuels unless they get enough financial support from rich countries. It didn’t help that the host Egypt – itself scrambling for gas deals, which European countries are more than happy to seal, and under the influence of Saudi Arabia (and other Gulf states), which had bailed out the country’s economy prior to the COP – engaged in ‘diplomacy by exhaustion’ of the negotiators and, in the end, nobody walked out for the sake of not also torpedoing the loss and damage fund. Prospects for the next COP, to be hosted by major oil and gas producer UAE, are no better.

COP26 gave us a semantic clue, with its use of ambiguous terms like “unabated” and “phase down”, that future ambition would be lacking. At COP27, Saudi Arabia’s lead negotiator Albara Tawfiq told the plenary that the UN climate convention “needs to address emissions and not the origins of the emissions”. So, the further extraction and use of fossil fuels is apparently considered ok as long as the emissions from them are either offset or captured (and re-used or stored?). More than ever therefore, we will have to be on guard against such false solutions.

Even in the EU, which battled in the Alliance of Progressive Countries to have the exit from fossil fuels mentioned in the closing text, no general deadline for the exit from oil and gas has been set Even more troublingly, EU countries are scrambling for new gas suppliers to replace Russia,  in the short to medium term, which risks locking Europe in for the long term. 

Moreover, the EU only offered an illusionary minor improvement of its nationally determined contribution to 57%, instead of 55%, emissions reductions, but based on the expansion of carbon sinks rather than actual additional cuts. 

See our coverage of the controversy around carbon removals at the UN and the EU.

Kick polluters out

Fossil fuel interests, be they from state actors or private companies, are very present at COPs and, therefore, civil society organisations duly demanded a UNFCCC Accountability Framework to protect against the undue influence of big polluters on climate policy, backed up by the Kick Big Polluters Out campaign. Eliminating the influence of fossil fuel interests is an equally big challenge in the EU. Shell, for example, sponsors the ‘Energy Vision’ series, organised by Politico, a major media outlet in Brussels.  

To make matters worse, key policymakers spoke at the event, despite the clear conflict of interest of giving a fossil fuel giant a front-row seat at a platform deliberating the green transition.Most recently, the topic was the EU’s proposed Carbon Removals Certification Framework, which saw Shell speak ahead of the Commission’s drafting official and the European Parliament’s rapporteur.

Removals must not be used to legitimise continued fossil fuel extraction (so called ‘enhanced recovery’). Neither can biogenic removals compensate for fossil fuel-based emissions. Companies shouldn’t get away with it, and as individual consumers we shouldn’t be fooled by it either. If retailers offer you the option of ”negating the emissions from shipping and delivery of your products”, don’t fall for it: you cannot save the plane,t or your soul, by buying offset indulgences. If Natural Capital Exchange NCX invites you to “offest your holiday shipping” by buying their forestry carbon credits and therewith “paying landowners to postpone their timber harvest that would have otherwise occurred”, know that you wouldn’t truly offset your carbon footprint and the climate wouldn’t win.

There are still many battles to be fought against false solutions and for the primacy of rapid and massive emission reductions based on leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Let’s gather more strength for them with the end-of-year festivities. The CMW Newsletter will resume at the beginning of February.

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