COP26 leaves too many loopholes for the fossil fuel industry. Here are five.

Climate Economy, Extreme Weather

COP26 leaves too many loopholes for the fossil fuel industry. Here are five.

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The whole COP process still doesn’t get that to avoid the worst of climate change, we must stop extracting coal, oil and gas.

A version of this article originally appeared in “The Conversation.”

For the Glasgow climate summit to have been judged a success, a key outcome had to be that parties agree the majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves need to be left in the ground. 

As recent research suggests, 89% of coal and 59% of gas reserves need to remain untapped if there’s to be even a 50% chance of global temperature rise staying under the crucial limit of 1.5 C this century. 

Sadly, COP26 has not lived up to that ambition because there are too many loopholes for the fossil fuel industry to exploit.

Some promising proposals were put forward, including the pledge to cut methane emissions, some increased emissions reductions targets at the national level, limits to deforestation and ending some international funding of fossil fuels. Several countries launched a new alliance to end gas and oil production within their borders, led by Denmark and Costa Rica. But most proposals suffer either from a lack of ambition or a lack of participation from key countries. 

Take the pledge to cut methane emissions. Some of the biggest methane emitters such as Russia, China and Australia failed to sign up. Similarly, the plan to phase out coal allows some signatories such as Indonesia to keep building coal-fired power plants.

What these proposals and, indeed, the whole COP process, suffer from is an inability to address the fact that if we’re to avoid the worst of climate change, we simply can’t keep extracting coal, oil and gas. 

Globally, fossil fuel subsidies run at $11 million every minute.

While national governments and their negotiators remain willing to listen to the interests of fossil fuel lobbyists, the COP process will continue to be riddled with loopholes that will derail the achievement of real targets. Five big loopholes come to mind. 

1. Subsidies and finance

Much has been made of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), a global coalition of financial institutions which aims to accelerate the decarbonization of the economy. But many of its efforts will be undermined while governments continue to heavily subsidize the fossil fuel industry. With fossil fuel subsidies globally running at $11 million every minute, GFANZ is insufficient to halt emissions because subsidizing the cost of production and sale of fossil fuels continues to make the industry feasible. 

Moreover, GFANZ is voluntary when we need commitments to be binding. It also includes banks that have recently provided $575 billion in fossil fuel finance to some of the world’s biggest polluters. Governments should not wait for future COPs to address this issue. They must immediately start reining in the subsidies that make the industry profitable and should not entertain new subsidies. 

2. New production

Despite the overwhelming evidence that most of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground, governments are still approving new coal, oil and gas projects. The U.K. government has 40 fossil fuel projects in the pipeline despite hosting COP26.  In the U.S., the Biden administration has presided over a massive sell-off of oil and gas licenses covering an area twice the size of Florida that eclipses even Donald Trump’s efforts. Australia, too, continues to approve new gas and coal developments. One state government, New South Wales, has approved eight new projects since 2018, despite the state’s target of 50% emissions reduction by 2030.

Until future climate negotiations put a ban on new fossil fuel projects and agree to a clear and rapid phase-out of current production levels, the fossil fuel industry will continue to thrive. 

3. Business as usual

A further loophole for the fossil fuel industry is how it’s being allowed to continue its huge levels of production because it has committed, in some cases, to making its operations “greener.” Measures such as carbon capture and storage and offsetting have been touted by some governments as solutions to bringing the industry’s emissions down. But these are not real solutions if they simply allow fossil fuel production and use to continue at dangerous levels. 

What these proposals and, indeed, the whole COP process, suffer from is an inability to address the fact that if we’re to avoid the worst of climate change, we simply can’t keep extracting coal, oil and gas. 

While offsetting will have to play a role in reducing emissions in some hard-to-abate sectors such as aviation and agriculture, it is not a substitute for genuine cuts to fossil fuel use and misleadingly gives the impression fossil fuel companies are going green.

4. Influence

These loopholes that allow fossil fuel production are, of course, no accident. The largest group of representatives at COP26 were from the fossil fuel industry. One of the striking and disturbing characteristics of government approaches to climate change is the impact of fossil fuel companies on decision-making. It’s hard to think of other issues – smoking, peace negotiations – where we tolerate this kind of influence.

According to a report from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform,  Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP and the American Petroleum Institute together have spent $452.6 million lobbying the U.S. federal government since 2011.

The industry’s influence on successive Australian governments has been well documented, with just under $1 million in donations recorded between 1999 and 2019. Having a display by gas company Santos, a major donor to Australian political parties, at Australia’s COP26 pavilion rightly provoked ridicule. 

5. Decoupling production

The failure to address these loopholes will mean the production of fossil fuels will continue for much longer than it should. The fact there are still willing buyers for fossil fuel assets such as BHP’s Queensland coal mines indicates investors are anticipating years of profits, and few climate liabilities, from fossil fuels, despite the measures proposed at COP26. 

One of the most glaring failures of COP26 is the failure to connect emission cuts with production cuts. Nowhere is this more apparent than in countries such as Norway who have impressive domestic reduction targets – 55% by 2030 in Norway’s case, yet continue to champion fossil fuel production through oil and gas exploration. 

A key to progress at future COPs and domestically is ending the false idea one can make progress on climate by cutting domestic emissions while simultaneously supporting fossil fuel production. If countries such as the U.S., Australia and Norway can’t come together to agree on cutting support for fossil fuel production, then we will continue to see loopholes that allow the industry to flourish. 

Some countries are taking positive steps. The Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance which aims to phase out production is key to cutting the supply of fossil fuels. Multilateral action such as this, whether as part of COP or outside of it – and, crucially, the pressure from below that causes it – must be a focus if we’re to avoid climate change.

Written by

Jeremy Moss