Finally saying the F-words at UN climate talks 

Comment: International negotiations have always focused on carbon emissions, not the coal, oil and gas that create them. That’s changing

Fracking wells on the Jonah oil and gas field, Wyoming, US (Photo: Ecoflight)

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While the Cop25 climate talks ended last weekend in what’s widely being called a failure, there were some crucial political developments during the meetings that will help shape international climate politics for years to come.

One of the most important is that for the first time in the United Nations space you can say the f-words in polite company. We’re of course talking about “fossil fuels.”

The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement ran 16 pages, but didn’t mention the words “fossil fuels” “coal,” “oil,” or “gas” once. That’s a striking omission considering the central role that fossil fuels play in contributing to the climate crisis. Nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming come from the production and burning of coal, oil and gas.

The UN climate talks can tackle fossil fuels head-on: here’s how

The problem is only getting worse: according to research released earlier this month, emissions from fossil fuels just hit an all-time high, increasing 4% since countries signed onto Paris. It’s as if Alcoholics Anonymous just called itself Anonymous, and no one ever mentioned whiskey, beer or wine.

It’s no secret how “fossil fuels” became dirty words at the climate talks. Since the “conference of the parties” began 25 years ago, fossil fuel industry lobbyists have had unfettered access to the process. Unlike the World Health Organization, which bans tobacco lobbyists from taking part in negotiations about tobacco cessation efforts, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has no protections against industry corruption.

At Cop25 in Madrid, big oil companies like Shell and industry front groups like the Canadian Association for Petroleum Producers, were busy pitching various carbon trading schemes and geoengineering technology designed to allow them to continue to produce fossil fuels, the one thing we need to stop if we’re going to truly address the climate emergency. If you want to blame someone for the failure of Cop25, pointing a finger at the fossil fuel industry and the countries that do their bidding would be a good place to start.

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That’s why it’s so important that for the first time in this process we can talk about phasing out fossil fuel production without getting (too many) dirty looks. The change in norms is first and foremost thanks to the tireless advocacy of activists on the frontlines of this crisis, especially indigenous communities who have led the fight against fossil fuel expansion. Their insistence that we must “keep it in the ground,” is finally penetrating the political process. When the UN secretary general opened Cop25 he said, “we simply have to stop digging and drilling,” something that would have gotten him thrown out of the building just a few years ago.

Also shining a spotlight on the f-words are a series of important new reports that were released at the talks in Madrid. According to the Production Gap Report by the UN Environment Programme and leading research institutions, governments are planning to produce 120% more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5C.

Cop25: What was achieved and where to next?

That conclusion was backed up by the Oil, Gas, and Climate Report, also released at Cop25, that showed how oil companies are planning to invest $1.4 trillion in new oil and gas extraction projects between 2020 to 2024. 85% of the expanded production is slated to come from the US and Canada. This would lock in 148 gigatonnes of cumulative carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to building over 1,200 new coal-fired power plants. The numbers are so shocking that they’re impossible to avoid.

Now that we’ve admitted we have a problem with fossil fuels, we need to move on to the next step and start limiting their production.

There’s precedent for the UN to apply this sort of “supply side” approach. The Montreal Protocol successfully protected the ozone layer by phasing out the production and consumption of “ozone depleting substances”, such as chlorofluorocarbons.

The climate talks should take a similar approach by phasing out production of  “climate destroying substances” – namely, fossil fuels. Part of that plan must ensure that there is a just transition away from fossil fuel energy for workers, communities, and developing countries. It’s not poorer countries or working people that caused this crisis, it’s the oil industry CEOs who knowingly spread misinformation and delayed progress: they’re the ones who need to pay.

The good news is that some countries, regions, businesses, and investors are beginning to take action. New Zealand, France, Costa Rica, Belize and Denmark have all taken steps to stop the future extraction of oil and gas, although there are significant loopholes that need to be addressed.

In November, California, the third largest oil producing state in the US, blocked new fracking pending further scientific review. Leading Democratic candidates for president have also put forward plans to ban fracking and stop coal, oil and gas production on public lands.

On December 9, the $24 billion Norwegian insurance giant Storebrand divested from fossil fuels, joining more than 1,000 institutions worth over $17 trillion who have made some form of fossil fuel divestment commitment. Last week, the Swiss parliament announced it would be looking at divesting the $800 billion Swiss National Bank.

How Cop25 turned its back on climate action

Now that the f-words are being said, there’s no more space for countries like the US and Canada (or companies like ExxonMobil and Shell) to wave about climate solutions with one hand while expanding fossil fuels with the other. As we move forward in addressing the climate emergency, stopping new fossil fuel projects, like the Teck Mine in the Canadian tar sands or drilling in the Permian Basin, will take centre stage for the growing climate justice movement.

As Greta Thunberg has said: “our house is on fire”. At this year’s UN climate talks, it was finally clear we have to stop adding fuel to the flames.

Catherine Abreu is the executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, Jamie Henn is co-Founder and strategic communications director of 350.org.

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