One of the best lessons I ever learned as a journalist came not from an editor, but from my late great-uncle, who spent his entire career in the insurance industry. Accuracy in language is critical, he would say. One opaque word in an insurance policy could cost you your job and your company millions of dollars. The same goes for journalism, and it also goes for international diplomacy.
All this made it somewhat worrying to watch the leadership of the UK COP28 delegation yesterday and dodge attempts by MPs to pin him down on whether the government supports the “phasing out” or “phasing out” of unabated fossil fuels . These are two very different things.
“Phasing out fossil fuels” is different from “phasing out fossil fuels on an ongoing basis,” which is different from “phasing out fossil fuels on an ongoing basis,” which is different from “phasing out fossil fuels on an ongoing basis.”
“phasing out fossil fuels” all but guarantees an end to man-made global warming, even if concerns about agricultural emissions still need to be addressed. “Continuing to phase out fossil fuels” points to the same encouraging outcome, assuming you have confidence that carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies can deliver on their promises. But “fossil fuel phasing out,” whether it continues unabated or not, leaves the door wide open for continued emissions and the progressive climate catastrophes that come with them. It is a tacit commitment to either build a carbon removal market at enormous cost and scale to permanently address ongoing emissions, or sit back and watch large parts of the planet burn up. They are the only options.
And yet, when asked to clarify the government’s position on whether it would like to see a commitment to continue to phase out fossil fuels in the final text at the COP28 summit, Graham Stuart, Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero, said: to phase out’ or ‘to phase out’. that bordered on the dismissive.
“Our belief is that we should focus on tapering and winding down, whatever that may be, as long as it translates into real action. [on] without prejudice to fossil fuels,” he said.
He added that “language counts too, especially if we want to create the broad coalition we need for global action” – comments that will be interpreted by observers as a hint that Britain could be willing to compromise with the major emerging economies which have indicated that they will resist calls to ‘phase out’ fossil fuels, preferring the vaguer commitment to ‘phase out’ their use.
If this is the strategy, it is diametrically opposed to that of the EU and those countries in the High Ambition Coalition of countries that Britain used to be part of, who are preparing to strongly argue that if you want to deliver the objectives of the Paris Agreement, there should be a commitment to “phasing out” and not to “phasing out” fossil fuels unabated.
There is obviously less climate risk in ending the world’s dependence on fossil fuels as quickly as possible, but this is a complex issue, shrouded in infinite shades of gray and the fog of political obscurity.
As such, there is actually some merit in Stuart’s argument. Esoteric debates over terminology are less important than the urgent need to take real action to tackle fossil fuels head on. Eight years after the Paris Agreement, global emissions are still rising. As new research shows this week, governments and companies are still investing massively in the production of new fossil fuels.
But the words and the actions are connected. As American author Zig Zigler once noted, “There is power in words. What you say is what you get.”
If governments remain committed to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement – limiting temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius or well below 2 degrees Celsius and by extension achieving a net-zero emissions global economy sometime between 2050 and 2070 – then the distinction between ‘phasing out’ and ‘phasing out’ ‘fossil fuels’ or ‘continuing to fossil fuels’ will require very different policy responses.
If the focus is on tackling ‘unabated fossil fuels’, then the world desperately needs a massive CCS industry and policymakers should think much more about how this can be achieved at a reasonable cost. If the focus is only on “phasing out” fossil fuels, when and how will a carbon removal industry be built? If we’re all about ‘phasing out’ fossil fuels, where is the strategy for boosting clean energy development and managing a just transition for carbon-dependent economies?
Each of these different policy scenarios will of course vary enormously depending on the intended scale of fossil fuel phase-out. Are we talking about relatively modest CCS and carbon removal industries to address excess emissions at the margins? Or is the assumption that countless gigatons of carbon will have to be captured and removed forever? Most plausible net zero roadmaps from the likes of the International Energy Agency and the Climate Change Committee assume the former. The investment plans of petrostates and oil companies clearly assume the latter, even though this is never explicitly described and it is never explained how this infrastructure for reducing CO2 emissions will be financed.
Exactly the same uncertainties haunt the British government’s controversial new plans to increase oil and gas drilling in the North Sea. Where will the required capacity for CCS and carbon removal come from? Who’s going to pay for it? Will it really be delivered at sufficient scale to absorb the emissions that will result from a ‘drill, baby, drill’ energy strategy? If this is all about energy security, as the Conservatives’ David TC Davis argued Time for questions At what point will the government start requisitioning private oil and gas platforms last night? When President Trump stops all US gas exports? When the first Russian bomber lands over East Anglia?
Wonderful Tory car crash TV.
David TC Davis finds himself in hot water over the government’s flagship policy on new drilling permits.
— Best for Britain (@BestForBritain) November 9, 2023
This dynamic is playing out in every country and is challenging the many governments that seem unable to follow the inexorable logic arising from their own net-zero commitments.
Yesterday, Stuart also argued that the fixation on phasing out or reducing fossil fuels is further evidence of an excessive focus on addressing fossil fuel supply rather than demand. There is also much to recommend in this argument. Governments will inevitably find it difficult to limit fossil fuel supplies, drive up prices and risk shortages if demand remains high.
If you accept the imperfect but informative analogy of “fossil fuels are narcotics,” then we have decades of failed drug policies to prove how fixating on addressing supply will never work. At the same time, you need to address the root causes of demand. Supply and demand must go hand in hand.
But again, the problem here is that Stuart is almost inadvertently advocating a much more ambitious and aggressive strategy for curbing demand than that pursued by the government he is part of. If the UK government is reluctant to commit to a ‘phasing out’ of fossil fuels until more is needed to curb fossil fuel demand, where is the effective national energy efficiency strategy, why are sustainable projects onshore energy still blocked, and why was the last offshore wind auction allowed to fail? And where is the new fleet of CCS projects and what are the plans for the carbon removal industry?
None of this is easy. But governments traveling to Dubai to call for a ‘phase-out’ of fossil fuels have a duty to explain how they plan to bring about such a drastic change to the global energy system and what level of CCS reduction they having in mind. Those who intend to call for a less ambitious fossil fuel ‘phase-out’ arguably have an even greater obligation to explain exactly how their strategy is compatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement, because they are effectively lobbying without such details for a century of continuous progressive energy. climate disasters. That’s why a “phase-out of unabated fossil fuels” is clearly the more responsible wording for any new agreement.
Actions are important, but so are words.
#Phaseout #phaseout #London #Dubai