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Linda Kalcher, Executive Director at the Strategic Perspectives

As the clock ticks down on COP28 a significant battle is playing out behind the scenes which goes to the heart of the UN climate regime.

Russia and Saudi Arabia among others want to ensure the focus of a final Global Stocktake decision lands on the ‘emissions’ of oil, gas and coal rather than the energy sources themselves.

This is part of the reason for the long delay in finalising a text through Monday – a reason that the main plenary remains empty and national delegation offices crowded.

The trail back to Moscow and Riyadh is clear. 

The Sunnylands deal made clear where US and China stand.Every Saudi intervention, as well the OPEC letter, shows their focus on getting language away from fossil fuels and onto emissions.

Why this matters

Reducing emissions theoretically provides for several pathways, of which phase out of fossil fuels is just one. And in this case, “emissions” and “unabated” targets are essentially two forms of a “get out of jail card” to keep their fossil fuel production and use going.

The difference between an “emissions reduction” pathway and a “fossil fuel phase out” pathway is that major fossil fuel producers believe they can keep pumping oil and gas and digging coal while working on emissions reduction technologies like carbon capture, direct air capture and investing in offsets.

As we know, despite the time the technology has existed, carbon capture is still not deployable at even a fraction of what would be required. Saudi Arabia, for example, has just one functioning plant. 

It’s catastrophically expensive, potentially costing $1 trillion a year according to researchers at the Oxford Smith School and doesn’t work very well, according to Climate Analytics. And CCS doesn’t even apply to oil use at all and it only has potential application to gas and coal in quite specific circumstances.

As none of those emissions reduction technologies will be implemented even on new production within the next decade, never mind existing infrastructure, the “emissions reduction” pathway essentially guarantees lots of emissions.

Europe, AILAC, a large portion of the Africa Group and AOSIS are all backing strong language on Fossil Fuel Phase Out. Saudi Arabia and Russia are not. 

All eyes are on the likes of China and India to position themselves now. Both have ambitious renewable energy policies. We know they stand to massively gain from running their economies on fossil-free technologies. Are they ready to show that?

And the question for John Kerry and the US position is clear: will it stand up for a meaningful target? Will Norway, as a massive oil producer side with the EU or OPEC?

‘Abatement’ – what does it mean?

Analysts at ZCA have knocked up *4 tests* for a definition worth watching as we crawl to the finish.

1 – High carbon capture rates: There must be near-total capture of fossil fuel combustion emissions, with carbon capture rates of at least 90-95%.

2 – Geological storage: Once captured, carbon dioxide must be stored underground permanently. You cannot use it to produce short-lived products like fizzy drinks, much as we all like a G&T.

3 – Emissions from the production and transport of fossil fuels, including methane emissions, need to be virtually eliminated. This should include methane intensity levels of 0.5% at the upper limit. Post-combustion capture must also be included [all Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions].

4 – To ensure that these standards are met, there needs to be rigorous monitoring of all facilities. This data should be publicly reported and verified by third parties.

Key fossil fuel phaseout pathways

Understanding what a commitment for fossil fuel phaseout by 2050 means if there is weak language on datelines and deadlines is another headache. But, the IEA, IISD and CAT have answers.

*IEA, 2023: Demand for oil and gas declines by around 20% by 2030 – fast enough that no new long-lead time conventional oil and gas projects need to be approved for development. 

*IISD, 2022: A 1.5C pathway means the world must decrease global oil and gas production and consumption by 30% by 2030, an annual average decrease of 3% for oil and gas. 

*CAT, 2022: Unabated gas power generation needs to be effectively phased out (with less than a 2.5% share of generation) by 2045 in all regions of the world.