A spectre is haunting Glasgow

Protesters take part in a rally organised by the Cop26 Coalition in Glasgow demanding global climate justice.

Bringing fossil fuels into COP, to keep them in the ground.

Until now, the UN climate change negotiation process has been haunted by a spectre: fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels are explicitly mentioned in the draft Glasgow agreement - for the first time in the history of COPs.

Of course, the paragraph mentioning them will very likely be removed before the text will be adopted - in order for the text to be adopted. This will most likely happen under the pressure from those states that are heavily relying on fossil fuels - backed by the 500+ fossil fuel lobbyists who are at COP to hijack the talks.

Moreover, the Glasgow agreement will obviously be very problematic on the other key points - including carbon markets, finance, mitigation, equity. Yet the mention of fossil fuels is significant - even if fleeting.

Energy policies

Until now, the UN climate change negotiation process has been haunted by a spectre: fossil fuels.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s mandate does not include energy. Coal, gas and oil therefore do not fall within the scope of the COP negotiations and in any of the technical commissions that feed into them. 

COPs have never directly addressed the causes of climate change - not even because they refused to address the central issue, but because they were constructed that way.

This choice was not the result of a refusal to tackle the problem head on, but reflected the difficulty of building a negotiating framework that would allow broad consensus to be reached. It also aimed at respecting the desire of most countries to preserve their sovereignty over energy issues.

Moreover, it was theoretically a question of guaranteeing that energy policies would be decided democratically at the national level, which is a 60s historic achievement of the UN, for which countries from the Global South fought very hard.

Trajectory

Things could change in Glasgow: the draft agreement submitted by the British presidency includes a paragraph calling on the international community to "accelerate the phase-out of coal and the end of fossil fuel subsidies".

This is a first - and clearly a victory for the climate justice movement. A strange, bureaucratic, wonky victory. Yet a significant one.

Until then, fossil fuels were relegated to the periphery of the COPs - or even outside. Things have started to change recently.

The Paris Agreement has been instrumental in opening the door to the consideration of the "carbon budget" at the global level, which raises the question of the place of fossil fuels in a +1.5°C scenario. In doing so, various institutions have had to work on fossil fuel phase out.

The International Energy Agency recently admitted that a 1.5°C trajectory was not compatible with new fossil fuel developments.

Multilateral

Until now, the UN climate change negotiation process has been haunted by a spectre: fossil fuels.

In Glasgow, ad hoc bilateral coalitions made a number of significant announcements: on the issue of coal; on funding for gas and oil activities abroad; and on Thursday 11, on the gas and oil phase out.

These announcements are not part of the UN framework: their promoters are using the COP as an opportunity to launch these initiatives, but are careful not to submit them formally to the UN. These are bilateral announcements, devoid of any form of constraint. 

While being significant steps forward, the bilateral commitments have strong limitations.

The announcements on coal only concerns 'unabated' coal. The announcements on financing only address overseas activities - the US and Canada can support them as a way to preserve the 'competitive advantage' of their domestic extractive industry). The 'Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance' coalition led by Denmark and Costa Rica is not binding and only concern licences, not permits.

Bringing the energy issue back into the UNFCCC framework is therefore essential: otherwise, the multilateral framework would risk exploding, irretrievably removing any form of constraint.

Redistribute

So what are the stakes for the last 48 hours of negotiations?

The first, obviously, is to ensure that the text does not change on this point. However, it is to be feared that the fossil fuel lobbies will do everything in their power to have this paragraph removed.

The second challenge will be to make these initiatives and statements "accountable" to the COPs, and to civil societies and citizens. 

The proliferation of ad hoc coalitions will continue weakening the UNFCCC and the COPs, which could eventually serve only to discuss technical modalities that primarily concern poor or emerging countries.

These announcements also have a direct impact on the COPs and the talks held there: they redistribute legitimacy and influence between countries.

Decisive

At the very least, if these announcements are to have the legitimacy of the COPs, they should include a commitment to reporting and accountability to its assembly. 

Above all: these announcements come 20 years too late.

In this perspective, mentioning fossil fuels in the Glasgow Agreement would enable to strengthen the legitimacy of the many actions that the climate justice movement organises, to block fossil infrastructures and stop fossil fuel expansion, until these actions become state-lead policies. 

Even if counterintuitive, the multiplication of bilateral agreements is the direct outcome of the climate justice movement's leadership, which pushes countries to include references to climate action in almost every negotiation, institution, and bilateral talks.

All in all, these commitments could enable us to increase pressure on governments: if one state commits multiple times to climate action on various bilateral coalitions, then they better translate these commitments into their NDCs. 

With a 20-year delay, fossil fuels could eventually make their way into the COP process. And it may be decisive to keep them in the ground.

These Authors

Amélie Canonne is a lawyer specialising in international law, member of Attack and an expert in trade and climate policies. Maxime Combes is an economist, specialising in trade agreements and climate policies. Nicolas Haeringer is an associate director at 350.org

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