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COP28 And The Fossil Fuel Reality – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

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COP28 and the Fossil Fuel Reality

TK Arun

The rich world, whose proponents are the most vocally outraged at COP28’s failure to agree to a swift phase-out of fossil fuels, is the biggest user of fossil fuel energy.

The UN climate summit, the 28th edition of the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change marks progress, even if only incremental, in coordinated action to combat climate change. It is to be commended for identifying carbon dioxide removal as a vital tool in the battle to halt and reverse global warming, even if the move faces considerable flak from climate theologists, who see carbon removal as an excuse for inaction on the fossil fuel front, rather than the imperative that it is.

COP28 took place under the presidency of an oil company CEO and in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, a major petrostate. This itself has evoked howls of protest from climate puritans. While for the first time, a climate summit has committed itself to turning away from fossil fuels, the puritans are angry that the phrase used is transitioning away from fossil fuels, instead of phasing out fossil fuels. They are angry that the summit emphasized carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere, along with wind, solar, nuclear, and hydrogen, as the means to achieve the goal of transitioning away from fossil fuels.

There is considerable hypocrisy around the demand to phase out fossil fuels and blaming petrostates, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE for, missing consensus on such as phraseology in the meet’s outcome statement. The simple fact is that non-fossil fuel energy accounts for only a fifth of the world’s total energy use. About 80% of the world’s energy is derived from burning oil, gas, their derivatives, coal and lignite.

The rich world, whose proponents are the most vocally outraged at COP28’s failure to agree to a swift phase-out of fossil fuels, is the biggest user of fossil fuel energy. Europe, which considers itself a Green champion, and counts environmentally minded Greens among ruling coalitions on the continent, derives about half its electricity from burning fossil fuels. Germany stooped to burning lignite, the dirtiest form of coal, when it faced crippling energy shortage in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the West’s boycott of Russia’s gas and oil.

Fossil fuels to stay

The simple fact is that until a ready and viable alternative is available, people have to depend on fossil fuels. The rich world grew rich burning fossil fuels. Even today, their lifestyle consumes huge amounts of energy, whose production generates greenhouse gas emissions by the gigatonne. On a consumption basis, North Americans account for 17 tonne of CO2 per head per year. That figure is about 8 tonne for Europeans, 1.5 tonne for South Asians and fewer than one tonne for Africans.

India is doing its level best to increase non-fossil power generation capacity. Last year, China added more renewable power generation capacity than the rest of the world put together. Yet, these countries are being asked to curb their fossil fuel-based power generation, that, too, without any technical or financial assistance on offer to make the transition. This amounts to asking developing countries like India to go slow on the pace of development.

Improving living standards calls for greater use of energy. And that means greater use of fossil fuel energy in the near term. India can choose to switch off fossil fuel-based power plants or continue to grow as vigorously as it can, so as to improve living standards for a billion people living precarious lives. No wonder only the rich world sees virtue in pressing for prompt phase out of fossil fuels.

No running away from fossil fuel

The notion that petrostates are stalling the transition from fossil fuels is bunkum. If there were no demand for fossil fuels, particularly from their most prolific consumers, the West, petrostates would not be petrostates.

The short point is that the world has to continue its reliance on fossil fuels till viable alternatives are available in affordable abundance. At the same time, the world is racing to exhaust the 500 gigatonnes of carbon budget that has been determined as being available before the rise in the average global temperature breaches the ceiling of 1.5 degree above pre-industrial levels deemed acceptable. That leaves only one alternative: remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in large quantities so as to achieve net negative emissions every year. Yet, no previous COP has broached the subject.

COP28 also formed a global fund to compensate poor countries for loss and damage caused by climate change. But the actual money promised has been less than $1 billion, whereas what is required would be in the trillions. However, it would make far more sense to utilize every available climate dollar on carbon dioxide removal (CDR), to prevent the disaster that would follow once the 1.5-degree cap is breached.

For the first time, the Biden administration’s Infrastructure Reduction Act offers serious incentives for CDR. Yet, it leaves the carrot of subsidies for every tonne of carbon removed to spur the private sector to innovate economic ways to remove carbon. This is grossly inferior to massive state funding of research – in universities and national laboratories – to innovate technologies and processes that would make use of captured carbon dioxide in industrial processes that would make CDR a byproduct of profitable commercial activity.

There is no reason to leave such research to the US and Europe. India and other countries should invest in climate technologies. Innovative use of catalysts to convert atmospheric CO2 into reactive Carbon monoxide and its combinations with other molecules and the use of the absorbed CO2 to produce carbon in its various allotropes, are research areas being actively pursued in the West. Biological methods (genetically modified bacteria, for example) of absorbing CO2 to produce ethylene and related chemicals are already in commercial deployment. Policy and funding in India should go to such areas, too.

Waiting for funds or technology from the West to protect ourselves from the deadly effects of climate change would be futile. Nor are global summits really suited to serve as fountainheads of magic solutions. We must work on all possible solutions: solar power, wind power, intermittency solutions for wind and solar such as green or low-carbon hydrogen, nuclear power and carbon removal, ideally for use as industrial inputs. Winding up fossil fuel use, without developing an array of alternatives, is a silver bullet – to kill growth and development in the poorer parts of the world.

TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

The article was first published in The Federal as What is the target of the no-fossil-suel silver bullet? on December 16, 2023.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

Read more at IMPRI: 

COP Ensuring the 28th Defense of the Well-Off Lifestyle

The Impact of COP-28 In Cities

Acknowledgement: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja, a research intern at IMPRI.

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  • IMPRI

    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

  • TK Arun

    TK Arun is a Senior Journalist and Columnist based in Delhi.

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