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Early Outline of COP26 Declaration Fails to Mention Fossil Fuels

The U.K.’s so-called “non-paper” is silent on one of the central issues on the road to climate stabilization.

People protest for better climate protection on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow on November 8, 2021.

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The United Kingdom government is taking sharp criticism for a “non-sensical” early outline of the final declaration from the COP26 climate summit, released Sunday morning, that makes no mention of the words “energy”, “fossil”, “fuel”, or “renewable”, The Energy Mix has learned.

The U.K., as conference chair, had wide latitude to draft the bullet-point notes [pdf] for the “cover decision” in the way that would best shape the crucial, final week of a conference billed by COP President Alok Sharma and other world leaders as the “last, best hope” to keep a 1.5°C global warming limit within reach. But the U.K.’s so-called “non-paper” laying out possible elements of the decision is silent on one of the central issues on the road to climate stabilization.

That’s despite urgent calls from the Least Developed Countries (LDC) bloc and the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), a 55-country formation with a combined population of 1.2 billion, for concrete action on fossil subsidies and a fossil fuel phasedown, said Eddy Pérez, co-chair of the Climate Action Network finance committee and international climate diplomacy manager at Climate Action Network-Canada.

“It is the U.K. that has control of this document, and so this document is the U.K.’s idea,” Pérez told The Mix Sunday. “They’re all talking about the need to leave Glasgow with expectations on fossil fuels, and the U.K. government was behind a declaration where they commit to end international fossil fuel subsidies by 2022. So the question is, why aren’t they including it in the cover decision?”

“It’s non-sensical that they didn’t,” he added, and “nobody knows” why. “That is what we will learn in the coming days.”

The COP26 press office did not respond to a mid-afternoon email (early evening Glasgow time) asking why the U.K. Presidency opted to exclude fossil fuel language from the notes for the cover decision, which countries were pressuring to keep the language out of the text, and how conference organizers hope to declare the conference a success if it fails to address fossil fuels and a rapid energy transition. We’ll update this story when they reply.

The decision itself generated considerable discussion among COP26 participants on what was ostensibly a day off Sunday, with delegates and observers parsing what was and was not being said in sections on climate change adaptation and adaptation finance, climate mitigation, international climate finance, capacity-building, technology transfer, loss and damage, and more.

Analysts noted gaps in areas ranging from the timing for climate laggards like Australia, Brazil, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia to strengthen their emission reduction targets, to uncertainties on a long-awaited timeline to take action on loss and damage — a process for compensating the world’s most vulnerable for climate impacts to which it’s impossible to adapt. There were many other areas with crucial details still to be tied down, but observers said that’s normal at this point in a COP, with a week of non-stop negotiations still ahead.

But conference delegates’ focus on fossil subsidies and a fossil fuel phasedown was where the U.K. Presidency’s “non-paper” was most eloquent by its silence.

“The short answer is we don’t know” why the U.K. left the references out of the paper, said Destination Zero Executive Director Catherine Abreu. “We’ve heard that parties have raised a fossil fuel phaseout in the [negotiating] rooms, but we don’t know why it didn’t appear in the non-paper.”

One theory making the rounds is that the U.K. is trying not to ruffle any feathers as it crafts a final COP declaration that is long on spin and short on substance — just like many of its own national climate policies, and its positioning in the lead-up to the COP.

“It really does seem to me that they are prioritizing all-encompassing statements as much as possible, which necessitates to some extent a less confrontational approach,” Abreu said, with less attention to whether countries are “prepared to deliver on those commitments”. The result was a 190-nation coal ban from which Poland immediately stepped back, and a 2030 ban on deforestation that had one of its key signatories, Indonesia, saying it had never agreed to the published deadline.

The first days of the conference were taken up with those two high-profile announcements and many more. “Now it’s down to the substance of the negotiations, and the ability of parties to truly capture what they’ve done here and articulate to the world that this was indeed the ambition-raising moment that it needed to be,” Abreu said.

That will mean incorporating the big announcements in the COP decision text, where they’ll become a part of the process of implementing the Paris Agreement rather than standing off to one side as voluntary declarations. But to make that happen, “we are going to need the U.K. presidency to pivot from the headline-grabbing announcement role to the hands-on COP president” that uses its persistence and moral suasion to build a more robust final outcome for the conference — just as past COP presidents have done.

Over the weekend, local media in the U.K. carried reports that negotiators for Saudi Arabia were trying to block the “cover decision” and delay action on climate change adaptation. It’s a role the sprawling petro-state has played in the past at UN-hosted climate meetings.

Abreu and other close observers said it’s too early in the negotiations to speculate on which countries might be supporting or obstructing action on the key pieces of a rapid decarbonization agenda. But Jean Su, energy justice director and senior attorney at the U.S. Center for Biological Diversity, pointed to a more pervasive COP culture that kept the words “fossil fuels” out of the Paris Agreement itself, and could do the same with this year’s COP decision.

“There’s just a gentlemen’s agreement among all these countries that they don’t need to actually deal with fossil fuels,” Su told The Mix. “It means you don’t have to negotiate about it, you don’t have to confront it, and you can still allow the fossil fuel companies to keep sponsoring the COPs.”

Whatever form they take in the final COP decision, the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative says it’s looking for solid commitments to action.

“While having fossil fuels explicitly mentioned is preferred, the real litmus test for whether self-proclaimed climate leaders can truly claim that title is whether the core discussion actually focuses on it,” Director Alex Rafalowicz said in a statement.

“Governments must do more than just unilateral and bilateral announcements and pick up their fair share of collective responsibility. They must make commitments to stop fossil fuel expansion, phase out current production, and foster the collaboration needed for a just transition in a form that would be accountable under international law.”

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