In a first, U.S. signals support for U.N. agreement to phase down use of fossil fuels

During U.N. climate change negotiations in Egypt on Wednesday, the United States signaled its support for the adoption of language calling for phasing down the use of fossil fuels — a major symbolic shift for the world’s largest oil and gas producer.

The possible amendment to an agreement between 190 nations that is under discussion is symbolic and would not have any enforcement mechanism. Instead, much like how the existing climate agreement, the Glasgow Climate Pact, calls for participating countries to pursue a goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the goal of phasing down fossil fuel use will be aspirational.

Climate change activists who have been campaigning for the climate change conference, known as COP27, to incorporate a goal of moving away from fossil fuel use greeted the news as a triumph. At previous climate change conferences, the United States and other major producers of oil and gas had refused to sign on to similar language.

“It’s a major breakthrough for the United States to back a global phase down of fossil fuels after nearly three decades with no mention of them in these climate agreements,” said Jean Su, energy justice program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement emailed to Yahoo News.

Special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry speaks at a podium.
Special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry at the U.N. Climate Change Conference on Nov. 9 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Peter Dejong/AP)

But the new U.S. support comes with a condition: that the phaseout refer only to “unabated” fossil fuels, meaning those burned without technology to capture the carbon dioxide emissions at the smokestack. That technology, known as carbon capture and storage, or CCS, is in use at just 18 facilities worldwide, almost all of which are industrial. CCS has been used at only one coal-fired power plant in the United States, but it could potentially allow fossil fuel use to continue with less harm to the climate if it were widely adopted. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, which will spend $369 billion on reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions over 10 years, includes funding for research and development of carbon capture technology.

Special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry, who is leading the U.S. delegation at the conference, known as COP27, told Bloomberg News on Wednesday that the Biden administration will accept a broader call for a fossil fuel phasedown than what was incorporated into COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, last year. At that conference, the Glasgow Climate Pact only included a pledge to phase down use of unabated coal.

“It has to be unabated oil and gas,” Kerry said in an interview in Sharm el-Sheikh. “Phasedown, unabated, over time. The time is a question, but ‘phasedown’ is the language we supported.”

The use of “phasedown” — which is softer than, say, the “absolute end” of fossil fuel use sought by many environmental and Indigenous rights activists — also gives countries like the U.S. wiggle room.

Attendees photograph one another near an arch that bears a sign reading: COP27, Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt 2022.
Attendees outside the main entrance of the COP27 climate conference on Nov. 6 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Still, at this year’s conference, India has also pushed a broader anti-fossil-fuel amendment. On Tuesday the European Union said it would join the United Kingdom and a coalition of small island nations that are backing India’s proposal.

Climate change activists, many of whom oppose using carbon capture because it is seen as a way of keeping fossil fuels in the energy mix, expressed reservations about Kerry’s conditions.

“Limiting that phaseout to ‘unabated’ fossil fuels could open a polluters’ Pandora’s box of false solutions like carbon capture that only extend devastating harms,” Su said. “We need words that reflect the reality that new fossil fuels condemn us to an unlivable planet.”

Whatever words make it into the final text at the end of this week, none will guarantee that any country will actually shutter its gas-fired power plants and replace them with solar panels or wind turbines. No one is discussing specific hard targets for dropping fossil fuel use, and, even if they were, the climate agreement under discussion isn’t a legally binding treaty.

But many nations, including the U.S., had previously resisted anti-fossil-fuel language because the direction set in the agreement does influence policy. The Biden administration, for instance, has been firmly committed to trying to get the U.S. to meet the goal first promised in the Paris climate agreement of 2015 of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by the year 2030. President Biden’s Build Back Better proposal was designed to reach that target. After opposition from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., forced Biden to drop some of the climate provisions, Manchin agreed to support the Inflation Reduction Act, which is projected to reach a 40% emissions cut by 2030 through subsidies for electric vehicles and clean energy.

Similarly, a coalition of countries including the U.S. and Japan announced Tuesday that they will be providing $20 billion in public and private grants and loans to help Indonesia retire coal plants and replace them with clean energy generation, though no binding agreements are in place.

Since the fracking boom, the United States has become the world’s largest producer of oil and the largest global producer of natural gas, making opposition to fossil fuel production and use politically tricky for American politicians. Projecting the death of the coal industry, which has been in decline for decades, has provoked fierce backlash for Democrats, including Hillary Clinton. Earlier this month Biden said “we’re going to be shutting these [coal] plants down all across America and having wind and solar.” That prompted Manchin to call the president’s remarks “outrageous and divorced from reality,” forcing the White House to backtrack.

Kerry’s requirement that the provision apply only to unabated fossil fuels could potentially blunt domestic criticism. Nonetheless, other large oil- and gas-producing nations may reject the proposal. Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, has said in interviews at COP27 that the country continues to see a role for oil and gas for the foreseeable future and that it is trying to minimize emissions from oil and gas production while it builds up its ability to also produce and one day export clean energy. And in the U.S., Wednesday’s Republican takeover of the House of Representatives will likely mean the end of new spending on clean energy, regardless of what’s in this year’s climate agreement.

The conference is scheduled to end on Friday, but observers already are predicting that it will run into overtime as thorny issues such as the future of fossil fuels and compensation for poorer countries that suffer climate-change-related natural disasters are addressed.