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European Union to Push for Fossil Fuel Phase-out at COP28

Håkan Dahlström from Malmö, SwedenCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The European Union will push for a global agreement to phase out fossil fuels when COP28 convenes in the United Arab Emirates on November 30. Petroleum producers such as Canada and Alberta should pay close attention to the negotiations.

No matter how the issue plays out in Dubai this fall, the European Union proposal augurs a momentous shift in world energy systems (and Alberta’s economic mainstay). The age of petroleum is drawing to a close. The age of renewable energy is dawning. We’d better get ready for this transition.

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European Union Phase-out Proposal

The EU proposal charts a different path to net-zero than the path favoured by most petroleum-producing nations. These states — and the oil and gas companies that lobby their governments — emphasize a decarbonization of the oil and gas value chain, primarily relying on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) to capture CO2, compress it, and bury it underground.

At face value, that sounds like a pretty good deal, until you realize that CCS only works on heavy concentrations of carbon dioxide, such as flue stacks. On closer examination, it becomes clear that CCS is only meant to decarbonize upstream emissions, leaving the downstream emissions — typically around 80 per cent of the life cycle emissions — untouched.

The European Union proposal relies on a different strategy — outright reduction. A Reuters report places the following paragraph at the heart of its proposal:

The shift towards a climate neutral economy will require the global phase-out of [unabated] fossil fuels and a peak in their consumption in the near term.

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The word “unabated” refers to fossil fuel combustion without the use of carbon capture technology. The word is in brackets because countries have not yet agreed on it.

The EU proposal rests on three pillars: a tripling of renewables by 2030, a doubling of energy efficiency gains, and the call for phase-out. It also calls for the removal of fossil fuels from the energy sector “well ahead of 2050.”

Petroleum Producers’ Stance

The idea of a fossil fuel phase-out surfaced at last year’s COP27 conference, when then-EU vice-president Frans Timmermans offered a “grand bargain” that would have peaked GHG emissions before 2025, started a phase-down of oil, gas, and coal, and included a pledge to ensure financial flows were aligned with the Paris Agreement commitment to limit global warming to 1.5℃.

More than 80 countries backed the plan, but not surprisingly, nations with petroleum-heavy economies opposed it. These countries, led by Saudi Arabia, emphasized the use of CCS in emissions abatement. Other countries favouring faster reductions supported limits on CO2-capturing technologies to restrict them to “residual” use in sectors without other abatement alternatives.

This deadlock continues. In the runup to the G20 meeting taking place in Delhi this weekend, ministers could not agree on a phase-out deal.

What Is Unabated?

The “unabated” qualifier lies at the heart of the debate. There is currently no strict international definition of the term. Most people use it to mean something like “using reasonable means to reduce emissions to acceptable levels,” but the precise meaning of “reasonable” and “acceptable” becomes a topic for further debate.

The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) spoke of substantial emissions reductions, citing as an example a reduction of 90 per cent or more from power plants. Figures such as International Energy Agency head Fatih Birol and COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber speak approvingly of this solution.

Critics, however, argue that CCS does not actually achieve such a high level of reductions. Bruce Robertson and Milad Mousavian, writing for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, cited widespread CCS failure and questioned the benefit of using captured CO2 for purposes such as enhanced oil recovery.

The writer Holly Jean Buck also explores definitions of abatement in her book Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero Is Not Enough. She finds that many of the integrated assessment models used to study carbon dioxide removal don’t actually consider the technical difficulty of abatement, focusing instead on what constitutes an acceptable level of expense. But there’s a vast difference between physical difficulty and cost.

Canadian Phase-out Politics

No clear phase-out policy has emerged yet in Canada, owing to political strife.

In its Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP), the Canadian government proposes to cap and cut oil and gas emissions “at the pace and scale needed to get to net zero by 2050.” Other measures in the plan include support for carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS), methane reductions, eliminating subsidies, and supporting workers through the energy transition.

The Alberta government derides this proposal as amounting to a de facto production cut. The provincial government statement on the federal plan urged Ottawa policymakers to “stay in their lane” and avoid interfering in provincial jurisdiction. 

Responding to federal Environment Minister’s Stephen Guilbeault’s pledge in August to issue draft ERP regulations, Premier Danielle Smith pledged not to implement the emissions cap in Alberta. Smith asserts that the federal government has no constitutional authority to regulate oil and gas production, which is true. But she fails to recognize federal jurisdiction in regulating toxic substances such as carbon dioxide under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

North Star for Future Negotiations

Even if it passes, the European Union deal will not be legally binding. Any resolution passed at COP28 will merely serve as a “north star” to guide future negotiations.

Those negotiations will probably take a long time. The political debate over phase-out  will not be settled quickly. From our point of view, however, the debate about the efficacy of phase-out has been settled for a long time. To reduce GHG emissions, we must burn less oil, gas, and coal. That means phasing out production — here in Alberta, an enormous source of greenhouse gas emissions.

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