The UN climate talks can tackle fossil fuels head-on: here’s how

Comment: The UN process has largely ignored the production of fossil fuels. That can, and must, change

North sea oil receives billions in tax breaks from the UK government (Photo: DepositPhotos)


As ministers gather for a high-level discussion on ambition at the climate talks in Madrid today, the stakes are high.

The UN Environment Programme (Unep) recently warned emissions will need to be cut by 7.6% a year for the next decade to meet the 1.5C Paris target.

But it’s not just countries’ emissions reductions plans that are dangerously out of step with Paris goals. In our recent Production Gap Report, the Stockholm Environment Institute, four other leading research institutions, and Unep show that countries are planning to produce more than double the fossil fuels than can be used if we are to keep global heating below 1.5C.

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This alarming discrepancy suggests countries need to do more to bring their fossil fuel extraction planning in line with climate goals.

So far, climate policy has paid limited attention to fossil fuel production. But as highlighted in side events in Madrid over the past days, policy solutions are gaining traction. Countries such as Costa Rica and New Zealand have already taken proactive steps to wind down extraction of oil and gas. This year’s Cop host, Spain, is a great example of a country that is closing its coal industry, while helping to ensure a just transition for affected workers and communities.

It’s time for this type of action to go global. The solutions are ready and available; what’s missing is the international cooperation that will not just meet the scale of the problem, but also ensure more ambitious and equitable outcomes.

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Although fossil fuels have been largely absent from the UN climate talks’ agenda to date, the Paris Agreement offers many inroads to bring fossil fuels into the conversation, and ensure governments take action to address the production gap.

So how can the UN climate process help?

The first step is for countries to build transparency around fossil fuel plans and extraction. Unlike on the emissions side, there is currently no requirement for countries to share information about their current or planned fossil fuel extraction levels. But countries are still free to voluntarily report this information to the UN climate process. Doing so is critical to ensure that these plans become aligned with Paris goals.

A vital opportunity is the upcoming 2020 update to countries’ national climate pledges (known as NDCs, or nationally determined contributions). In their updated pledges, countries can and should include commitments to transition away from fossil fuel production. Currently, only two countries – India and Nigeria – have included measures to financially disincentivise, or address public support for, fossil fuel production.

For the longer term, parties can also map out Paris-consistent extraction pathways in long-term low emission development strategies. Such careful planning can help secure a more just, and less costly and socially disruptive transition away from fossil fuels.

Another important step: stopping the flow of public money to fossil fuels. Every year, nearly $1 trillion is invested in new fossil fuel supply infrastructure and governments spend tens of billions of dollars on coal, oil, and gas production subsidies each year.

The Paris Agreement provides the rationale for countries to redirect these investments; one of its aims is to make finance flows consistent with development that is climate-resilient and low in greenhouse gas emissions. In line with this goal, it will also be important to find ways to support countries with fewer resources to achieve a just transition.

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Other opportunities also abound. For example, countries can share best practices in transitioning away from fossil fuel production through the UN climate process’ “forum on the impact of the implementation of response measures.” Civil society, subnational authorities and other non-state actors can also promote a transition away from fossil fuels.

Finally, all this work should be considered in the global stocktake of climate progress, the first of which will take place 2023. To what extent are parties aligning fossil fuel production with the global stocktake? What are barriers and best practices? How can this alignment be improved? The outcomes of this stocktake should in turn inform countries’ efforts to accelerate efforts to close the production gap.

From the science community, to climate strikers, calls to bring fossil fuels directly into the climate conversation are loud and clear. It’s up to governments to heed this call.

Niklas Hagelberg is the coordinator of the UN Environment Programme’s subprogramme on climate change. Cleo Verkuijl is a research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute. The Production Gap report can be found here

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