By the F-word, we mean fossil fuels! And in today’s Finshots, we tell you about a historic agreement signed by nearly 200 countries on Wednesday.
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How do you make a climate change conference scandalous?
Step 1: Get an oil-producing country to host it — like the UAE. Basically, use their land to talk about how everyone can take away their bread and butter i.e. oil exports.
Step 2: Appoint the head of an oil company as the President of the conference.
Step 3: Wait till someone leaks documents saying that this ‘Head’ was actually going to use the conference to sell his oil to foreign governments.
And this is what happened at COP28 or the latest UN Conference of Parties. 200 countries got together in Dubai to discuss how we can fight climate change. Instead, we had the conference president trying to sell even more fossil fuels. And saying, “If we cut back on burning fossil fuels, the world will go back to living in caves.”
Now when a climate conference starts this way, you’d expect it to end up being a full-on dumpster fire, right?
But fortunately for planet Earth, that wasn’t the case!
After a lot of back and forth, and throwing multiple drafts of the agreement into the dustbin, the F-word — fossil fuels — finally made its way into the final agreement. And this was the first time ever that an international climate agreement actually agreed that stuff like coal, oil and gas are killing Earth. That we needed to reduce their use.
But why is this such a big deal, you ask?
Because we use fossil fuels for pretty much everything under the sun; we use it to power our homes and offices, to run our cars, to make cement and plastic. Everything. And these fossil fuels are responsible for at least 75% of global warming. Or put another way, the climate crisis is actually a fossil fuel crisis. So if we want to deal with climate change head-on, we have to stop using fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Otherwise, that 1.5 degree celsius stat will come into the picture.
For the uninitiated, the earth’s average temperature before we started burning fossil fuels was ~13.5 degrees. This was way back in the 1800s. But then, fossil fuels became all the rage. They emitted harmful gases which got trapped in the atmosphere and the temperature began to rise. It’s at around 15 degrees right now. Now scientists say that this is the upper threshold. If it rises beyond this level, then the outcome could be catastrophic. Entire ecosystems and vulnerable countries could collapse.
And to limit it to this level, we need to halve emissions by 2030 and cut all emissions by 2050. So yeah, talking clearly about fossil fuels is a big deal. And the COP28 agreement says:
“Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.”
Finally, it’s a path to ending fossil fuels.
But wait…naysayers will point out one thing in these lines — the use of the word ‘transition’.
See, before COP28 began, the common phrases being thrown around were ‘phasedown of fossil fuels’. Or a ‘phase-out of unabated fossil fuels.’ Now if you’re wondering what this means, we’ll explain.
Phasedown is what you’d call clever phrasing. You’re saying that you will reduce fossil fuel use but you’re not promising that it will all come to an end someday soon. You could continue to use a bit of fossil fuels even 100 years from now.
Now Phaseout means that you will put a full stop to fossil fuel use. But when you add ‘unabated’ as a prefix, it changes things drastically. Because now it means that you can continue burning fossil-fuels, as long as you capture the carbon emissions before it escapes into the atmosphere. Basically, think of it as adding a special device to a factory chimney that captures the emissions before it flies out. But no one still knows whether this works at a large scale. So it might be quite a farce.
So what does the phrase ‘transition away from fossil fuels’ really mean?
We’re not sure. A lot of experts think it’s vague and sounds a lot like ‘phasedown’. That it doesn’t have set timelines. But environmentalist Bill McKibben thinks that at least new exploration will stop immediately.
…surely, if the language means anything at all, it means no opening no more new oil fields, no more new pipeline. No more new LNG export terminals.
But will that really be the case?
Well, maybe not. Because the agreement does say that the transition will happen in a ‘just and equitable manner’. That could mean different countries have different timelines to change their ways. For instance, a country like Nigeria is still heavily dependent on its oil reserves — 60% of revenues come from fossil fuels. That’s what keeps the economy chugging. And it still has a vast amount of untapped crude and gas reserves under its lands. It will want to exploit these. On the other hand, a rich country like the US might be expected to stop exploration of new oil reserves immediately.
We'll have to wait and see if that's what will happen. And maybe the balancing effect can help halve emissions by 2030.
So yeah, getting the F-word into the agreement is definitely historic. And it could well signal the official beginning of the end of fossil fuels.
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