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OPINION: Fossil fuels in the COP26 climate pact - why the U.S. is the real problem

by Brandon Wu | ActionAid
Tuesday, 16 November 2021 13:55 GMT

India's Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav attends the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain November 13, 2021. REUTERS/Phil Noble

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

India argued the phasing down of fossil fuels should include not just coal but oil and gas, and be done on an equitable basis - but that didn't suit big producers like the United States

It was entirely predictable to see outrage towards India at the end of the latest UN climate negotiations for watering down the final text on coal phaseout. Largely escaping condemnation, again, was the United States - despite the fact it is a major reason the text is not stronger, thanks to its staunch opposition to anything that might call for equity and fairness in UN legal text.

To be clear, the text is far too weak. It omits oil and gas entirely - and limits the phase-down to “unabated” coal and “inefficient” subsidies. Contrary to the text, all fossil fuels must be phased out as quickly as possible, in a globally equitable manner that leaves no one behind. This is absolutely essential for the just, feminist and green transitions that all countries need to make.

But while India is scapegoated for the weak final text, it is conveniently forgotten that a few days earlier, it actually suggested that the text be considerably strengthened. India made a verbal intervention that the phasing down of fossil fuels should include not just coal but all fossil fuels including oil and gas, and that it should be implemented on an equitable basis.

That last piece is key: it means that the rich industrialized countries should draw down first and fastest, and provide finance and technological support for poorer countries to make their own transitions. This perspective is supported by a broad coalition of civil society groups which, earlier at COP26, released a report showing what a globally equitable fossil fuel phase-out might look like.

Unfortunately, the United States has long been staunchly opposed to these ideas of equity, across all aspects of the UN climate talks. The text that survived is carefully calibrated to align with U.S. interests. By omitting oil and gas, and allowing for continued coal use with abatement technologies like carbon capture & storage (which, while unproven and almost certainly impossible to implement at scale, is also extraordinarily expensive and thus accessible only to rich nations), it has relatively little impact on the United States and disproportionately large impact on developing countries like India and China. 


While U.S. coal production is expected to drop rapidly in the coming decade, its oil and gas expansion plans dwarf those of any other country, according to analysis by the Stockholm Environment Institute. Indeed, just this week, the Biden administration plans to proceed with the largest lease sale for offshore oil & gas drilling in U.S. history, which could result in another 1.1 billion barrels of oil and 4.4 trillion cubic feet of fossil gas. And it has famously refused to shut down new pipeline infrastructure like Line 3 or existing infrastructure like Line 5.

The reality is that U.S. refusal to lead on the transition away from fossil fuels, and U.S. objections to equity in general, are the primary causes of the weak COP26 decision text. Yet the UK COP26 president and many journalists have framed India (and China to a lesser extent) as the culprit.

Knowing that many will not examine the claims critically, the United States is publicly claiming credit for getting fossil fuel language into the text for the first time in UNFCCC history, while painting developing countries as the blockers. This is a twisted and deeply unjust reading of the actual politics at play.

Importantly, all of this does not absolve India or any country of their own responsibilities to do their fair share of climate action, including a just transition away from fossil fuels. No governments are yet taking action at the scale needed to address the climate crisis. But the rich nations are the ones that largely created the climate crisis and have failed to act with the necessary urgency over the past 26 years of negotiations. 

Especially in the ongoing absence of climate finance and technology transfer, the Glasgow fossil fuel text likely shifts the burden of action mostly onto poorer countries. Allowing rich governments to proclaim themselves as “climate leaders” and developing nations as obstructionists is absolutely wrong - and more importantly, it will not lead us to the solutions we need to resolve the climate crisis.

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