Progress at COP27 will be tough as incumbent powers continue to call the shots

write Peter Newell and Guy Edwards

*The views in the following article are the personal views of the author and are not an official position of the School.*

As the UN climate change talks or “COP27” get underway in Egypt, Guy Edwards, PhD student in the School of Global Studies, sat down with his supervisor, Peter Newell, Professor of International Relations, to discuss global and national climate politics. Here’s three key takeaways from their conversation.

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

Without a power shift away from fossil fuel actors, global polluting elites and state actors working to maintain the status quo, ambitious climate action will remain elusive.

  • Newell’s last book, Power Shift, makes the case that in addition to major changes in technologies, markets, institutions and behaviours, a shift in power relations between and within countries and across political actors and societies are required to confront the climate and ecological crises.
  • While the scale of the challenge to secure a just transition to sustainable economies is staggering, encouragingly, there are cracks in the armour of incumbent powers and corporations, which can be exploited. There are many ways to deepen those cracks such as pressure from employees and shareholder activism, tighter regulations, legal challenges, and direct action by activists.
  • Another way is to weaken the fossil fuel industries’ social licence to operate. For example, activists are calling for British Cycling to cancel its new partnership with Shell, which is seen as a way for the oil major to maintain its legitimacy.
  • We also need to challenge fossil fuel actors’ arguments they are ideally placed to deliver national priorities such as energy security or job creation. For instance, the International Energy Agency reported recently that clean energy jobs now outnumber those in fossil fuels and show the greatest potential for future growth.
  • Fossil fuels companies appear rattled. Following years of climate denial and sowing doubt, they are now putting together net zero plans, which are full of loopholes and rely heavily on carbon offsets. But the fact they are acting suggests that ground is being gained and they have realized that doing nothing is no longer an option.

The proximity of fossil fuel interests to political power is a major issue as demonstrated by the recent comments by UK Climate Minister, Graham Stuart who said that fracking and oil drilling is “good for the environment” and economy.

  • In response, Newell and UCL Professor Paul Ekins debunked these claims in a letter to The Guardian raising various points such as the International Energy Agency stating that there can be no new oil, gas and coal projects if we are to achieve the 1.5C goal and that new fossil fuel projects will lock in dependency on infrastructure that will become increasingly obsolete as the UK decarbonizes.
  • One of the subtexts to these comments by Stuart is the narrative by fossil fuel actors and their supporters to use the energy crisis, driven largely by the war in Ukraine, as an opportunity to produce more fossil fuels under the pretext of energy security.
  • This assertion is weak since in the UK most new oil wells need a decade to begin producing. A far better route would be to scale up investment in renewables combined with reductions in energy demand through home insulation, heat pumps and support for public transport. This approach would allow the UK to reduce its dependency on foreign regimes, which are often not outlined with our values.

The Support for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty continues to build including from Vanuatu, the European Parliament, and the World Health Organisation.

  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that coal, oil, and gas are responsible for 86% of all carbon dioxide emissions in the past decade. The Paris Agreement does not reference fossil fuels and at present there is no global binding mechanism to limit fossil fuel production. While the commitments made by states to reduce fossil fuel consumption are encouraging, they are unlikely to deliver major reductions. For instance, the G20 and Multilateral Development Banks, are still spending at least US$55 billion per year on supporting fossil fuels abroad compared with US$29 billion for renewable energy projects.
  • A Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty would aim to phase out fossil fuels, support dependent economies, workers and communities to diversify away from fossil fuels, ensure  access to renewable energy globally and promote a just transition. Such a treaty would be complementary to the Paris Agreement, which has enough work to do on advancing mitigation, loss and damage, finance, and adaptation.
  • Countries in the Global South with newly discovered fossil fuel reserves should not feel threatened by such a treaty. These countries would not be expected to relinquish their resources for some time with the focus on OECD and other countries that would have to act first. As part of the treaty, a global transition fund would be created to support countries in the Global South to achieve a just transition.
  • A dedicated space to look specifically at fossil fuel production phase out and a just transition is gaining traction in part due to some countries’ frustration that the Paris process does not address this issue directly. Given the energy transition is unfolding in different parts of the world at various speeds, but also in quite a disorderly, unjust, disruptive fashion due to market volatility and war, the treaty would offer an institutional forum to tackle some of those issues in an equitable way.
  • Within countries, it is important to address some of the assumptions around developing fossil fuels and their supposed benefits for poverty reduction. The literature on the resource curse shows that poor people within those countries often do not really benefit. In fact, quite the reverse because when people are paying taxes, they feel like they have a say over public spending. However, in some states there is less concern about being accountable to taxpayers as fossil fuel rents are so high, which can breed corruption and a lack of transparency.
  • Some fossil fuel producers are beginning to consider the dangers of a disorderly transition, the threat of stranded assets and potential risks for public finance in a decarbonized world. The case for a more orderly exit, where there is scope for compensation, financing, and technological support, which would be included under a treaty, is getting stronger. Lastly, a look at the terms of trade or debt relief is necessary as one of the key drivers for countries to exploit fossil fuel reserves is to pay off debts.

Follow Peter Newell and Guy Edwards on Twitter who will be following developments at COP27 over the next couple of weeks.

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One comment on “Progress at COP27 will be tough as incumbent powers continue to call the shots
  1. That’s unfortunate!

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