For some, COP28 seems to have been a breakthrough, with the word “energy” included in the conclusions for the first time. The mention of the “transition away” from fossil fuels caused a stir, but on analysis of the text, there are so many loopholes that they have allowed developing countries to sign up, because – as with the Paris Agreement – there is no obligation for them to follow the EU’s isolated example.
China, regarded as a developing country, had no trouble signing up to the agreement. As for the gas-producing countries – Russia and the Gulf States, for example – they are even delighted, since gas is considered to be a transitional energy. The big losers at COP28 were the environmental NGOs and the EU, who are left with a non-binding text whose verbiage allows everyone to do as they please, but above all to have allowed nuclear power to be considered as a transitional energy. They applauded, but no doubt to hide the emptiness of this COP.
As always, the final days of this 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP) were marked by a great deal of drama, but it ended, as always, with applause, hugs and emotion, as if this time we had achieved something extraordinary. Yet despite the 27 previous COPs, global CO₂ emissions continue to climb. Up to 2022, they have risen by 61% – thanks to the Covid crisis, otherwise they would have been up 65%.
Energy at the heart of a COP text for the first time
It is true that this time there are two major innovations. From the outset, 22 countries signed an agreement to develop nuclear energy. Even if this is on the fringes of the conference (see my article of 11 December on this blog), the ecologists will drink the cup to the dregs, because COP28 will be remembered as the year of the return of nuclear power, since these countries have shown their determination to revive it.
The other big news, this time in the conclusions of the agreement, is that the word “energy” appears for the first time in a decision-making document. It could even be said that COP28 was not about climate, but about energy. Even in the Paris agreement, the word “energy” was absent. This time, it appears 17 times in the 21-page text, which seems to be a major victory for environmental NGOs.
But it is little consolation. In the texts of international institutions, every word counts, as we shall see by analysing points 28 and 29, the central part, of the conclusions of this COP28.
A catalogue of pious wishes
Point 28. Further recognises the need for deep, early and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions consistent with 1.5°C trajectories and calls on Parties to contribute to the following global efforts in a nationally determined manner, taking into account the Paris Agreement and their different national circumstances, trajectories and approaches:
Efforts must be nationally determined, i.e. these conclusions are not binding; each country decides what it intends to do. In addition, it is recognised that developing countries are in “different” situations and are therefore not expected to give up growth in their energy consumption. The word “developing” appears 47 times in the text, demonstrating the determination of developing countries not to follow the measures proposed by the EU. Without this redundancy, there would simply have been no agreement.
Remember that China is a developing country as defined by the United Nations. Nothing therefore applies to it, and even less to India, even though these two countries account for 38.6% of global CO₂ emissions.
(a) triple global renewable energy capacity and double the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvement by 2030;
The word “capacity” is important because the renewables tolerated by activists – wind turbines and solar photovoltaic panels – are intermittent and variable. Their average load factor over five years in the EU is 23% and 11% respectively. A wind turbine therefore needs to be accompanied by a controllable power plant for more than three quarters of the time, and a solar farm for 90% of the time. This means that if we want to avoid load shedding, we also need to triple the installed capacity of non-renewable energies. Since African countries do not have this capacity already installed, we cannot expect renewable energies to develop there. Governments are beginning to realise that they should have two electricity systems running in parallel, which is obviously unnecessarily expensive.
What’s more, the construction and erection of new renewable energy plants is not done with electricity generated by renewable energies, but with minerals and other products extracted from the earth, processed, handled and transported using fossil fuels. The 2,500 tonnes of concrete that make up the base of a wind turbine and the 900 tonnes of steel in its mast are not produced from the electricity generated by wind turbines or solar panels, but from fossil fuels. It’s a truism, but any increase in renewable energy infrastructure will require more fossil fuels to produce it.
As for energy efficiency, while I stress the obvious relevance of this measure, as I show in an article on the Science-climat-énergie website (www.science-climat-energie.be), we should not have too many illusions, because we have enough hindsight to understand that the parameter of energy intensity, which is the essential indicator for measuring the relevance of energy efficiency, is in the process of reaching an asymptote. For example, the insulating panel that will save energy will have been produced using fossil fuels. We’re in danger of going round in circles. I’ve just heard that some ecologists are opposed to double glazing because more sand quarries need to be exploited.
(b) Accelerate efforts to phase out coal-fired electricity without abatement;
This is in effect to accelerate efforts, to phase out electricity generated by burning coal without capturing CO₂ emissions. But once again, this will apply to OECD countries and not to developing countries, led by China.
(c) Accelerate global efforts to achieve net-zero emissions energy systems,
The emptiness of this sentence does not even merit a comment. This kind of incongruity sometimes occurs in documents negotiated in international bodies, when no one understands the meaning of what a negotiator has inserted and it ends up in the final text.
(c) Accelerate global efforts to achieve net-zero energy systems, using carbon-free or low-carbon fuels well before or around the middle of the century;
The people who wrote this sentence probably had synthetic fuels in mind. These do not exist, as the end of the sentence suggests. What’s more, to produce them, unless you believe in the existence of perpetual motion, you have to use other forms of energy, because free energy doesn’t exist. These synthetic fuels are produced from hydrogen, a molecule that does not exist in nature and that has to be produced from… energy. I refer you to my book “L’utopie hydrogène” for more explanations. This hydrogen has to react with CO₂ which is produced by fossil fuels or captured from the atmosphere by expending huge amounts of energy. COP28 is entering science fiction.
(d) “transitioning away” from fossil fuels in energy systems in a fair, orderly and equitable way, accelerating action during this critical decade to reach zero by 2050, in line with the science;
This hard-to-translate neologism has enabled an agreement to be reached between fossil fuel-producing countries and their detractors, avoiding the “phasing out” that had already been rejected at COP 26 in Glasgow with regard to coal. Not only does this verb indicate a vague transition, but it is toned down by almost redundant “fair, orderly and equitable” safeguards to ensure that those who cannot afford it do not have to make the transition. Once again, developing countries – Africa, China and India in particular – are only affected if the transition is “fair and equitable”. This loophole is so vague that it could even apply, for example, to certain EU Member States.
What does the phrase “in accordance with scientific evidence” have to do with it? To underline the IPCC’s insistence on this transition? To please Saudi Arabia, which has only mildly challenged the IPCC’s theses, as I pointed out in another article this week?
(e) Accelerate zero and low-emission technologies, including but not limited to renewables, nuclear, abatement and removal technologies such as carbon capture, use and storage, particularly in sectors where it is difficult to reduce emissions, and low-carbon hydrogen production;
This is the other major novelty of this COP: nuclear power is expressly mentioned. There can be no mention of renewable energies without mentioning the indispensable nuclear power.
In this paragraph, users of coal will find a loophole by mentioning carbon capture, a technology that so far has no industrial application other than to produce more hydrocarbons by reinjecting them into wells in order to increase the pressure and encourage the ejection of oil and gas.
(f) Accelerate and significantly reduce global carbon dioxide emissions, including methane emissions, by 2030;
This paragraph is a truism used since the Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted in Rio in 1992.
(g) Accelerate the reduction of emissions from road transport across a range of pathways, including through infrastructure development and the rapid deployment of zero and low emission vehicles;
This point is interesting not for what it says, but for what it doesn’t say. Despite the detestation of environmental NGOs, air transport is not mentioned. It will not have escaped you that it is increasingly under attack, even though it has profoundly improved family relations between populations temporarily separated by the lifestyles of men and companies. When I teach my students the notion of the external costs of energy, so dear to ecologists, I also talk to them about the internal benefits of energy, illustrating this with the joy of family reunions that air travel brings.
And is it by chance that aviation is not doomed? A fortnight before this UN conference, the Dubai Air Show was held, where aircraft were bought like hotcakes, notably by the airlines of the United Arab Emirates, which were hosting this COP (see my article ‘The aviation sector is on cloud nine… it’s flying high’ in PAN.be).
As for the mention of road infrastructure development, this is a sign that the fight against CO₂ emissions is not about to limit road transport.
(h) Phase out as soon as possible inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that do not address energy poverty or ensure equitable transitions;
In this sentence, everyone can find what they want to defend. Because the unquantified word “inefficient” is relative. The effectiveness of subsidies in France cannot be compared to the effectiveness of a subsidy that enables a citizen or a transporter in a poor country to pay for fuel for their commercial vehicle. Furthermore, the paragraph insists that if we want to combat energy poverty, we must continue to subsidise fossil fuels.
The COPs will run out long before fossil fuels are used up
Point 29. Recognises that transition fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security;
The term “transition fuels” is indeed plural. A few years ago, even the European Parliament considered natural gas to be a “bridge energy” on the road to renewable energies; I joked at the time that it wasn’t a bridge, but a viaduct, because gas is irrevocable. So it’s clear that for Russia and the Gulf States – and perhaps even hypocritically for Washington – it’s all about natural gas. The world cannot do without using more and more natural gas, an energy that is clean, abundant, available and cheap. Just look at how the European Union is scrambling to replace Russian gas with gas from a host of other countries, because we know we won’t be able to do without this CO₂-producing energy for a long time to come.
But for countries with fossil energy reserves – including coal – particularly in Africa, this paragraph allows them to produce their own fossil energy to sell, so they have the financial means to invest in expensive renewables. It’s unstoppable: we want to go green, but we need money, which we’re going to accumulate by selling fossil fuels! But as there is no definition of this strange expression, even China could very well claim that coal is its transition energy towards natural gas or nuclear or renewable energies.
But above all, this paragraph ends with the fundamental priority of security of energy supply. This means that using the irrefutable argument of security allows us to do whatever we want.
What’s more, while point 28 on energy has eight sub-points, this little sentence alone forms point 29, as if it had been added after the previous point had been drafted, as if to underline the contradiction with the rest of the text, as if to show that this is the real conclusion of COP28.
Bravo to the United Arab Emirates
All this verbiage underlines the emptiness of the COPs since 1995. Every one of the 88,000 participants in Dubai can learn something from this, because this is what they have been fighting for, no matter how far apart they are. The Sultan Al Jaber, who chaired COP28, made it seem as if this COP was a success for the opponents of fossil fuels, by assuring us that nothing will change. Has he been reading Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Le Guépard, which states that “If we want everything to remain as it is, everything must change”?
COP29 will be held in Baku, where the Nobel and Rothschild families contributed to the birth of the oil industry in the 19th century. Azerbaijan is still very active in oil, supplying 2/3 of the oil used by Israel, but increasingly in gas. Serbia has just inaugurated a gas pipeline to Bulgaria to import gas from Baku. This Caucasus country will also be making the transition to more fossil fuels, both for itself and for the EU, which is courting it to obtain non-Russian gas. There is every chance that COP29 will also end in favour of fossil fuels.
The realisation that the COP wants to intervene in the management of people’s lives through their consumption will allow Europeans to demonstrate their discontent at the European elections on 9 June 2024, because the end result is to impose expensive energy on them while the rest of the world continues to use abundant and cheap energy.
COP or no COP, European elections or no European elections, one thing is certain: global CO₂ emissions will continue to rise.