EU to call for fossil fuel phase-out at COP28 – but remains wedded to controversial ‘abatement’ technology

EU climate commissioner Wopke Hoekstra.
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On Monday 16 October, EU nations unanimously agreed to seek a global phase-out of fossil fuels. Moreover, in its statement, the bloc’s environment ministers determined that fossil fuel use must reach a peak in this decade.

At the COP28 UN climate talks in November, the bloc will also call for the elimination of subsidies for fossil fuels which do not serve to combat energy poverty or ensure a “just transition”. However, it kept the wording vague, stating that parties should do this “as soon as possible”. It did not set a deadline, as non-profit organisations had hoped.

The new EU commissioner for climate matters, Wopke Hoekstra, will take the bloc’s position to COP28 in Dubai from 30 November  to 12 December.

Fossil fuel phase-out

Multiple analyses have found that in order to keep the world below 1.5°c of warming, governments must end investment in new fossil fuel projects.

For example, in 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) produced a blueprint for the world to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The IEA’s roadmap suggested that nations should not greenlight new oil, gas, and coal extraction beyond 2021.

Echoing this, a 2022 report bolstered the IEA’s case that new oil and gas projects are incompatible with staying under 1.5°c.

As such, to meet Paris Agreement goals, countries are developing plans to shift away from fossil fuels. However, countries disagree on how this must be done.

Read on...

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Controversial terminology

Primarily, the divide concerns the use of ‘abatement’ technology. At COP28, many countries will push to secure an unprecedented commitment to move away from ‘unabated’ fossil fuels, specifically.

The term ‘unabated’ tends to refer to oil, gas, and coal operators’ implementation of technology to offset or capture emissions. Largely, this would include fossil fuel projects which use carbon capture and storage (CCS) to reduce emissions.

However, the technology is controversial. As non-profits and media investigations have pointed out, the technology is unproven at scale, and has offered a lifeline to the fossil fuel industry. As the Canary’s  Tracy Keeling has previously summarised:

This is a controversial and uncertain technology that would ultimately pass the carbon problem on to future generations.

A statement the EU released after its meeting read:

(The European) Council stresses that the transition to a climate-neutral economy will require a global phase-out of unabated fossil fuels and a peak in their consumption in this decade

Additionally, the 27 European nations will advocate:

the importance of having the energy sector predominantly free of fossil fuels well before 2050.

This time, the bloc did not qualify the target with the ‘unabated’ loophole. So, what gives?

Clashes over abatement technology for fossil fuels

EU ministers meeting in Luxembourg clashed over the inclusion of the word ‘unabated’ in the negotiating mandate. Together with non-profits, some governments wanted to withdraw the ‘unabated’ label.

Alternatively, nations suggested that the world needs to attach strict conditions to the use of carbon capture technology. In particular, this would prevent fossil fuel companies using the technology as justification for continued fossil fuel burning.

EU commissioner Wopke Hoekstra said:

There’s no alternative for driving down emissions across the board

He argued that some sectors are extremely hard to abate, and thus carbon capture technology was needed “as part of the total solution space”.

Spain’s ecological transition minister Teresa Ribera chaired the meeting. She likewise argued that in the immediate future, carbon capture technologies:

should be tied to those sectors where it’s going to be difficult to engage in decarbonisation, where it’s difficult to wean themselves off fossil fuels for some of the industrial process

Backing this, France’s energy transition minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher called such tech “of interest”. She also added that it should be reserved for sectors that were otherwise unable to decarbonise.

In the end, the EU ministers retained the term “unabated” in the agreed text. However, the EU no longer mentions it in its long-term objective for an energy sector predominantly free of fossil fuels “well before 2050”.

The fossil fuel abatement issue is expected to be bitterly fought over at the UN climate conference in Dubai.

Renewables and decarbonisation targets

In addition, the bloc also agreed to call for global action towards the tripling of installed renewable energy capacity by 2030. Alongside this, it agreed to argue for a doubling of energy efficiency, in line with COP28 president Al Jaber’s roadmap.

The EU nations debated whether to maintain their legally established objective of a 55% reduction in the bloc’s greenhouse gases by 2030 or to set a more ambitious target. Currently, the EU’s adopted policies put it on a trajectory for a 57% reduction.

European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic and other officials argued that a 57% announcement would reinforce Europe’s ambition to be a global leader on combating the climate crisis.

In the end, they simply updated their submission to indicate the bloc was aiming to reduce its emissions “by at least 55 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels”.

Feature image via Euronews/Youtube screengrab.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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