This is the elephant in the room. A very big elephant. Fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) are responsible for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions, making them the main culprits in the climate crisis that threatens humanity. And yet, over the past three decades, through an incredible sleight of hand, they have never found themselves at the forefront of climate negotiations. It was not until the twenty-eighth world climate conference (COP28), which is due to open on November 30 in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, that the subject of phasing out all fossil fuels was included in the agenda. the agenda.

Proof of this taboo, the word “fossil” does not appear in any decision adopted at the end of the COPs until 2021. It does not appear either in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, nor in the Paris Agreement of 2015, the two milestones of climate diplomacy. “When we were preparing the Paris agreement, we tried many formulas, including those of a gradual abandonment of fossils,” recalls Laurence Tubiana, one of the architects of this text. But this caused a complete blockage. This is why we used the term “greenhouse gas emissions”. »

The agreement provides that States make voluntary commitments to reduce their emissions, in order to limit warming below 2°C, and if possible 1.5°C. Emissions, but also the carbon accounting of each country, are structuring in the negotiation process. “From the beginning, we have counted emissions where they are burned, not where they are produced,” explains Romain Ioualalen, of the NGO Oil Change International. This helped to obscure the issue of fossil fuels: as the source of emissions was not included in the framework, it was not discussed. »

“Special difficulties”

The very nature of the discussions also explains the difficulty in tackling the issue of fossil fuels head-on. Generally speaking, States are particularly reluctant to commit, within the framework of international agreements, to measures having direct consequences on their national policies. Since the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, countries have primarily worked to agree on broad goals. With the idea that everyone would then be free to decide how to implement them.

“In a way, it is logical for States to agree on a temperature ceiling or on an emissions reduction target by saying that France will apply it very differently from Australia, which will apply it differently of Russia,” notes Joanna Depledge, an expert on climate negotiations at the University of Cambridge. In an article published in 2021, researchers point out that a negotiation process involving nearly 200 countries and thousands of participants is by nature “heavy and compromised by a broader geopolitical game.”

The term “fossil” still appears in one of the UNFCCC documents: that of the origins. But if fossil fuels are mentioned in the text of the 1992 Framework Convention, it is to recognize “the special difficulties” of producing countries in the face of efforts to reduce emissions. “These states were fully aware that this treaty could potentially lead to significant reductions in the use of coal, oil and gas,” underlines Harro van Asselt, climate policy expert at the University of Cambridge.

Lobbying efficace

From that time on, governments and hydrocarbon producing companies carried out particularly effective lobbying to keep the subject of fossils as far away as possible from the climate sphere. The United States, Saudi Arabia, other countries of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) such as Kuwait and Russia are particularly criticized for their obstructionist strategies. The Saudis, among others, are developing a speech to explain that the climate problem has nothing to do with energy issues. At the end of October, during the pre-COP in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Riyadh again called to “avoid any attempt to move away from the Paris agreement” by “targeting energy sources”.

Excluded from official negotiations, the question of the use of fossil fuels has, however, been debated for a long time behind the scenes, but also in other forums. “We are not starting from scratch on the subject,” insists Li Shuo, analyst at the Asia Society Policy Institute. Civil society took up the subject more than a decade ago, multiplying protest movements against pipelines or coal mines and legal proceedings against the industry.

Scientists came up with the idea that limiting warming below 2°C meant getting out of fossil fuels and leaving reserves in the ground rather than burning them. Part of the financial sector has also started to take an interest in the issue and is now hesitant to invest in new oil or gas projects. In recent years, important discussions on the subject have taken place at the G7 and G20.

Largely insufficient efforts

In this context, the year 2021 marks a turning point. The United Kingdom is, in fact, hosting the first post-pandemic COP in Glasgow. Expectations are high: the effects of warming are increasingly visible and the efforts of States are largely insufficient. Coal is one of the four priorities of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who chairs the COP. The country is proud to highlight how it itself came out of this, and the need to reduce the use of the most polluting fossil fuel is widely shared.

In Glasgow, New Delhi insists that discussions be extended to oil and gas. “India considers that coal is the energy of poor countries while oil and gas are those of rich countries, and therefore wanted everything to be put on the table,” explains Romain Ioualalen. She wanted to make a diplomatic move, but she opened Pandora’s box. »

The final decision of COP26 finally mentions “the reduction” of the use of coal alone, but also “the progressive elimination of subsidies for inefficient fossil fuels”. The word is released, and for the first time a source of energy is directly targeted. A year later, during COP27 in Egypt, a coalition of 80 countries pushed to put the subject back on the table. In vain. “The option of considering reducing the use of all fossils did not appear in any of the texts submitted for discussion during COP27,” underlines Lola Vallejo, director of the climate program at the Institute for Sustainable Development and Sustainable Development. international relationships. An absence which demonstrates the importance of the role played by the COP presidency.

“COP of fossils”

Two years after the change that began in the United Kingdom, the taboo ended being shattered even before the start of COP28 in the United Arab Emirates. With its organization in an oil country, under the presidency of Sultan Al-Jaber, who heads the national oil company, it is difficult to imagine the subject being brushed under the rug. “COP28 stands out as the COP for fossils because it is being held in Dubai, and thanks to the efforts of civil society and the United Nations Secretary General to convince people of the need to confront the elephant in the room », Explains Gaïa Febvre, head of international policies at the Climate Action Network.

“I believe that today there is real fear on the part of civil society,” adds Joanna Depledge. We tried different tactics, and it didn’t work. The Paris agreement was very inclusive, we wanted everyone on board, from the NGO Greenpeace to the oil company Exxonmobil. We gave the oil and gas industry a chance to participate, but we are aware that they did not play the game.”

In Dubai, there is no guarantee that the reduction in the use of fossil fuels – let alone their elimination by a specific date – will be ratified. And even if this were the case, such a decision would only constitute a signal, which it would be up to countries to actually implement. “By not making the link between fossils and climate negotiations, we allow countries like Norway, Australia or Canada to continue to say that they are doing a lot in the fight against global warming while “They are trying to extract the last drop of hydrocarbon,” believes Harro van Asselt. A decision on fossils would at least counter the hypocrisy. »