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Why fossil fuels were the big winner of COP28

Western fantasies about the end of oil and gas came crashing down to Earth.

Ralph Schoellhammer

Topics Politics Science & Tech World

COP28 has certainly upset the West’s green elites.

At the start of the annual climate-change confab, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and 300 other environmentalist NGOs wrote an open letter to the presidency of COP28, headed up by Sultan al-Jaber of the United Arab Emirates, demanding a full phase-out of fossil fuels. It’s fair to say the response thus far of the presidency has not been to the climate activists’ liking.

On Monday evening, the COP28 presidency released a draft text for a fossil-fuels deal. It calls for ‘reducing both consumption and production of fossil fuels, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, so as to achieve Net Zero by, before or around 2050, in keeping with the science’. But the draft steadfastly avoids any mention of a ‘phase-out’ or ‘phase-down’ of fossil fuels. And it does not require fossil-fuel producers to cut their output, framing any reductions instead as optional.

Cue outrage from Western environmentalists and politicians. ‘We can’t accept this text’, said Eamon Ryan, Ireland’s environment minister, ‘It’s not anywhere near ambitious enough’. Mary Robinson, chair of the Elders group of former global politicians, complained: ‘It is not good enough to say you recognise and respect the science but then fail to take heed of its dire warnings in the collective action you commit to.’

The COP28 presidency is now about to come up with a new proposal for a fossil-fuel deal. But it is unlikely to be much more than a fudge.

The West’s green elites shouldn’t have been surprised by this refusal to commit to the phase-out of fossil fuels. After all, as well as presiding over this year’s climate conference, COP28 president al-Jaber is also the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

Furthermore, while everyone knows the Gulf countries are major energy exporters, it’s less well known that they’re also massive energy consumers. The United Arab Emirates is about the same size population-wise as Austria, but it consumes almost twice as much electricity per year, at 130 TWh compared to 71 TWh. Getting rid of fossil fuels any time soon would ruin nations like the UAE.

But the Western environmentalist class doesn’t get it. It doesn’t understand what is obvious to so many other nations at COP28 – namely, that fossil fuel-produced energy is central not only to most countries’ economic survival. It is also central to their ability to cope with whatever nature throws at them. After all, building a flourishing economy in the middle of the desert, as the UAE has done, is an incredibly challenging task. It can only be accomplished with ample access to energy.

Furthermore, if CO2 in the atmosphere is truly responsible for more extreme weather events and the deterioration of the conditions necessary for human flourishing, then humanity cannot afford to limit its access to energy. We will need to use more energy, especially if we want to thrive.

The West’s downbeat green elites seem to totally underestimate the importance of energy. The current yearly energy use of the world is close to 100 billion barrels of oil equivalent, which is about the same amount of energy created by 500 billion human workers. It is our ability to produce energy on such an unprecedented scale that allows us to have modern and prosperous societies. The forced phase-out of fossil fuels that certain COP28 delegates are demanding would endanger humanity’s future.

Fossil-fuel rich countries tend to be much more conscious of the importance of energy than the West’s green activists. This is why Saudi Arabia is not resting on its oil provisions. Instead, it is doing everything it can to get access to nuclear power. The UAE is similarly committed to nuclear. It now has three Korean-built reactors online, with a fourth scheduled to join them in 2024. Indeed, one of the most significant breakthroughs of this year’s conference has been the pledge by over 20 nations to triple their nuclear capacity by 2050. This would have been inconceivable just a few years ago.

Meanwhile, Germany, once the global role model for the green-energy transition, is fast becoming a nation no one wants to emulate. The German government’s decision to switch off fully functional nuclear power plants was always seen as somewhat eccentric. But now, with Germany in the midst of an economic and energy crisis, that decision looks suicidal.

More and more countries are now starting to plot a different path to that travelled by Germany. They are realising that aiming for energy abundance should take precedence over a transition to renewables.

Through the rows and wrangling over draft deals on fossil fuels, COP28 has shed a light on where the global debate on energy and the environment is going. It shows that poorer nations will not let richer Western nations hold back their development in the name of climate change. And it also shows that energy-producing countries will not agree on any fixed date to cut fossil-fuel production, unless true alternatives are in place.

Perhaps nothing better captures the new trajectory for global energy policies than the choice of the host country for COP29. That’s right, it’s Azerbaijan, another petrostate.

Ralph Schoellhammer is an assistant professor in economics and political science at Webster University Vienna and visiting fellow at MCC Budapest.

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Topics Politics Science & Tech World

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