The COP27 climate conference in Egypt ended on Sunday with pledges about renewables that lived down to our expectations.
The headline commitment in the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan is to set up a ‘loss and damage’ fund. This promises to compensate nations that are the most vulnerable to climate disasters and have done the least to contribute to climate change. That approach seems fair and decent.
But we cannot ignore that the overall result of COP27 is highly disappointing for those working in wind. The final wording of the agreement was weakened in a few significant ways to appease fossil fuel producers.
The first criticism is that the plan includes a commitment to a “phase-down of unabated coal power”. This is problematic because a phase-down is not the same as a phase-out, and so the disappointing wording of last year’s COP26 conference in Glasgow is repeated – or, arguably, even worsened.
Phasing down ‘unabated coal power’ does not also demand a phase-down of ‘abated coal power’, which we interpret as coal plants with carbon capture, utilisation and storage technology attached. This adds a new loophole.
The second criticism continues a theme from COP26 about the commitment to wind down ‘inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’, but with no clarity over what ‘efficiency’ means. This carries over the confusing wording from COP26 and, while it does not add a loophole, it does not clear up a pre-existing question.
And there has been a third criticism of another key last-minute change. Instead of committing to back the rollout of renewables including wind, the final draft was edited to give that support instead to “low-carbon and renewable energy”.
This wording is apparently designed to enable continued support for nuclear and natural gas, and echoes the decision by the European Union earlier this year that sparked accusations of greenwashing.
Now nuclear is one thing, and you can make an argument that it should be part of a low-carbon energy mix despite the cost, delays and difficulty of disposing of waste afterwards. But the criticism here is more about ‘low-carbon energy’ being defined in such a way that includes natural gas, simply because it is seen as a lower-emission source than coal and oil.
Critics are angry that COP27 has been used as a chance for the oil and gas industry to keep re-branding natural gas as a ‘transitional fuel’ for the global energy transition, and this result does not sit right with many negotiators.
Overall, this text is a disappointment for the wind industry, which is already being hurt by inflation, supply chain problems and weak government support.
Alok Sharma, president of COP26, has been very critical about the final text of the COP27 agreement: “We joined with many parties to propose a number of measures that would have contributed to [keep the target of 1.5 degrees alive]. Emissions peaking before 2025, as the science tells us is necessary. Not in this text. Clear follow-through on the phase down of coal. Not in this text. A clear commitment to phase out all fossil fuels. Not in this text. And the energy text, weakened, in the final minutes,” he said. It is tough to disagree.
But while there is much to be downbeat about, we do see some aspects that have come out of COP27 that may be more positive for wind.
One is the Breakthrough Agenda, which was revealed at COP27 to strengthen decarbonisation in the power, transport and steel sectors by scaling up use of low-emission hydrogen; and speeding up a move to sustainable agriculture. This is supported by leaders of 45 countries representing over 70% of global GDP.
This agenda includes policies to accelerate deployment of net-zero emissions plants and hydrogen production ‘valleys’; and set common targets to phase out polluting cars and vehicles. This should help wind because electricity is needed to power electric vehicles and produce green fuels. It may lead to policies that help wind – but this is no replacement for a disappointing final agreement.
Can we be positive that COP28 in Dubai next year will be any better?