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Battle lines drawn over fossil fuel reduction

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By Charlotte Halford


Published 14 November 2022


The mood music from Sharm El-Sheikh is definitely downbeat, with many fearing little progress is being made on the major issues.

The first meetings on the text for the final deal took place over the weekend and there have already been reports of disagreement on key issues and a lack of progress. India, for example, is calling for the inclusion of text which calls for all fossil fuels to be phased out, rather than singling out coal. Meanwhile, the huge fossil fuel lobby in Egypt has opposed such a move and is pushing for gas to be re-labelled as a ‘transition fuel’ and excluded from any new crackdown on fossil fuels. Others have apparently argued against mentioning the goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C.

We saw several announcements on Friday and Saturday which were ‘thematic days’: Friday focused on Decarbonisation and Saturday on Adaptation and Agriculture. Friday also saw US President Joe Biden’s arrival, and some (subdued) protests to mark the middle weekend of the summit.

Friday: Decarbonisation Day sets new targets

President Biden commented that: "The climate crisis is about human security, economic security, environmental security, national security and the very life of the planet".  He apologised that the US pulled out of the Paris Agreement during Donald Trump’s presidency, but said he could “stand here as President of the United States of America and say with confidence the US will meet our emissions targets by 2030”. He made reference to the USA’s new Inflation Reduction Act and its $368bn of funding to support clean electricity. He also announced a doubling of the US’s pledge for adaptation finance to $100bn.

Comments by Vicki Hollub, CEO of Occidental Petroleum, were widely condemned as an attempt by the fossil fuel lobby to absolve itself from responsibility for global warming. Her remarks that  those who asked for the end of oil and gas “have no clue what that would mean”, and that we are all responsible for climate change, not just the oil and gas industry were particularly badly received.

On a more positive note, the ‘Breakthrough Agenda’ launched at COP26 was developed with 25 priority actions focusing on decarbonised power, road transport and steel and hydrogen, to be delivered by COP28 in 2023.                       

We also saw the launch of the Methane Alert and Response System (MARS), an initiative to act on major emission sources and accelerate the implementation of the Global Methane Pledge launched at COP26. Using satellite technology, the MARS system will detect emissions and alert governments, companies and operators so swift mitigation action can be taken. President Biden highlighted the USA’s commitment to tough methane-reduction targets.

Saturday: “Moderate greed” is plea at Adaptation and Agriculture Day

COP27 was the first COP to dedicate a day to the theme of Adaptation and Agriculture, perhaps surprising given that farming is both on the front line of climate change threatening food security, and is also a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. 

Pabilito Aquino, a fairtrade coconut producer from the Philippines, who had lived through three of most deadly typhoons, called on “all stakeholders to please moderate our greed. Let us save our planet now”. 37 million people now face starvation in the Greater Horn of Africa following four consecutive droughts; important agricultural regions in Pakistan have been damaged by the country’s floods; and the extreme temperatures in the EU and USA have impacted crop yields.

Four key initiatives launched to tackle some of these issues, although they added to the growing alphabet soup of action plans:

  • Food and Agriculture for Sustainable Transformation (FAST) aims to improve the quantity and quality of climate finance contributions to transform agriculture and food systems by 2030.
  • The Initiative on Climate Action and Nutrition (I-CAN) seeks to leverage global attention on food system transformation to address the nexus of climate change and nutrition.
  • Climate Responses for Sustaining Peace (CRSP) will focus on the relationship between climate change and peace; and
  • A Decent Life for a Climate Resilient Africa and Initiative on Climate Action aspires to integrate climate action into sustainable rural development in Africa, by encouraging private sector investments.

Artificial Intelligence – a weapon or an enabler in the battle against climate change?

Key to both Decarbonisation Day and Adaptation Day was the role of technology, with debates about the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) and also its negative impacts.

Studies have suggested that AI has the potential to play a vital role in the battle against climate change, identifying a number of ways in which it could be used as a pro-active tool. For example, in the agriculture sector, agricultural robotics facilitated by AI can reduce fossil fuel reliance; in the energy sector, AI will enable increased monitoring to support demand prediction and automated systems will help to reduce energy waste; similarly, in the transport sector, AI will help to design optimal logistic strategies, reducing unnecessary journeys.

However, AI’s true value in the climate change battle has been the subject of great debate. A number of papers have highlighted their concerns and have urged further research into understanding the carbon footprint of AI, which will inevitably grow as its use becomes more widespread across the sectors.

Some of the most notable issues surrounding AI include the emissions generated from ‘training’ large AI systems, some of which have been known to use the amount of energy that the average household uses over three years. A further issue is the efficiency of chip manufacturing, which is incredibly energy-intensive. In the UK there is currently no direct regulation of AI use and this is presently the case for the majority of countries.

Clearly, the energy usage of AI is an issue that needs much greater consideration by governments, tech developers and companies around the world before we can truly label AI as one of the key solutions to the climate change crisis.

The overall success of COP27 hangs in the balance and this week will see frantic efforts to produce a final document with meaningful ambitions continue behind the scenes.