The Messenger

Boycotting Climate Conference Ignores Delicate Balancing Act Required to Decarbonize

Brigham McCown
Brigham McCown
Senior Fellow and Director, Initiative on American Energy Security
Hoesung Lee Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change speaks on the first day of the UNFCCC COP27 climate conference on November 6, 2022, in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. (Sean Gallup via Getty Images)
Hoesung Lee Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change speaks on the first day of the UNFCCC COP27 climate conference on November 6, 2022, in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. (Sean Gallup via Getty Images)

Last year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent shockwaves around the globe, as tight energy supplies left governments scrambling to prepare for a looming energy crisis. Europe, in particular, was expected to fare poorly, needing to fire up previously mothballed coal plants and stockpile oil and gas reserves to avoid catastrophic blackouts. Although a “worst case scenario” was narrowly avoided, partly due to milder winter conditions, the war continues to put upward pressure on energy costs for consumers and businesses in all territories.  

Today, the war serves as a stark reminder of energy's fundamental role in our everyday lives. Put simply, the reality of the global energy mix means we remain dependent on oil and gas to serve our energy needs and we cannot simply strip them from our energy mix. The war has clearly illustrated the risks of removing supply without first tackling demand. 

Sadly, some have forgotten these hard-won lessons, with an increasing chorus calling for boycotts of COP28 over the perceived influence of the fossil fuel industry. An open letter published recently and signed by 180 climate activists called the decision to hold COP in Dubai “absurd” and “dangerous.” The letter went on to demand a sweeping overhaul of the UN climate summit, failing entirely to grasp the delicate balancing act inherent in a just energy transition and, in turn, endangering discussions at a moment when collaboration is more necessary than ever. 

The polarized debate around COP28, the UAE’s role as host, and Sultan Al Jaber’s presidency is symptomatic of a reductive and deeply problematic worldview on oil and gas, where fossil fuels are ‘bad’ while renewables are ‘good.’ Vilifying oil and gas fundamentally fails to account for the time, technical expertise, and investment needed to build and implement robust alternative systems. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that investments of US $2.3 trillion per year are needed for the global transition to renewable energies by 2050. Until we can invest to scale and implement climate technologies globally, fossil fuels will continue to underpin our energy systems and provide the abundant, reliable supply needed to keep energy costs low for consumers and businesses. 

Alarmingly, this view also fails to recognize the real source of the climate problem. Fossil fuels are not inherently bad. Emissions are the issue at play. Thankfully, this issue can be addressed through innovation, marrying the continued demand for fossil fuels with ambitious climate goals. 

Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, presents an effective, scientifically proven solution to help limit global temperature increases and is increasingly being deployed to prevent emissions from entering the atmosphere. The industry has scaled in recent years, spurred on by new research and policy changes like the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and is fast reaching a critical mass. With more than 500 projects at various stages of development around the world, CCS will help to significantly reduce the rate of climate change while guaranteeing the security of supply.

CCS offers particular benefits for hard-to-abate sectors, which are reliant on fossil fuels. Steel production and chemical manufacturing are just two instances where the technology simply does not allow for renewable production at scale. These industries must instead focus on minimizing their emissions footprint to limit global warming without jeopardizing the production of a material critical to modern lifestyles.

The technology also presents enormous benefits for communities at the highest risk of being left behind by the energy transition. Insisting on a binary approach to fossil fuel usage fails to reflect the huge global discrepancies in climate and transition finance and political support. Many rapidly industrializing nations rely almost exclusively on fossil fuels and face an enormous challenge around balancing economic growth with the wider energy transition. 

CCS enables large-scale abatement as the demand for energy in such communities grows and is primarily met by fossil fuels. With 24 developing countries already exploring CCS facilities, this solution is a key driver of sustainable development. Indeed, with the IEA estimating that to meet 2050 emissions targets, 70% of CCS deployment will need to happen in non-OECD countries, we should be asking how best to encourage the uptake of these technologies.

As we approach this year’s UN climate summit, questions like this should be front of mind. Forums such as COP28 offer a critical opportunity for stakeholders from all corners of the world to discuss how to decarbonize our societies. The energy transition is a complex process, but it must be approached with the pragmatism it deserves. Climate discussions must reflect the reality of our current energy mix and not be lost in theoretical musings.

Read in The Messenger.