At COP28, the road to climate action is paved with Big Oil loophole language

The devil is in the details, and at this year’s UN global climate conference, the details start with words like “unabated,” and “operational.”

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The European Union has clearly laid out its position: Climate neutrality, the Council of the EU  stated last month, will require “a global phase-out of unabated fossil fuels and a peak in their consumption in this decade.” Then, in its second letter to parties, the president of COP28, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, underscored the need to “work towards a future energy system that is free of unabated fossil fuels by mid-century.” 

From having the CEO of an oil company preside over global climate negotiations, to getting a consulting firm to push the interests of its Big Oil and gas clients, it doesn’t look like a great start for the conference, set to begin on November 30th in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. And with another recent analysis showing that fossil fuel lobbyists attended UN climate negotiations at least 7,200 times in the last 20 years, experts and campaigners are worried fossil fuel influence will, once again, obstruct climate action. 

But more stands between COP28 and concrete steps forward for our climate. Beneath the conflict of interests and the lobbying, lies a minefield of strategic language, misleading messaging and false narratives, and using the word “unabated” is only just the start. 

“Unabated” fossil fuels is a double-edged sword

The phrase “unabated fossil fuels” is contained in a series of COP28 communications and speeches. President and fossil fuel CEO Al Jaber’s closing remarks at a September summit state, “as we build an energy system free of all unabated fossil fuels, including coal, we must rapidly and comprehensively decarbonize the energies we use today.”

The “unabated” qualifier has no internationally accepted definition, Romain Ioualalen, global policy campaign manager at Oil Change International, explained. In fact, the only official reference to define “unabated” fossil fuels is buried in the fine print of a footnote in this year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) synthesis report, he added. 

“The ultimate objective is to legitimize the large-scale reliance and deployment of abatement technologies like CCS as an alternative to a full and complete phase out of fossil fuels.”

Romain Ioualalen, global policy campaign manager, Oil Change International

“The absence of a commonly agreed definition means that every country has a different understanding of what that means,” Ioualalen told DeSmog. “We’re going into a COP where this is going to be a big topic, and we don’t really have a definition for it.”

Generally speaking, “abatement” technologies are solutions that reduce, or abate, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from industrial processes, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS). CCS technologies capture CO2 from industrial emissions before they enter the atmosphere, and the captured CO2 is then stored underground in geologic formations. 

But fossil fuel leaders are weaponizing the lack of a globally agreed upon definition of “abate”  and using it as a distraction, Ioualalen stressed. 

“This is very much in line with what the oil and gas industry in particular wants, which is to invest in these technologies [like CCS] to provide reassurance that they don’t need to decrease oil and gas [production] or align their oil and gas reduction with the carbon budgets,” he said. 

“The ultimate objective is to legitimize the large-scale reliance and deployment of abatement technologies like CCS as an alternative to a full and complete phase out of fossil fuels,” Ioualalen added. 

Because the fossil fuel industry is interested in any kind of solution that helps increase production and maintain business as usual, the use of language like “unabated” is instrumental to this objective. 

 According to Ioualalen, the fossil fuel industry sees CCS and other abatement technologies as “lifeline” or “silver bullet” solutions that will help it lock in its oil and gas business for decades to come. 

“It’s really about legitimizing reliance on these technologies to prolong the lifetime of their carbon assets,” he said. 

The back of a protester in a yellow t-shirt and tan bucket hat, holding a white poster with blue painted text: 'Fossil fuel fantasy = carbon capture & storage.
When fossil fuel companies promote CCS technologies, activists say it’s being used as a greenwashing tool. Credit: Matt Hrkac, CC BY 2.0

Experts, activists, and campaigners warn about greenwashing effects when companies touting CCS, which is considered by many a “false solution” of the oil and gas industry. Although the technology has potential applications within so-called hard-to-abate sectors such as cement or steel, according to Ioualalen, CSS projects are often used to increase fossil fuel production. 

“They inject oil and gas oil reservoirs [with CCS] to increase the pressure to get more oil out of the ground. So it is being described as a climate solution when, in fact, it’s incentivizing and increasing the production of fossil fuels,” Ioualalen explained. 

Beyond this, the use of phrases such as “unabated” or “abatement” isn’t only a language or communication issue. It’s used as grounds for companies to escape fulfilling the climate policies coming out of COP28, and has real-life, tangible consequences. 

“Tangibly, it means that you will be able to continue building new fossil fuel infrastructure, whether on the production side, on the transformation side, or the consumption side, as long as it has CCS, basically,” Ioualalen argued. It means the only thing that needs to disappear from the industry’s point of view is any fossil fuel infrastructure that does not have CCS or abatement technologies, he added. “The implication is that it’s okay for countries and for the fossil fuel industry to continue ramping up oil and gas production as long as they have that [abatement] technology in place. It’s as simple as that.”

The “operational” emissions smoke screen

COP28 is also setting the stage for a new oil and gas industry initiative, called the Global Decarbonization Alliance. It sets out to achieve “net zero” emissions by 2050 with a catch: They don’t really mean all of their emissions.  

“Oil and gas companies are committing to net-zero. But the only commitment they’re making is to eliminate methane [emissions] and stop flaring,” said Ioualalen.

This “commitment” goes hand in hand with the phrase “operational emissions,” which is also referenced in communications by the COP28 presidency. 

During a speech in Vienna in July, Al Jaber said that the oil and gas industry should “up its game, urgently decarbonize its operations, and take collective action to eliminate operational emissions.”

When fossil fuel companies commit to “operational emissions” they’re agreeing to only get rid of what are called Scope 1 and 2 emissions, which respectively include direct emissions from sources controlled or owned by the company, and indirect emissions from, for example, electricity. This leaves out Scope 3 emissions, which relate to the value chain of the company, including upstream and downstream emissions, and which, in the case of the oil and gas sector, is where most of the emissions are. Upstream emissions come from the production of a business’s products or services, while downstream emissions come from a product’s use and disposal.  

In October, COP28 President Al Jaber said that eliminating methane leaks and flaring is the fastest way to make the biggest impact on short-term operational emissions. Credit: Julie Dermansky

“So-called operational emissions are about 15 to 20 percent of the emissions that a typical oil and gas industry is responsible for,” according to Ioualalen, citing an International Energy Agency report. The vast majority of emissions are actually through burning the product they produce, he added. 

By committing to only reducing emissions from operations, fossil fuel companies create the impression that they’re only responsible for this 15 to 20 percent of total emissions, Ioualalen noted. “So that Scope 3 emissions, the largest  percent left, is not their responsibility, it’s the consumer’s responsibility.” 

In other words, oil and gas companies want us to think they’re taking action when, what they’re really doing is diverting responsibility. 

“These companies are trying through lobbying and a variety of tactics to ensure that there’s continued demand for their products, and at least in rhetorical terms, [which] allows them to show and to say that they’re not responsible for the level of demand,” Ioualalen told DeSmog. “The second thing it allows them to do is to appear to be leading on climate [action] when in fact they’re not, they’re continuing to expand oil and gas production. It’s a smoke screen.” 

In another communication from a speech in Abu Dhabi at the beginning of October, called “COP28 President-Designate Rallies Oil and Gas Industry to Decarbonize,” Al Jaber said that “eliminating methane leaks and flaring is the fastest way to make the biggest impact on operational emissions in the short term.”

“Methane leakage is really important, but really the way you stop methane leakage is by stopping drilling for oil and gas,” said Pascoe Sabido, researcher and campaigner for the Brussels-based organization Corporate Europe Observatory. “It’s not by increasing your oil and gas production and then just trying to stop the leaks.” 

The misleading wording isn’t new to this year’s UN climate meeting. In fact, it’s been present in fossil fuel communications for a while. Last year, ExxonMobil announced its “ambition” to achieve net-zero emissions for its “operated assets.” The year before, Shell’s promise to do the same for emissions relating to its “operations” was deemed “tokenism” because it left out 90 percent of the company’s emissions. 

According to Sabido, the tactic began years ago. “This is going back to maybe 2010 or 2011 when the fossil fuel industry really tried to not address its Scope 3 emissions,” he said. “They’re now calling them operational emissions. But these are the same lines that have been trotted out for over a decade, saying for example ‘we’re just going to address gas flaring,’” Sabido argued. “It’s complete rubbish.”  

Basically, every time the word “operational” or “operations” is referenced in the context of emissions there’s an asterisk to take into account. 

“I think it’s a textbook example of how commitments on operations are being used to cast a very positive light on the industry, and it sort of plays into that narrative of [the industry’s] self-promotion as being part of the solution,” said Ioualalen.

 A get-out-of-jail-free card

Being “part of the solution” is one of the latest fossil fuel industry tactics to stay in the game and delay climate action as much as possible, and COP28 messaging is ripe with references to this narrative. 

Scholars have called this tactic “fossil fuel solutionism.” It’s when “fossil fuels are reframed as part of the solution, rather than the problem. Just to extend their life a little while longer,”  Giulio Mattioli, co-author of a paper on “Discourses of Climate Delay,” and researcher at the Dortmund University of Technology, in Germany, said in a tweet. 

During the speech in Vienna where Al Jaber said the industry should eliminate its “operational emissions,” the COP28 president also told the audience that while the industry has long been viewed as “the problem,” the sector should “take this opportunity to step up, flip the script, and show the world once again how this industry is an important part of the solutions we need.”

Al Jaber, center, claims the oil and gas industry is “central to the solution” of climate action, despite the fact that fossil fuels are a major threat to climate health. Credit: ABLF (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

At the event in Abu Dhabi in October, Al Jaber also said that time is here for the oil and gas industry’s “opportunity” to “show the world” that it is “central to the solution,”

“Sometimes fossil fuels are presented as necessary, it’s the idea that we cannot get rid of them too quickly, and we should still invest in them to prepare for the time when we will actually be able to transition,” Mattioli told DeSmog. “But under this disguise, then what happens is that investment in fossil fuels is promoted even when it’s not sensible.” 

Our climate targets today are so urgent, we shouldn’t still be investing in fossil fuel infrastructure at all, he added. We should not be extracting more fossil fuels or expanding the industry and creating new infrastructure, he said.

Fossil fuel solutionism and the idea of the industry’s “leading role” in the transition often goes together with the promotion of “cleaner” fossil fuels or phrases such as “low carbon solutions.” Communications experts consider these phrases a form of greenwashing, and say they aid in creating the perception that oil and gas companies are “part of the solution,” when in fact they are often lobbying against regulatory intervention and climate action.  

Solutionism also ties into the tactic of omitting fossil fuels as key drivers of the climate crisis. For example, in October, Health Policy Watch reported that a draft of the “health and climate ministerial declaration” to be released at COP28, does not include references to the health risks of fossil fuel production. Instead it focuses on adaptation, another narrative pushed by the oil and gas sector and climate deniers to divert attention from its responsibilities. 

The goal needs to be ending oil and gas and what fossil fuel climate obstruction is doing is shifting the goalposts, Sabido said. “So, for example, we talk about technology and how we manage it, rather than managing the decline [of fossil fuels]. It’s also a shifting of responsibility, get-out-of-jail-free card, and it undermines everything positive that’s happened.”  

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