Canada backed last-minute bid to phase down ‘unabated’ fossil fuels, but pledge never made it into the final COP27 text

Canada was one of more than 80 countries to call for the phasedown of unabated fossil fuels as COP27 negotiations went into overtime.

Ultimately, that call did not appear in the final text of the COP27 agreement, which guides global action on climate change. Instead, the final agreement repeated a pledge from last year’s Glasgow Climate Pact referencing the need for a “phasedown of unabated coal.” But more than 80 countries pushing to name fossil fuels — not just coal — as the root of the climate crisis is significant, environmental activists say.

Supportive countries were split on whether the word “unabated” should be included, Canada’s National Observer reported early this week. Using that term would still allow fossil fuel production to grow if companies used carbon capture and storage, a largely unproven technology that traps planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions during the production stage. Environmentalists, academics and climate scientists warn embracing carbon capture technology could lock-in future fossil fuel production and jeopardize climate goals.

“Consistent with our Emissions Reductions Plan and net-zero policy, Canada gave our support to the position that calls for the phasing out of unabated fossil fuels,” federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault told Canada’s National Observer in an emailed statement. “I think it is important we address the elephant in the room.”

His statement acknowledged the “important role” environmental non-governmental organizations played in communicating the importance of the issue and giving it prominence in the media.

“Language around phasing down of fossil fuels was never presented or discussed in any of the consultation sessions I was a part of for the opening days,” said Guilbeault. “It was only late on the Friday that text was presented to us verbally by the United Kingdom.”

Canada was not the only oil-producing nation to lend its support to the U.K.’s position. The United States, Norway, Australia and India were also on board, with India seeking language to phase down all fossil fuels, abated or not, earlier in the conference.

The world is currently on track to exceed 1.5 C of global warming, which climate scientists warn is a dangerous temperature tipping point, as early as 2030 unless emissions are halved this decade, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. If we want a shot at staying at 1.5 C or less, Canada and other wealthy fossil fuel-producing nations must stop all production by 2034, according to a report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

Canada plans to increase fossil fuel production. If oil companies can reduce their emissions, then there’s room for more production, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently said at a climate conference in Ottawa. Recently, over $238 million worth of oil and gas exploration licences were greenlit by the provincial-federal regulator off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. The federal government has already put up big bucks to help the energy sector achieve emissions reductions. Budget 2022 introduced an investment tax credit for carbon capture, utilization and storage worth up to $8.6 billion, and the federal government is expected to announce a cap on oil and gas sector emissions in the coming months that would limit pollution from the industry but not production.

Canada came under fire for having fossil fuel lobbyists in its official delegation at the conference and hosting an event run by the Pathways Alliance, a group of companies operating about 95 per cent of Canada’s oilsands production. At least 636 fossil fuel lobbyists from around the world were in attendance at COP27, representing a 25 per cent increase from the previous year, according to analysis from Corporate Accountability, Corporate Europe Observatory and Global Witness.

“I think there is a growing concern about the tactics that the fossil fuel industry has played to really oppress Indigenous people (and) communities,” said Eddy Pérez, international climate diplomacy manager at Climate Action Network Canada.

“Civil society, both in Canada but also at these climate summits, comes with a very clear focus to raise pressure so that the Canadian government understands that going to COPs and not talking about fossil fuels is hypocrisy,” said Pérez.

It's important to view the effort to include phasing down unabated fossil fuels in the final text as part of a broader mobilization effort, he added. Pérez thinks this shows “the effort to have a global movement of countries that want to make the fossil fuel phasedown a reality … is becoming something that is inevitable.”

COP27 “failed to deliver by remaining silent on phasing out oil and gas,” but “calls from around the world for an equitable phaseout of oil, gas and coal have never been louder,” Environmental Defence said in a press release.

Guilbeault said the Canadian delegation “fought hard so that the world did not backslide” on the commitments made to phase out unabated coal and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies from last year’s COP in Glasgow, Scotland.

“We helped prevent a backslide and kept 1.5 alive, but I am disappointed we were unable to get any further than that,” he said, referring to the need to hold global warming to 1.5 C to avert the worst consequences of climate change.

Canada also played an influential role in securing a loss and damage fund for vulnerable countries bearing the worst impacts of climate change, said Pérez. Months before the conference, Canada adopted a “progressive position” on the issue and distanced itself from the U.S. during negotiations on the fund, which Pérez thinks “influenced the way in which other G7 allies shifted their positions.”

He said it was critical for a country like Canada to step up on this issue and thinks “Minister Guilbeault did so, and it's important that we recognize it.”

Despite Canada’s “significant” role on loss and damages, Pérez said Canada’s performance was not the most ambitious because we didn’t bring much money to the table and did not present a strengthened climate plan.

Next year’s COP will take place in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the seventh-largest oil producer in the world. In less than a month, international delegations will gather in Montreal for a parallel COP on biodiversity, an issue inextricably linked to climate change.

— With files from John Woodside

Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer