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Cop-out

Cop-out

UN climate talks in Egypt were a mess. For progress on emissions reduction, we need to look elsewhere.

Long stories short

  • Vegan eco-activists occupied Gordon Ramsay’s west London restaurant on Saturday night.
  • China signed a 27-year deal to import liquefied natural gas from Qatar.
  • The deadliest floods in Nigeria’s history were made more intense by climate change, scientists said.

Cop-out

This year’s Cop was a mess. Food for delegates was in short supply, speakers’ mics kept cutting out, and a sewage pipe flooded an area near the exit from the Blue Zone with dirty water.

The talks themselves were fractious and chaotic, even by the standards of a Cop. The outcome was messy too.

Countries failed to reach agreement on the core task: rapidly cutting emissions and phasing out oil, gas and coal. Instead, the final text included the phrase “low emission” energy alongside renewables, implying a continued place for some fossil fuels.

Gas was once touted as a “bridging fuel” for a transition to a cleaner future. But the falling cost of solar, wind and battery storage is rendering that idea obsolete for most of the world.

It’s true that much of the developing world is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels. But this is more of a finance question than a technology one; countries across Africa and Asia need better access to cheap finance to build renewables. Without it, they are stuck with existing fossil fuel infrastructure.

There’s been some good news on green finance, mostly happening outside the Sharm el-Sheikh conference halls:

  • Indonesia was offered $20 billion by rich countries to kick its coal habit and speed up the transition to clean energy.
  • The US is pushing the World Bank to revamp its business model by the end of the year, raising more finance to tackle climate change.
  • At Cop, countries agreed to set up a ‘loss and damage’ fund to support vulnerable countries with climate-related disasters.

The traditional split at Cop is between rich emitters and poorer countries that suffer the consequences. This year, there were signs of a growing divide between oil exporters and the rest.

Saudi Arabia used the conference to tout its plans to continue pumping oil while capturing carbon – even though carbon capture technology remains prohibitively expensive. The EU’s climate envoy Frans Timmermans criticised: “the yawning gap between climate science and our climate policies.” The split between the two sides may never be bridged.

Instead, two factors may combine to push more countries into the anti-fossil fuels camp. The first is the awareness of vulnerability that accompanied the war in Ukraine. The second is the speed at which coal is being outpriced.

“What we’re already seeing is that a lot of investor groups and firms are organically moving away from coal and that’s simply being driven by the economics of it,” says Sugandha Srivastav, a researcher in environmental economics at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.

“We’re seeing that in many parts of the world. Generation from coal-fired power plants is more expensive than generation from solar and wind and even in countries like India you’re seeing this interesting phenomenon where long-term contracts that lock in coal are being prematurely broken to accommodate new and cheaper renewable energy.”

As India and other Asian giants reduce their need for coal, their interests may align more closely with rich world countries that are rapidly transitioning to clean energy.

Hours after this year’s talks closed, UN climate chief Simon Stiell acknowledged the need to review the process. But the diplomatic gap won’t be fixed by bureaucratic streamlining alone.

Next year’s Cop takes place in the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s biggest oil exporters. For progress on fighting climate change, it might be better to look away from the UN talks.


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cop-munications

Paris for nature

The messy outcome of Cop27 does not bode well for the next high-stakes environment meeting taking place next month. The Cop15 biodiversity summit in Montreal is an opportunity to push for a fully-fledged “Paris Agreement for nature” which would see countries set national targets for conservation. Halting biodiversity loss – which is occurring at a rate not seen in 10 million years – goes hand in hand with actions to reduce emissions, but a final draft of a deal has yet to be reached. To complicate matters, the nation that holds the presidency of the summit, China, is currently on shaky terms with Canada, the replacement host while China’s borders are closed. Last week, the countries’ respective leaders clashed at the G20 over Trudeau’s comments to the media about Chinese interference in Canadian democracy. Canada has also banned Chinese investment in rare-earth mining. Will saving nature be a bridge?


policy

Insu-late

“Too little, too late” is the response from green groups to the energy-efficiency measures contained within the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. The additional £6 billion Jeremy Hunt has pledged to make Britain’s housing stock more efficient will not come into effect until 2025, and will do little to alleviate the immediate cost of living crisis. (Reminder: the UK has the oldest housing in western Europe and insulation rates fell off a cliff after David Cameron’s decision to “get rid of all the green crap” and cut energy efficiency funding). The Chancellor also announced plans to approve the Sizewell C nuclear plant and retain the budget for clean tech R&D, but his tax raids on electric vehicles and the renewable electricity generation risk deterring green investment. There was no mention in the statement of relaxing planning rules for renewable energy projects – a move that would reduce reliance on foreign gas and is supported by more than half of the UK public.


ECO-NOMICS

Green trade war

The WTO is urging the US and EU to avoid a “subsidy war” over clean energy. European leaders including Germany’s Robert Habeck and France’s Emmanuel Macron argue that the package of incentives offered under President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act risks creating a “race to the bottom” to attract green businesses. Several companies have already expressed a desire to pivot west: Northvolt, the European battery maker, tells the FT it could subsidise a US factory by more than $600 million, while German incentives only add up to €155 million. Iberdrola, the Spanish renewable energy company, is lifting US investment to almost half of its global total from 2023-25, compared with 23 per cent in the EU. There’s no easy solution; any exemption that’s offered to Europe would have others clamouring for the same treatment.  


science

Slaughter-free

Feel like cell-cultured chicken tonight? The US Food and Drug Administration has for the first time approved the sale of a meat product grown in labs. Upside Foods makes chicken from real animal cells grown in bioreactors, and has been seeking approval from the FDA for the last seven years. Its product is theoretically indistinguishable from real meat and will be trialled first in upmarket restaurants that can afford the price premium. Studies say that ‘cultured’ meat requires much less energy to produce than red meat – though cultured poultry needs more energy than conventional cluckers. While regulators are beginning to see the appeal, the real issue is scalability and affordability. We already have an accessible alternative protein: beans.

Thanks for reading.

Jeevan Vasagar
@jeevanvasagar

Additional reporting by Barney Macintyre.

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Slow newscast

Egypt’s bad cop

The story of one man, fighting to his last breath, to reveal the darkness that lies behind this year’s UN Climate Change Conference.