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Updated Dec 5, 2023, 6:18am EST
net zero

How COP28 is bending the curve on oil and gas emissions

REUTERS/Amr Alfiky
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The News

COP28 has been dominated today by the climate summit’s most controversial question: Should fossil fuels be phased “out” or “down”? Sultan al-Jaber, the summit president, outraged activists and many delegates here Sunday afternoon following the publication of a video from November in which he claimed there is “no science” to support a full phase-out. But the U.S. remains open to that commitment, White House climate advisor Ali Zaidi told Semafor in a brief interview on the summit’s sidelines.

The uproar has overshadowed efforts to address another question: To what extent is it possible to decarbonize oil and gas production and consumption? And over the weekend, there were several breakthroughs on this front, mostly dealing with emissions of the highly potent greenhouse gas methane. They add up to what Mark Brownstein, senior vice president for the energy transition at the Environmental Defense Fund said “may be the single most important day in the history of COPs in terms of addressing temperature rise.”

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Know More

On Saturday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced rules restricting methane emissions from oil and gas operations that will eliminate flaring, require firms to monitor and correct leaks, and allow third-party observers, especially nonprofits equipped with satellite monitoring tech, to call in complaints about unrestricted leakage. The rules will shave total U.S. emissions by 2% by 2030, and follow similar regulations implemented by the European Union last month (the EU rules also apply to any company wishing to export gas to the EU, giving them a global reach).

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Meanwhile, 50 of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, including Saudi Aramco and ExxonMobil, signed on to a voluntary pledge to eliminate their methane emissions by 2030, and to reach net zero for all operational emissions by 2050. Bloomberg Philanthropies concurrently said it would spend at least $40 million, in conjunction with environmental groups, to monitor companies’ progress toward those pledges. The World Bank, U.S., EU, and philanthropic groups also raised a total of $1 billion to support methane elimination efforts across all industries in developing countries, climate envoy John Kerry said.

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Tim’s view

Pledges are a dime a dozen at COP. What makes the suite of methane announcements feel more lasting is its structure, involving a novel, strategic combination of voluntary corporate peer pressure, high-dollar philanthropy, cutting-edge tech, and new regulation all tilting at the same aim. Altogether, the methane rules add up to a seemingly reliable outcome on curbing a molecule that is responsible for about 30% of global warming.

“You have to build real accountability mechanisms if you’re going to get anything done, and the COP28 work on methane is sort of a visit from the ghost of Christmas future on how we should approach many challenges of the climate crisis,” Brownstein said.

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Still, picking off methane was relatively easy, Zaidi told me: “You can’t build that kind of momentum against all CO2 all at the same time.” Instead, he said, the U.S. strategy is to try to displace oil and gas demand one sector at a time, through support for electric vehicles, alternative aviation fuels, and renewable energy. The EPA is also finalizing CO2 emissions regulations for power plants that agency administrator Michael Regan said in an interview will be published in April and are designed to withstand inevitable legal challenges from industry groups.

The hardest part of replicating methane’s success with other gases will be the companies, which have a financial interest in curbing methane, since leaks are ultimately just gas they can’t sell. No such financial incentive exists yet for their CO2 emissions, and those companies are still obstructing efforts to take responsibility for “Scope 3” emissions from the use of their products, which is by the far the largest piece of their carbon footprint, said David Turk, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy.

“If you’re an oil and gas company, you can’t just say Scope 3 is someone else’s problem. They need to step up and really invest more in the transition and lobby for the policies that are going to make a big impact and allow us all to move forward.”

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Room for Disagreement

To some extent, the phase-out vs. phase-down debate misses the point, because it’s too narrowly focused on the supply side of the industry, said Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy. Oil company executives’ hands are tied by their shareholders, who have tended to punish them for moving faster to curb oil production than the global economy’s willingness to curb demand. Once that changes, the politics will be very different, he said: “Oil demand is still going up every year. Let’s make demand start falling, and then we can debate whether the final answer is ‘zero’ or ‘something much smaller than today that isn’t zero’.”

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The View From Small Island States

Some of the negotiators pushing hardest for a phaseout say their big victory on another issue on the COP’s first day — the adoption of a climate reparations fund — is now being turned against them behind closed doors.

“There’s a sense of, ‘you got what you want, now be quiet’,” said Michai Robertson, an advisor to the Alliance of Small Island States. “We will not be quiet.”

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