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The COP28 president achieved something unprecedented for an oil executive: Winning fans among climat͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
 
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December 15, 2023
semafor

Net Zero

Climate
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Tim McDonnell
Tim McDonnell

Hi everyone, welcome back to Net Zero.

Here’s a key lesson from the past three decades of global climate diplomacy: It only works when everyone is included. The first global climate treaty, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, was ultimately ineffective in driving down emissions in large part because it left out some of the biggest emitters: The U.S. was never willing to ratify it, and the treaty didn’t hold China to binding emissions cuts. The theory of the Paris Agreement was that it wouldn’t impose binding emissions targets and would let each country essentially volunteer its own actions. That might sound a lot weaker, but its flexibility was the only way to get every country on board. Another critical procedural element was that all Paris Agreement decisions require the unanimous approval of all countries.

I mention all of this to give a sense of the diplomatic challenge Sultan al-Jaber faced as president of COP28. There’s really no other geopolitical forum besides COP in which representatives of every country have to get together and reach unanimity on something fairly contentious in a very short period of time. That means the outcome is virtually guaranteed to leave most parties dissatisfied to some extent, and I doubt we’ll see the day when a COP produces an agreement that is as forceful and specific as climate activists would like. But the summits have become one of the world’s only venues for true multilateralism, which has positive ripple effects for all areas of global governance. The “big tent” mentality means there may be strange bedfellows at times, of which al-Jaber, an oil exec leading a climate summit, is the best example. But as our story today explains, he might have been just what the doctor ordered — and even some previously skeptical climate activists agree.

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Hotspots
  1. Faraway fossil-free future
  2. Corn fuel takes flight
  3. Al-Jaber’s legacy
  4. Battery explosion
  5. Farewell fossil finance

Next steps for nuclear fusion, and Trump’s climate finance threat.

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1

Faraway fossil-free future

Global coal use will hit a record this year, and oil demand is still rising, albeit at a slower pace than expected, the International Energy Agency said. The new data showcased both the challenge of transitioning away from fossil fuels — as the COP28 summit agreed — and the shifting nature of where the world’s energy now comes from. Coal use is only expected to begin declining from 2026, while the IEA previously said it expects all fossil-fuel demand to peak by 2030. Oil demand is also increasing, but “evidence of a slowdown … is mounting,” the IEA said: Economic challenges, the increased use of electric vehicles, and improving energy efficiency all suggest any rise in demand will be smaller than previously anticipated. The sources of the world’s oil are also shifting: OPEC+ now makes up just 51% of global oil production, thanks to rising output from the U.S., Guyana, and Brazil.

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2

Corn fuel takes flight

The U.S. Treasury Department unveiled guidelines for sustainable aviation fuel tax credits that are likely to draw legal challenges from environmental groups. Under the proposed rules, biofuels derived from corn, soy, or other agricultural products can qualify for the tax credits, handing a win to the agriculture industry that is searching for alternative uses for ethanol now that it looks less likely than electrification to be the driver of decarbonization for passenger cars. But environmental groups say the biofuels aren’t significantly less carbon-intensive than fossil fuels, so stay tuned for potential lawsuits. On the flip side, leaked Treasury guidelines for tax credits for low-carbon hydrogen are more in line with the strict criteria environmental groups have asked for, and may face blowback from oil and gas companies that see the nascent technology as their own lifeline through the energy transition.

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3

Al-Jaber’s feat

 
Tim McDonnell
Tim McDonnell
 

COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber has achieved something unprecedented for an oil executive: Winning fans among climate activists.

Al-Jaber was by far the most controversial COP president in the summit’s three-decade history. He was described by environmental groups in the run-up to COP as a “ridiculous” choice with “the most obvious conflict of interest there can be.” Al-Jaber seemed to confirm their fears in a string of mini-scandals including communications documents suggesting he might use the summit to broker oil deals and public comments that appeared to question the scientific basis for phasing out fossil fuels.

But when the summit wrapped up on Wednesday with the first-ever global agreement to “transition away from” fossil fuels, al-Jaber had played a vital role in one of the most significant breakthroughs in the history of international climate diplomacy.

Al-Jaber proved uniquely placed to bring recalcitrant fossil-fuel producers like Saudi Arabia into the consensus. Now, with the summit concluded, some previously-skeptical environmentalists are willing to admit that the agreement’s language on fossil fuels shifted their view of al-Jaber, and that a diplomatically astute fossil-fuel executive, counterintuitively, may have been exactly what COP needed to finally directly address the primary causes of climate change.

“Despite facing initial skepticism due to his background, Dr. Sultan’s commitment to open dialogue and understanding diverse viewpoints was instrumental in shaping the outcomes and fostered an unprecedented level of consensus,” Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy for the activist group Climate Action Network International, told me. “His leadership at COP28 marked a significant shift towards more effective climate negotiations.”

Read on to find out why — surprise, surprise — not everyone is sold. →

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4

Battery explosion

REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/File Photo

Battery costs are fast reaching a tipping point that will likely fuel a major acceleration in their adoption, according to separate reports from Goldman Sachs and the Rocky Mountain Institute. Significant investments in battery technology and supply chains in recent years have helped cut costs by around 30% in the past five years alone, according to Goldman Sachs, helping bolster electric-vehicle sales. Costs are expected to decline further, thanks in large part to improved integration of batteries into EVs. As a result, RMI said, batteries are increasingly being put to use in new industries — from bikes and cars into longer-term storage and trucking, as well as ships and planes in the future — and geographies, from early adopters such as China and Europe, over to the United States and India. “Battery demand is growing exponentially, driven by a domino effect of adoption,” RMI analysts said in their report.

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5

Farewell fossil finance

 
Prashant Rao
Prashant Rao
 
REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

A move by France’s second-biggest bank to stop financing new fossil-fuel projects highlighted the growing divide between European lenders and those elsewhere in the world when it comes to funding coal, oil, and gas extraction.

Crédit Agricole said on Thursday it would publish its exposure to the fossil-fuel sector as part of new climate targets that will see it also triple annual financing of renewable-energy projects to €3 billion ($3.3 billion), and cut financed carbon emissions in the fossil-fuel industry by 75% by 2030, as against a prior target of 30%. Activists acknowledged the bank had taken a significant step, but argued it had not gone far enough, even compared to rivals such as HSBC and Societe Generale.

The comparisons there are crucial, in that they are European banks (albeit ones with global footprints). Lenders from the continent have far outpaced those in the U.S. and Asia when it comes to ceasing funding of new fossil-fuel projects. Even among non-private lenders, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s energy-sector strategy for 2024-2028, approved this week, bars investment in upstream oil and gas, and sets a number of restrictions on any downstream projects, notably that they must “go beyond” Paris Agreement goals.

Banks in other parts of the world are far worse offenders. Whereas Crédit Agricole financed $89 billion towards fossil-fuel projects between 2016 and 2022, JPMorgan Chase was responsible for $434.1 billion, according to the Banking on Climate Chaos report, which is compiled by several NGOs including the Sierra Club and the Rainforest Action Network. Of the 10 worst offenders, only one was headquartered in Europe: Barclays. (Crédit Agricole ranked 23rd on the list.)

Globally, there is some good news: The overall total in global fossil-fuel financing last year was the lowest on record.

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Power Plays

New Energy

Fossil Fuels

  • Japan is closing refineries throughout the country as its oil consumption falls to the lowest level since at least 1980. Although coal and gas still power most of the Japanese economy, the carbon footprint of its electricity generation system has fallen considerably. The country now generates more than a fifth of its electricity from renewable sources.

Tech

  • Uplight, a utilities software, is set to acquire AutoGrid, a virtual power plant provider, from Schneider Electric for an undisclosed amount. The deal, which is expected to close early next year, will create “a single, unified platform” for utilities to create grid-scale flexible capacity, Uplight said.
  • Climeworks, a carbon removal provider, and consulting giant Boston Consulting Group announced a 15-year strategic partnership agreement. The agreement, which is forecast to remove as much as 80,000 metric tons of CO2 via direct air capture, is Climeworks’ biggest corporate purchase yet.

Politics & Policy

  • Donald Trump said if re-elected president he would renege on a $3 billion climate finance pledge announced by Vice President Kamala Harris during COP28. In his last term, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement.

Climate Impacts

Personnel

  • BP is aiming to claw back $40 million in compensation from former CEO Bernard Looney. He resigned in September following allegations that he deliberately misled the board about a romantic relationship with a colleague.
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One Good Text

Jean Paul Allain, associate director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fusion Energy Sciences. Last week the DOE rolled out $42 million in funding to support research and development of nuclear fusion energy.

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