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At Cop26, countries agreed for the first time to reduce consumption of a fossil fuel. The deal first included strong language referring to a coal “phase out”, but had to be changed to a “phase down” after China and India objected.

At the time, climate activists hoped this would be built upon at future Cops — aiming for stronger commitments to “phase out” all fossil fuels. 

But, with attention shifting at Cop27 to how rich polluting countries should pay for climate-driven “loss and damage”, a series of setbacks for emissions cuts have flown under the radar. 

Cop27 bulletin: Biden brings crumbs of support

Out of the agenda

First, even before Cop officially opened, a proposal to discuss how to limit global warming to 1.5C failed to make it on to the official negotiating agenda. 

That means the only way the world can make a statement about fossil fuels is in what is known as the “cover text”, a deal coordinated by the Egyptian presidency of the Cop.

The coal “phase down” appeared in last year’s cover text, known as the Glasgow Pact. This year, Egypt is yet to publicly support the inclusion of even stronger language encompassing all fossil fuels.

While coal is mainly used by big emerging Asian economies like China and India, a much wider group of countries rely on oil and gas.  

Even the group of countries most at risk of climate change, known as the Climate Vulnerable Forum, are not publicly calling for a phase-out of all fossil fuels at Cop27. 

Last year, the Maldives’ environment minister, Shauna Aminath, told the Cop26 meeting that “progress (on phasing out fossil fuels) is not in line with the urgency and scale required”. She added that “what is balanced and pragmatic to other parties will not help the Maldives adapt in time. 

Now, at Cop27, she was more cautious. “Phasing out, phasing down: What we want is to keep global temperatures well below 1.5,” she told Climate Home. Asked again, she added “global temperatures need to be kept down”. 

When Climate Home asked the Ghanan special envoy to the Climate Vulnerable Forum, Henry Kokufu, about the need for a fossil fuel phase out, he asked back “for developed or developing countries?”

“Renewable energies remain the best option” but “don’t forget we have a petrochemical industry,” Kokufu added. Petrochemicals are chemicals made from oil and gas. 

Last year, Denmark and Costa Rica appealed for nations to join them in phasing out fossil fuel production. Until now, only a handful of small producers did, and even Costa Rica’s commitment is wavering after a new government was elected. 

At Cop26, countries also agreed to set up a regular forum to discuss reducing emissions with the details to be agreed in Sharm el-Sheikh this week 

E3G analyst Tom Evans, who has been in the negotiating room this week, described discussions as “lively”, with two broad camps forming. 

An alliance of developed countries, vulnerable small islands and some left-wing Latin American countries wants the forum to continue all the way to 2030 and to meet up and report back to politicians and Cop meetings regularly. 

On the other hand, a group of big emerging economies like China and India want discussions to only last a year or twonot to discuss specific sectors and not to feed in to ministerial and Cop discussions. 

Governments also disagree on what exactly to discuss. They’ve put together a diverse long-list of 52 potential items, from human rights to circular economy to carbon colonialism. 

Avantika Goswami, a researcher at India’s Centre for Science and Environment who was in the room during discussions, said Saudi Arabia wants “green hydrogen”, which is made using renewable electricity, off the list. 

Saudi Arabia’s state oil company Aramco is investing in “blue hydrogen”, which is made using fossil gas and has been described by experts as a “smokescreen” for continued oil and gas consumption. 

Action abroad

While technical negotiators and ministers continue discussions in Sharm-el Sheikh, heads of state will fly to the Indonesian island of Bali for the G20. 

Fears of backsliding are present there too. When G20 climate and energy ministers met on the same island in September, they clashed over whether the joint agreement should emphasise a global warming target of 1.5C or 2C. 

At the time, sources told Climate Home that China and India had pushed for more of an emphasis on 2C with the Chinese representative describing it as more “scientifically feasible”. Without agreement, that issue has been pushed up to their leaders discussions this week. 

But US climate envoy John Kerry told a press conference today he remains upbeat. “[Cop27] President Sameh Shoukry has no intention of being the president – and Egypt has no intention of being the host – who oversaw retreat of what was achieved in Glasgow,” he said.

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