The Just Security Podcast

Can the World Move Away from Fossil Fuels?

December 22, 2023 Just Security Episode 51
The Just Security Podcast
Can the World Move Away from Fossil Fuels?
Show Notes Transcript

This year’s version of the U.N. climate meeting, or COP, concluded last week in the United Arab Emirates. Nearly 200 nations from around the world agreed to a historic deal to transition away from fossil fuels in a “just, orderly and equitable manner” and leaders pledged $700 million in funds to address the loss and damage from climate change. 

But as with any global agreement, now comes the hard part of turning words on paper into reality as countries decide how to implement their new commitments. 

Joining the show to discuss the developments at COP28 and what comes next is Mark Nevitt. Mark is a professor at Emory Law School and an expert on climate change.

Show Notes: 

  • Paras Shah (@pshah518
  • Mark P. Nevitt (@MarkNevitt
  • Mark’s Just Security article “Assessing COP 28: The New Global Climate Deal in Dubai” 
  • Just Security’s COP28 coverage
  • Just Security’s climate change coverage
  • Music: “The Parade” by “Hey Pluto!” from Uppbeat: (License code: 36B6ODD7Y6ODZ3BX)
  • Music: “Breathing Water (Solo Piano)” by Cedric Vermue from Uppbeat: (License code: MH0XYFEO1YABWIMJ)

Paras Shah: This year’s version of the U.N. climate meeting, or COP, concluded last week in the United Arab Emirates. Nearly 200 nations from around the world agreed to a historic deal to transition away from fossil fuels in a “just, orderly and equitable manner” and leaders pledged $700 million in funds to address the loss and damage from climate change. 

But as with any global agreement, now comes the hard part of turning words on paper into reality as countries decide how to implement their new commitments. 

This is the Just Security Podcast. I’m your host, Paras Shah. 

Joining the show to discuss the developments at COP28 and what comes next is Mark Nevitt. Mark is a professor at Emory Law School and an expert on climate change.

Hi Mark, welcome back to the show. Thanks so much for joining us today. 

Mark Nevitt: It's great to be here. Thanks for having me, Just Security. 

Paras: So, the last time we talked to you on the show was at the end of COP27 last year. Can you explain what the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is, and how do these annual meetings of nearly 200 countries every year on climate change fit into that?

Mark: So, the Framework Convention on Climate Change is sort of the base of the international climate governance pyramid. It's an international agreement, and each nation essentially signs on to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, using their own domestic legal processes. And that's significant for the United States of America because the Framework Convention on Climate Change is a treaty under US law, and that went through the Senate for its advice and consent in the early 90s, was actually negotiated by President Bush, a Republican, in the early 90s. And so that is essentially a critical part of the international governance structure, and because of the treaty, it's much harder to unwind that in the United States. 

Some of the follow-on Conference of Parties have been what's called “executive agreements” in the United States. So, the Paris Climate Agreement, which many of your listeners are familiar with, is an executive agreement, not a treaty, so relatively easier to enter the Paris Climate Agreement, but for the United States, it is easy to exit as well. And President Trump sought to do that upon his taken his presidency. 

So, each Conference of Parties on the Article Seven of the Framework Convention on Climate Change calls for nations to come together and sort of build building blocks off of this climate governance pyramid. So, COP28 is the 28th time this has happened. It's happened every single year for the international climate negotiators to get together. There was one brief pause during COVID 19. And so, the decision that was issued, the Conference of Party's 28th, was called the first Global Stocktake decision, which reflected the first time since Paris where the nations were coming together to sort of take stock of their collective climate accomplishments. 

Paras: And what were the big outcomes from COP28? 

Mark: Sure, I would classify it as two, I will call major outcomes in one, maybe, disappointment, Paras, for your listeners. I’ll just say that in the backdrop of this was a very challenging geopolitical situation with the Russia-Ukraine war obviously happening and the Israel-Gaza war happening starting October 7. So, the geopolitical headwinds were certainly there. And the conference itself got off to a rocky start. The UAE head, Sultan Al-Jaber, is also the co-head of the UAE oil company in the United Arab Emirates, and he was supposedly allegedly meeting with oil executives prior to the beginning of the Conference of Parties to sort of work on some business deals with fossil fuel companies. So that was reported on, he was criticized, and there was actually a lot of criticism of the UAE being the host of this conference. 

But there's two major outcomes that were significant in the sense that the first one was a decision by all parties to transition away from fossil fuels. This was the first time this has happened in the 28 Conference of Parties, and I have more to say on that in my Just Security piece and a little bit later. 

Another substantive outcome I would tie to this conference was the Sunnylands Statement. It was not technically negotiated at COP, but COP28 served as the impetus for the United States and China to sign a statement on the climate agreement. This was a run up to the Conference of Parties, and essentially the US and China recommitted to working together on the climate crisis. That's really important, because the United States is the largest historic greenhouse gas emitter, and China is the largest current emitter. So, this sort of jumpstarted US-China climate negotiations, which I think is absolutely critical for any kind of substantive climate progress.

So, one major disappointment I was highlight would be the establishment of a loss and damage fund. Loss and damage was seen as a big win from the last Conference of Parties in Sharm el Sheikh in 2022. It established a fund which essentially would go from developed nations to the to developing nations, poorer nations, to help offset the losses from climate impacts. The mass, the amount of damage, loss and damage, facing these nations is extraordinary, $400 billion per year, and there was a pledge of loss and damage at COP28 of $700 million. But that's quite small, right? So that's somewhat akin, in my article, I said, it's somewhat akin to fighting a giga fire, a massive wildfire, with a garden hose. 

Paras: I want to zoom in to this agreement around transitioning away from fossil fuels. What is the key language there? And what are its potentials?

Mark: Sure. So, it is a breakthrough textual commitment, and the significance, I think, Paras, is that this transition away from fossil fuels will serve as a signal to businesses, policy makers, lawmakers, that renewable energy is the future, and fossil fuel investments and development is really the past. The language has to be agreed to by all 195 nations that are part of the Framework Convention on Climate Change. That is just really, really challenging to get 195 nations to agree on anything, right? And so, the textual commitment is significant because you have this centering around this language to transition away from fossil fuels. 

And so, you can just read the text of the agreement, and any law student or lawyer could highlight some issues with the text. And so maybe what I'll do is just sort of read the text for your listeners, and then walk you through the various questions that are there. 

So, the decision calls on parties to transition away from fossil fuels and energy systems, and they just, orderly, and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science. So what's critical, I think, is it does not call for an immediate phase out by a date certain. It's a transition away by 2050 in keeping with the science. This language is a bit softer from “phase down”, it's “transitioning away.” And again, the goal is to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. This phrase, “in a just, orderly, and equitable manner” is not defined in the text. So, that opens the door to maneuverability and interpretation from each nation.

One interpretation is that developing nations, the poorer nations, will transition away at a slower pace than developed nations. This word orderly, I think, is being looked upon very closely by oil producing states and petro states. These are nations whose economies are deeply dependent on fossil fuel extraction, well, they'll desire a slow, orderly transition for the economy as it weans itself away from fossil fuels. So, it is significant. We have 195 nations agreeing to this textual commitment to transition away from fossil fuels, but I think there is room for maneuver, and this is why the Alliance of Small Island States, the 39 island states, call this decision riddled with loopholes. 

Paras: Thanks very much for that walkthrough. We here at Just Security always love a good textual analysis. At the end of the day, how much progress are we talking about here? If there are these loopholes in this language that is porous, and that creative lawyering can get around, how much potential does this agreement actually have? Is it more symbolic or does it have teeth, or could it have teeth?

Mark: Well, it offers — there's no real legally binding commitment and enforcement for much of international law. To include this agreement is always problematic. I think the thinking is that this will be a signal to businesses, investors, policymakers, lawmakers, fill in the blank, that the world is moving past fossil fuels. And to be fair, at every Conference of Parties, now into the future, nations to include the nations which are really facing the brunt of climate impacts can hold this piece of paper up and hold it to account and apply political pressure and the international forum to remind these nations of what they committed to. So, there's a bit of legitimacy that, I think, nations that need to be concerned about, particularly fossil fuel nations that are reliant on fossil fuels. And I think that because the Conference of Parties meets every year, it'll be front and center. 

Now, the world economy, Paras, is deeply dependent on fossil fuels. We know that, and we know that climate change is causing, is due to fossil fuel usage and is causing greenhouse gas emissions. I think there will be fighting this language, and there's powerful economic incentives from oil companies and state run oil companies to transition away at a slower pace. To give you one example, Aramco, which is the Saudi oil company, the revenue there is half a trillion dollars per year. In the United States, Exxon Mobil is $413 billion per year, so just slightly less than Aramco. And it's interesting, this transition language, because in the United States, the national intelligence estimate explicitly stated that petro states — nations that rely upon fossil fuels — will fear these transition risks as we look to decarbonize, so there are powerful economic incentives that are at play. And that's why I always say after the Conference of Parties is, the real work begins to ensure implementation, transparency, and accountability.  

Paras: Right. So, in the next year, looking ahead to COP29, which will be in Azerbaijan, what should we be looking forward? What are the main trends that we should be watching in the next 12 months?

Mark: I think it's important to look at how nations are responding to this transition language. We saw a kind of a mixed response from, frankly, Saudi Arabia, which seems to suggest that it has room to maneuver from this language. So, I always say, you know, preach the gospel, if necessary, use words. So, follow the actions of their nations as they look to decarbonize the economy. The United States, of course, has really important domestic legislation and the Inflation Reduction Act as well as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that is really important for mitigation and adaptation. And so, the US already kind of has a pretty good glide path to move towards renewable energy. 

I think it's important to look at the US and China dynamics, the Sunnyland statement’s importance, could that be a springboard to broader efforts and, frankly, cooperation on climate? I also look at India. India is increasingly becoming a key player, its GDP grows about six-seven percent per year, its emissions are growing. It's historically been seen as a developing nation, but that is an economy that is heavily reliant upon fossil fuel usage, and how we manage the Indian economy is going to be really, really important.

 I also think that we need to take a look at renewable energy in all its forms. There was discussion of nuclear at Conference of Parties 28. But you know, meaningful nuclear progress has to have some permitting reform, and it’s not sort of the silver bullet to solve the climate crisis. It's a course of low carbon fuel source that has the benefit of, you can build it on your home sovereign soil. But there's also an issue of nuclear waste, and just environmental permitting of nuclear is very, very challenging. In my home state of Georgia, where I live, the Vogtle nuclear power plant is the first power plant built in United States in 30-some odd years, massively over budget, massively over timeline. So, climate change, we don't have that time to really take our time with brushing up or building up a renewable energy resources.

Paras: And on top of all of that, the US will have a presidential election next year. How is climate playing into the 2024 election process and domestic politics? 

Mark: So, 2024 is a really critical and in part, President Biden appears to be the Democratic nominee, appears that former President Trump is the leading Republican nominee. And we couldn't have two different people on the climate governance stage. President Trump actually took any mention of climate change away from the national security statement, strategy, rather, in 2017. Recall that President Trump moved away from the Paris Climate Accord in 2017, and has not been sort of someone who is an active engagement on these Conference of Parties. 

How this will play out in the 2024 election I think remains to be seen. The inflation Reduction Act, that work will continue, I think President Biden will be focused on the economic benefits of that. It remains to be seen how sort of the climate issue is front and center for the presidential election. It certainly was an issue in 2020, but we have a stark difference in outlooks on the role of international governance between the two front runners right now. 

Let me just say this, what we need to do to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius, which is the Paris Climate Accord goals, is extraordinarily difficult. We need to reduce our collective emissions from United States and around the world by 43%, and right now, emissions are increasing. So, I think that this has a salience. It has a reality that is, we cannot dismiss. It's hard to dismiss, especially with as we see more extreme weather, more climate impacts, and frankly, the voices of different communities affected by climate change being highlighted. But it's a massive problem. And there really is a pretty stark difference between the two. We need candidates right now.

Paras: To wrap this up with a note of hope, in your Just Security piece you wrote that will need creative and innovative legal solutions and technological solutions. What do some of those look like?  

Mark: Sure. And, I think that as a someone who teaches climate change at Emory, and studies environmental law, you have to be an optimist, you have to be sort of a rational optimist when you approach these issues. So, I think the Conference of Parties is just one tool, international governance tool for solving the climate crisis, and we can't ask it to do too much. Again, it's 195 nations have to come together, but it is an important piece, but it's not the only piece. And so, I think technology could play a significant role. 

We've seen a massive, just, increase in R&D towards renewable energy. One thing that excites me is carbon capture and storage, and we see more investment. Carbon capture and storage is the idea of essentially taking carbon out of the air and putting it to the ground or sequestering it in some other format. So, what I talked about in the article was that we need more of a silver buckshot idea where we just have different approaches — focus on R&D, focus on technology, focus on renewable energy, carbon capture and storage. Yes, the Conference of Parties needs to be there as well to do its work, but we need innovative, technological tools to help us avoid this crisis. We're seeing, obviously, EVs, or electric vehicles, are playing a big role in the transportation sector. But we need all the above. More, faster — all hands on deck, to borrow a term from the Navy — to avert climate disaster this decade. 

Paras: Is there anything else that we haven't discussed yet that you'd like to add? 

Mark: Yeah, I would offer that the next Conference of Parties is in Baku, Azerbaijan. I think this is somewhat of a strange choice, from where I stand. If you were to look at Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, which was last year, Dubai, which is this year, and the next year is Azerbaijan. It's three cities within just a couple thousand miles of each other. Azerbaijan relies heavily upon oil and gas for its economy. So, I think that that could be a missed opportunity. I would love, I would love to see a Conference of Parties in the South Pacific or really out in an area that is really at the front lines of climate impacts.

But there are political issues at play when how they decide what nation hosts a Conference of Parties. So, I think it'll be a significant one next year. Every one is significant, every one is really important, particularly it’s going to be an election year, it'll take place right after the US presidential election, so stay tuned. 

Paras: There's a lot to track there, and we'll be following all of it at Just Security. As you note, Mark, there's a need for many different types of innovative solutions. Hopefully your students will be on the frontlines of that in a few years. Thank you again for joining the show. 

Mark: Thank you so much.

Paras: This episode was hosted by me, Paras Shah. It was edited and produced by Tiffany Chang, Michelle Eigenheer, and Clara Apt. Our theme song is “The Parade” by Hey Pluto.  

Special thanks to Mark Nevitt. You can read all of Just Security’s coverage of COP 28, including Mark’s analysis, on our website. If you enjoyed this episode, please give us a five star rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.