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COP24: A tale of two panels

Two side events discussed fossil fuels. One focused on the past; the other envisioned a sustainable and equitable future.

Emily Yehle / Published on 17 December 2018

The entrance to the COP24 venue on a snowy day. Photo: Kiara Worth, IISD/ENB.

As the second week of the UN climate negotiations began last Monday, officials, experts and advocates filled two rooms to discuss fossil fuel production.

One room is now infamous: a US-hosted side event promoting coal. But next door, another panel provided a stark contrast, and drew a crowd interested in the options and possibilities of a fossil fuel phase-out.

Limiting oil, coal and gas production is an important new direction for climate policy. Monday’s panel included officials from Spain and New Zealand, whose governments have already taken that step – and who shared how they have approached extraction limits, transition plans and subsidy reform.

Spain recently announced plans to close most of its coal mines by the end of the year; New Zealand has put in place bans on all new offshore oil exploration. Both countries are supporting workers and communities to ensure the transition to the low-carbon economy is a just one.

The panel for the COP24 official side event on a fossil fuel phase-out. Photo: SEI.

Stephanie Lee, the climate change special advisor to the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade, said the country has learned from another transition it experienced in the 1980s: the removal of agricultural subsidies “almost overnight.”

“A measured and managed adjustment, signaled early, is better for society and better for the economy than a short sharp shock,” Lee said at the event, which was organized by SEI, Oil Change International and Global Witness. “So we’re taking a comprehensive approach to all of this. We’re working on a law to set a long-term climate change target, we’re establishing an independent climate change commission, and we have a significant work program on ensuring a just transition that avoids stranded assets and leaves no one behind.”

The panel also included Monica Araya, the founder and director of Costa Rica Limpia, a citizen group that promotes clean energy. Costa Rica first put a moratorium on oil and gas production in 2002 – and that has survived five governments.

That is “not a fairytale story,” Araya said; it took work to fight multiple attempts to lift the moratorium. And Costa Rica’s experience has lessons for the world.

“Yes we are small, but we have big ideas,” she said. “It is impossible to argue that Costa Rica will change the world because we are 5 million people. The point is we need to challenge the notion that this doesn’t work for people.”

SEI US Center Director Michael Lazarus speaks at the Talanoa Dialogue about how limits to fossil fuel extraction, combined with just transition policies, can help increase climate ambition in the next round of nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Photo: Kiara Worth, IISD/ENB.

Policy options exist within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process to address fossil fuel supply. SEI Research Fellow Cleo Verkuijl outlined these for the audience.

“If you do a search in the Paris Agreement for the words fossil fuels, you’ll come up with no results,” Verkuijl said. But, she added, the Paris Agreement creates the necessary hooks for parties and other stakeholders to help align fossil fuel production with global climate goals.

Verkuijl highlighted the “incredible added value” for the UN climate process to address this side of the story. Countries can set targets to limit their fossil fuel production through their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and long-term strategies. High-income countries and financing institutions can direct support to developing countries to facilitate a transition away from fossil fuel production. And through the Paris Agreement’s transparency framework, countries can report on the actions they are taking in this area, while the 2023 Global Stocktake can help ensure they are on track.

In short: the levers are there for countries to phase down their use of oil, coal and gas. Of Monday’s two panels on fossil fuels, only one offered sustainable, equitable and proven solutions for an inevitable low-carbon future.

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