This article was published by The Energy Mix on Dec. 28, 2023.
By Mitchell Beer
December 18, 2023: The Alberta and Saskatchewan governments are isolating their provinces and their populations from a shift off fossil fuels that was already under way before this year’s UN climate negotiations, and will be accelerated by the final COP28 declaration, says Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault.
After a hard-fought, often anxious battle over the final text of the COP decision, negotiators from 195 countries agreed to language calling for a transition off fossil fuels, the first time in nearly three decades that a UN climate conference has homed in on the biggest root cause of the global climate emergency.
Analysis since has pointed to the big loopholes built into the text, dictated by a UN process that requires consensus of all parties—including the world’s biggest petro-states—on any decision.
But Guilbeault said this year’s COP decision—which he said Canadian officials spent months, not weeks, working to achieve—accelerates a global transition that was already well under way by the time delegates gathered for the two-week negotiating marathon in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
“If we hadn’t agreed to that in the text, we’re still decarbonizing our transport sector and our electricity sector and our heavy industry,” he told The Energy Mix, with world powers like China, the European Union, and the United States all moving in the same direction.
“The transition is happening, but the fact that we recognize it in the text sends the signal to companies and investors and countries around the world that this is where the world is heading.”
The shift won’t happen overnight, as COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber made clear when he stepped back into his role as CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and made clear the state-owned fossil will continue its record investment in oil and gas production. But it means unrestrained fossil fuel advocates like Alberta Premier Danielle Smith will find fewer allies, at home and around the world.
“Obviously, the Canadian delegation and myself worked very hard,” Guilbeault said of the off-fossil transition text. “But it was a whole of society approach, with some notable exceptions. It was Indigenous nations and activists being there. It was the labour movement. It was the environmental groups. It was the youth and the Indigenous youth. And a lot of very progressive companies and provinces that worked with us to make this happen.”
The breadth of that work means governments like Alberta and Saskatchewan are “absolutely” isolated, he told The Mix. “And if [federal Conservative leader] Pierre Poilievre wants to have an election on carbon pricing when the Conservatives have lost two of them, we will be happy to do that.”
How the Deal Got Done
On Monday, as COP28 veered ever closer to its scheduled close at 11 AM Tuesday, local time, there seemed little prospect of any agreement on language that would connect fossil fuels to the climate emergency.
Advocates, analysts, and more than 100 countries had spent most of the two weeks—and much of their time in the months prior—calling for references to a fossil fuel phaseout and parsing the difference between calling for a phaseout or phasedown, with or without references to “abated” oil and gas (a nod to questionable carbon capture technologies) or transition fuels (a gateway for more methane-heavy natural gas). Phaseout references appeared as options in the draft decision text as late as last weekend, prompting panic among the nearly 5,000 fossil fuel lobbyists attending the conference.
But when the COP28 Presidency released draft decision text on Monday, those references were gone. And conference delegates go to work.
“We all got together and submitted a joint text to the Presidency and said, ‘if you want an ambitious outcome, if you want success here, this is what you need to do’,” Guilbeault recalled. “The text was proposed by a large coalition, so of course some in the group wanted more of this and less of that. But there was a recognition that if we worked together, we had a chance of getting something good. Not everything anyone wanted. Not something perfect—we never get perfection in these forums. But something people would be proud to stand behind. And that’s what I think we got.”
‘Critical of the Critics’
At the end of the conference, UN climate secretary Simon Stiell predicted “reams of analysis of all the initiatives announced here in Dubai,” and the 48 hours since the conference ended have seen a wave of criticism—right down to the percentage of carbon capture that would be recognized as abatement in the definition of “abated” fossil fuels.
Guilbeault, one of the few people anywhere who’ve attended every COP since the first in the series, was unmoved.
“Those who criticize the text need to show me a COP text in almost 30 years of negotiations that went as far as this one,” he said. “I can tell you right now they won’t be able to. It’s the first time we addressed the issue of fossil fuels. The first time we talked about tripling renewable energy and doubling energy efficiency. So I’m very critical of those who are critical.”
He added that Canadian officials “spent months working on this, not weeks”, meeting with 70 or 80 countries and connecting with civil society organizations, youth, trade unions, and Indigenous organizations around the world. “We’re not pretending to be perfect or that we have all the solutions,” he said. “But I think people see Canada as a true ally in these discussions, and as a country that is really stepping up to find solutions to these complex problems.”