November 13, 2021

The United States government is poised to get what it wanted out of COP26: namely, no new obligations on climate finance or loss & damage, two of the major priority areas for developing countries. Yet the United States claims to be a climate leader, so it needed something it could spin to serve that narrative. It found it in the fossil fuels language in Paragraph 36 of the CMA decision text.

That paragraph has been celebrated as the first time an explicit mention of phasing out fossil fuels has appeared in UNFCCC text. But the text allows continued fossil fuel use, only calling for phasing down of “unabated coal power,” leaving open the possibility of coal usage with carbon capture & storage. It also allows for continued fossil fuel subsidies, only calling for phasing down of “inefficient” subsidies.

By focusing only on coal and not including oil and gas, this text would disproportionately impact certain developing countries like China and India. India said in negotiations that all fossil fuels must be phased down, in an equitable manner. This is quite a reasonable response that is supported by a broad coalition of civil society groups which, earlier at COP26, released a report about how this might be done. A globally equitable fossil fuel phase-out is essential for the just, feminist and green transitions that countries need to make.

But the United States framed this as India trying to block text on fossil fuels in the COP26 outcome. Knowing that many will not examine the claims critically, the United States is publicly claiming credit for getting fossil fuel language into the text while painting developing countries as the blockers. Meanwhile, of course, the Biden administration refuses to shut down new fossil fuel infrastructure at home, like the Line 3 pipeline or massive leases for oil drilling.

The worst-case scenario is that the Paragraph 36 language could be actively harmful. The text could actually provide cover for continued subsidies for the fossil fuel industry under the guise of support for carbon capture & storage and other unproven technologies. This would allow for greenwashed business-as-usual emissions — all while Kerry and the United States disingenuously claim a fossil fuel phaseout victory and point the finger at India as the problem.