In Glasgow, COP26 Negotiators Do Little to Cut Emissions, but Allow Oil and Gas Executives to Rest Easy

Pledges were made and alliances formed, but reading the fine print, the petroleum industry retains its hold on the world’s economy, at least in the short term.

An oil pumpjack is seen on April 16, 2021 near Eldorado, Texas. Credit: Francois Picard/AFP via Getty Images

An oil pumpjack is seen on April 16, 2021 near Eldorado, Texas. Credit: Francois Picard/AFP via Getty Images

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As the debate continues over whether the global climate summit in Scotland will significantly move the needle on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, one thing is clear: The oil and gas industry still holds its grip on the world’s economic and political systems. 

Many climate advocates and vulnerable nations entered this year’s conference hoping to address an enduring failure of the Paris Agreement, which said nothing about fossil fuels. But a draft agreement released on Saturday included only one reference, calling on parties to accelerate phasing out “unabated” coal consumption and “inefficient” subsidies for fossil fuels more broadly. Explicit references to oil and gas were absent.

The conference produced new pledges and alliances aimed at phasing out fossil fuels, but a look at the details of these promises shows they are likely to result in little, if any, change, at least in the short-term. 

For example, as the climate meetings came to a close, a group of national and regional governments announced the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. Eight core members, including Costa Rica, Denmark and France, pledged to halt new oil and gas leasing and to phase out existing production. But the group collectively represents less than 1 percent of global output. And at least one member, Greenland, produces no petroleum products at all.

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Many of the most significant commitments to emerge from the summit either omit oil and gas completely or pose little threat to their continued dominance. Nations pledged in one case to end deforestation. In another, they vowed to phase out coal, though China, India and the United States, which collectively consume about 70 percent of the world’s coal, declined to join in. Still another pledge promised to end sales of combustion engine cars and vans over the next two decades, and while the agreement included India, it did not include China or the United States, among the largest markets.

A group of developed nations promised to end fossil fuel financing overseas. While that effort could help slow the expansion of oil and gas projects in developing countries in the future, it would do nothing to address current or future development in top producers like the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia or Canada. China, Japan and South Korea—all major funders of fossil fuel projects—did not join the deal. And, if anything, the pact may further deepen the injustices of climate change, depriving developing countries of money to build gas power plants, for example, even as wealthier countries are free to continue constructing them domestically. 

Perhaps the most direct impact on the oil industry could come from a pledge by more than 100 countries to curb methane emissions, which are produced by oil and gas development and other activities, including agriculture. But the pledge, which included no specific targets for individual countries, would at best clean up fossil fuel production, rather than winding it down.

Oil and Gas Still ‘Very Much in the Driver’s Seat’

Many climate advocates say that the summit, known as COP26, felt divorced from the increasingly urgent and abundant evidence that oil and gas development must be reined in not someday, somewhere, but right away.

In May, the International Energy Agency, which advises energy-producing nations, said that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) would require an end to developing new oil and gas fields. Reports published separately in the journal Nature and by the United Nations Environment Program have said that oil and gas production must begin declining immediately and steadily, with one report citing a figure of 3 percent annually.

Perhaps in recognition of these developments, the government of the United Kingdom, which hosted this month’s summit, said oil and gas companies would be barred from formally participating in the conference. Yet, an analysis by advocacy groups found there were hundreds of fossil fuel lobbyists registered to attend, including from multinational giants like Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron, which participated under the banners of national delegations or industry groups. Saudi Arabia and other petrostates brought delegates from their oil companies, but so did Canada, which included a representative of Suncor, a top producer in the country’s tar sands, which are among the planet’s most polluting sources of oil.

“The oil and gas industry is still very much in the driver’s seat,” said Pascoe Sabido, a researcher and campaigner at the nonprofit Corporate Europe Observatory who was involved in the lobbyist analysis. “It’s really depressing,” he said, because despite the march of dire climate news and waves of protesters in the streets, “it’s not getting through to the politicians.”

Many advocates greeted even the existence of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance as a welcome potential turning point.

“For far too long, climate negotiations have ignored the basic reality that keeping 1.5ºC alive requires an equitable global plan to keep fossil fuels in the ground,” Romain Ioualalen, global policy campaign manager at Oil Change International, said in a statement. He added that the alliance “puts to shame” some of the larger producers like Canada, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States, none of which joined.

The international arena will follow what happens in national capitals, and there are mixed messages coming from Washington, D.C. For the first time last month, oil executives were forced to testify in Congress about their industry’s history of funding climate disinformation. Democrats said it could mark a seminal moment when the industry began to face a reckoning for blocking climate action.

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But the hearing came as President Joe Biden headed to Europe without enacting significant climate legislation. Some of the components of Biden’s proposed climate and social policy bill that were most transformative—and most threatening to oil and gas companies—had been removed or weakened. And with the end of the year nearing, passage of even that whittled down package was hardly assured.

This article has been updated to reflect the release of a new draft agreement on Saturday, Nov. 13.