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Semantic suggestions to break the Cop28 impasse

Words matter if the final text is to gain endorsement from all

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The wording options for a final communique refer to 'phasing down' or 'phasing out' fossil fuels

The latest suggested wording from Cop28 to achieve a breakthrough agreement in a final communique due later this week does not seem to go far enough to assuage the reservations of hydrocarbon producers and big consuming nations.

Understandably, many in these groups – like the big oil and gas producers of the Arabian Gulf, and the hydrocarbon guzzlers in India and China (who are also partial to large amounts of coal) – do not want to give up the economic benefits derived from the most efficient and powerful fuel mankind has so far devised on a mass scale.

The wording options still refer to a “phasing down” or “phasing out” of “fossil fuels” either straight or “unabated”. This language is not helpful.

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Take the “phase out” option, for example. This terminology first surfaced in Glasgow at Cop26 in relation to coal, and it proved to be a red line for the Indian delegation in particular. After much rancorous debate, it was watered down to “phase down”.

Since then, the “phase” wording has become a mantra for the eco-left, led by the Europeans but backed by the US and the UN, who want to tell the rest of the world how to do business.

The problem with “phase” for the hydrocarbon producers and consumers is that it implies human agency – actually physically turning off the spigots for the oil producers and closing coal-fired power stations for the consumers.

They are reluctant – to say the least – to go along with that.

If it were replaced with another form of wording, that talks about the “inevitable” decline of hydrocarbons as a proportion of the global energy mix, it might be more palatable – historical market forces as the drivers of transition, rather than fallible human beings.

Also offensive to the oil, gas and coal producers is the term “fossil fuels”. This is another catchy bit of propaganda that the environmentalists love because it gives the impression that they are on the right side of history.

“Fossils equals dinosaurs equals extinction” carries powerful subliminal messaging – but it is highly emotive and scientifically inaccurate.

For example, the oil industry in countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia is driven by state-of-the-art high technology, which, as well as providing the basic economic livelihood of many citizens and expatriates, is a symbol of national pride. No Jurassic connotations at all in these countries.

Could the Cop28 participants allow themselves to drop the “FF” word in favour of the more accurate “hydrocarbons”? It would just be following the science, after all, and could be an important concession from the environmentalists.

The other gesture the environmentalists could offer would be to ditch their climate technophobia.

While lauding “the science” to the skies, they simultaneously disparage all the efforts of the global scientific community to develop effective technological solutions to climate change and global warming.

Carbon capture, utilisation and storage, direct air capture and other technologies that aim to reduce the harmful emissions in the atmosphere are all dismissed as a “smokescreen” or “greenwashing”.

These technologies, critics allege, allow the hydrocarbon producers to carry on pumping, rather than offering practical, innovative solutions that have the potential to dig mankind out of the mess it will find itself in in 2050.

Perhaps the Cop participants could insert some wording into the final statement to the effect that climate technology is a significant element of the campaign against climate change that needs to be financed to the tune of trillions of dollars.

It would also talk to the “unabated” aspect of the wording, by offering effective ways to abate greenhouse gas emissions.

I would also suggest – though this might be going too far – that the statement should highlight the potential for nuclear power (net zero throughout) as a major element in the future energy mix.

Some of these suggestions are practical, some are semantic.

But semantics matter in the process of drafting a few thousand words that can gain endorsement from close to 200 countries with differing economic interests and aspirations.

Something different has to be attempted to break the Cop28 impasse.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He also acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia

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