The words that shape our energy future

Chief Europe Correspondent
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Illustration by Turnstyle.

An international political battle is brewing over what our net-zero emissions future should look like — and, in the world of climate diplomacy, a lot hangs on the choice of words. 

Should fossil fuels be phased down or phased out? Or should the emissions of fossil fuels be dealt with and phased out, but not necessarily their production and use? 

This may sound like semantic games, but the nuances are important, reflecting different mentalities, interests and timelines that could shape what technologies and approaches we prioritize and fund to address climate change.   

The tussle over the inclusion of one word over another — in speeches, letters or joint statements — sheds light on linguistic divisions contoured by countries’ oil and gas resources, their wealth and their vulnerability to the impacts of a changing climate.   

The fact that a fight over how to talk about fossil fuels exists is a good sign, said Alex Scott, who leads climate diplomacy and geopolitics at the environmental think tank E3G. 

“It’s a huge signal that there is starting to be political recognition that we need to address the role of fossil fuels,” she said. 

The semantics have become more prevalent over the last few months as nations gear up for the yearly United Nations climate conference, this year known as COP28, which will be hosted in November and December by the United Arab Emirates, a major oil and gas producing country. Expect plenty of wordsmithing at Climate Week events getting underway this week in New York. 

Below is a snapshot of the linguistic climate dance in the run-up to COP28 so far. We’ve added italics to emphasize the relevant words causing friction. 

At last year’s COP27 conference in Egypt, India called for nations to agree on language to phase down all fossil fuels. The move would have gone significantly beyond the agreement from the previous year’s COP26, when the world agreed to “phase down unabated coal power” and “phase out … inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” 

The European Union and the United States, together with more than other 80 countries, supported the move as part of wider negotiations in Egypt.  

Nonetheless, the language was not included in the conference’s final joint communiqué due to opposition from Saudi Arabia and other oil and gas resource-rich countries. Instead, it reiterated the COP26 language. 

At a Berlin climate conference in May, COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber said the world “must be laser focused on phasing out fossil fuel emissions, while phasing up viable, affordable zero-carbon alternatives.”  

The wording kept the door open for the continued burning of fossil fuels while heavily relying on still-nascent technologies to capture the resulting carbon pollution.  

The message from Al Jaber, who is also head of the UAE’s state-owned oil company ADNOC and a controversial pick to head the climate summit, put him at odds with other climate leaders and spooked environmentalists, who have accused him of a soft approach on fossil fuels.   

Al Jaber slightly changed his tune in June, saying that the “phasedown of fossil fuels is inevitable,” a message he also reiterated in front of oil industry CEOs at a conference of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Vienna, Austria the following month.  

Scott at E3G said this shift reflects an improvement in the UAE’s choice of words ahead of the global climate conference, “a tactic of testing the waters and seeing what the reaction is.”  

At another event in Brussels in mid-July, Al Jaber further shifted his tone when he proposed the world should phase out fossil fuels burned without their emissions captured (unabated fossil fuels) by mid-century. 

Some scientists recognize technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS), which are designed to abate fossil fuel emissions, as necessary in achieving a net-zero energy system. But just how big of a role they should play is up for debate and likely will be a top discussion point at the Dubai climate summit. 

This question is also causing a rift among the group of countries with lofty climate ambitions, Scott said. On the one hand, countries without a huge fossil fuel industry are bullish not to rely too much on CCS technologies. On the other, countries with significant oil and gas resources want to see a flourishing CCS industry. 

She placed the United States in the latter category, describing it as “completely silent [in the linguistic debate] at the moment.”  

Action is speaking louder than (the lack of) words. The U.S. aims to turbocharge its CCS industry through generous tax credits in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. 

Abatement technologies such as CCS “must not be used to green-light continued fossil fuel expansion” and “should be recognised as having a minimal role to play in the decarbonization of the energy sector,” read a mid-July letter signed by the European Commission and ministers from over a dozen countries including Germany, France, Spain, Senegal and New Zealand.  

In a clear sign of political divisions ahead of COP28, ministers from the Group of 20 (G20) major economies, including the U.S., China, France and Brazil, failed to agree on common language around cutting unabated fossil fuels at a meeting in India in late July, Reuters reported. G20 heads of state did not make any more progress at their meeting in early September.

Word games are not new in climate diplomacy, Scott said, but the strength of the final wording in international agreements will send an important signal to markets and investors with important consequences for our planet’s future. 

You have to phase down fossil fuels to get to a phase out and that’s some of the excuses some countries put forward regarding the wording,” Scott said. “But ultimately we need to break up completely with use of fossil fuels.”