For some analysts and climate campaigners the formation of a small but influential international alliance at Cop26 is a bold attempt “to kill the oil and gas industry”.
Climate scientist John Rockström of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research greeted the formation of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance in Glasgow with the tweet: "Another sign that we are seeing the final stretch of the fossil fuel era in the world."
It may be a small bloc with less than 10 countries – including Ireland – as well as California and Quebec, but it intends to build to a point where turning off the tap on fossil fuels is central to global climate agreements, which have focused on limiting oil and gas emissions up to now.
Critically, it is seeking agreement on setting an end date for exploration and extraction, allowing for a planned and socially just transition.
Denmark and Costa Rica led the initiative. The former's minister for climate, energy and utilities Dan Jørgensen declared: "There's no future for oil and gas in a 1.5-degree world."
Keeping to 1.5-degrees is a key priority of Cop26 though as of Friday commitments by countries fell short of fulfilling that target.
“We don’t answer this call for the thrill of the challenge. We do it because we truly believe that we need to. We are unwilling to accept the consequences if we don’t,” Jørgensen added.
Costa Rica's environment minister Andrea Meza said it was about early movers showing courage. Highlighting that NGO Global Witness had reported the fossil fuel industry presence was larger than the biggest national delegation with more than 500 delegates, she underlined: "We really need to try to generate another force here that can be a counterpart to the influence of these other companies."
Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan says Ireland's involvement "sends a powerful message we are moving irrevocably away from fossil fuels towards a renewable future".
No easy option
It is clear, however, this is no easy option and comes with big financial consequences. In 2019, Denmark was the biggest oil producer in the EU. Greenland, a signatory country, has so much oil reserves it could supply the whole world for nine months.
Quebec adopted a moral position in light of an overheating planet and is buying back exploration licences. But that won’t be happening in Ireland, Ryan confirms, on the basis the public might not appreciate buying back Corrib gas, for instance, at a cost of hundreds of millions of euros – licences already issued by the State are still being honoured.
BOGA recognises members may be locked into granting certain permissions due to existing contractual/legal commitments. Its declaration “seeks to set a clear direction of travel, taking an ambitious ‘glide path’ approach to phasing out production, rather than an impossible ‘nose-dive’.”
The BOGA initiative puts the squeeze on other efforts pushing for more urgent climate action like the High Ambition Coalition (HAC), a grouping of countries aiming to hit the Paris agreement’s lower target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees – and the Powering Past Coal Alliance – a gathering of countries, regions, cities and organisations to end coal use. None of these groups, however, have directly taken on the oil and gas industry.
The US, EU, UK and Canada are HAC members and yet continue to be major oil and gas producers. The UK refused to join BOGA; a position that sent the wrong signal as the Cop26 hosts pushed for a strong summit outcome.
“What we cannot have is a cliff-edge where oil and gas are abandoned overnight. If we stopped producing gas, this would put energy security, British jobs and industries at risk, and we would be even more dependent on foreign imports,” a spokesperson for the UK business and energy department.
‘Sensitive political time’
Getting countries to join the BOGA crusade is complicated by the recent energy price surge – supporter countries have to avoid the risk of undermining energy security by having to increase imports of expensive oil and gas.
Meza acknowledges “it’s a very sensitive political time” to be asking countries to cut supply, even in the distant future. The major response to her lobbying has been: “Can we do this transition and not really have a huge impact on the price of electricity?”
Needless to say mega producers like the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia or Australia are not contemplating joining, though earlier this year the International Energy Agency said no new oil and gas fields should come online if the world is to stay below 1.5 degrees.
Meza insists curtailing the production of oil and gas would “give signals to people and to the market” that would shift investment into renewable energy. She has likened the industry’s influence on public debate to the tobacco industry.
Unlike other pledges over the past fortnight, this has real teeth, according to Romain Ioualalen, global policy campaign manager with advocacy group Oil Change International. "The bar to get into the coalition is quite significant. It isn't a greenwashing exercise."
Moreover, Lars Koch of ActionAid Denmark told Grist environmental news the move was a test for oil-producing countries. "If they don't become members of this alliance, what they are actually saying is, 'We don't mean what we say about 1.5,'" he said.
“It is just pure, deep greenwashing.”