The Slow, Accelerating Transition: A Retrospective on COP27 and the Pivotal Year in Energy

This Feature appears in vol. 75, no. 1, "Insecurities: The 75th Anniversary Issue, 1947-2022" (Fall/Winter 2022).

An Interview with Olivier Bois von Kursk

Olivier Bois von Kursk is a policy analyst working on energy transition scenarios with International Institute for Sustainable Development, specifically the phase out of oil and natural gas and the widespread adoption of renewable energy. The Journal spoke with Olivier to review the year 2022 in energy, which saw massive developments in virtually every area; revisit COP27, which took place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt in November 2022 and saw the creation of the first global loss and damage fund, a significant if premature climate victory; and return to the issue of climate equity and a fair transition for all states and all peoples moving forward.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): What is the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), and what is your role within the organization?

Olivier Bois von Kursk (OBVK): IISD is an independent think tank and a nonprofit research institute, working on several key issues for the transition to a sustainable world. We have several different programs. First, we have one that works on transforming institutions through economic and legal instruments, another that focuses on resilience and how to adapt to this changing world, and one that focuses on the energy transition and climate policies. I sit in the energy program and work with climate and energy scenarios limiting warming to 1.5 degrees to assess the impact of different policy and technology choices on our ability to comply with the Paris Agreement temperature target.

Accordingly, we make recommendations on adequate fossil fuels phaseout pathways which comply with feasible and viable transition scenarios. In order to achieve this, I look at the hundreds of scenarios published in the IPCC database together with 1.5C-consistent pathways from intergovernmental organizations such as the International Energy Agency (IEA); the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA); energy consultancies such as Bloomberg New Energy Finance and Navigant; the UN Principle for Responsible Investment; and several others. Then, I apply feasibility and sustainability criteria to analyze which models have to most realistic assumptions on policy and technology choices. I then extract data on key features of the energy transition from selected scenarios and make policy recommendations based on them.

One of the many challenges of working with Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs), which provide insights about ways the future may unfold, based on various technical, economic, societal, and policy assumptions, is that many tend to rely on unproven technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere or from fossil fuel combustion processes. Uncertainties around Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies constitute a major risk to the achievability of the Paris goals. Assumptions around CCS and potential carbon sequestration, as well as large scale afforestation and reforestation in IAMs, have a large incidence on the 1.5C consistent rate of oil and gas phase-out. We consider that modeling gigantic amounts of carbon removal technology (with technologies that do not exist today) is less realistic than undertaking efforts to phase out fossil fuel rapidly with existing wind and solar technologies, which are already cost-competitive and demonstrated at scale.

Accordingly, we apply some constraints on the deployment of carbon dioxide removals in IAMs we chose to make recommendations with. This provides more realistic insights on what would be appropriate rates of coal, oil, and gas phase-outs required to limit warming to 1.5C. Consequently, it also indicates the rates of wind and solar deployment needed and the corresponding amount of finance needed for the energy transition overall. Last but not least, I also conduct some research on how to integrate equity consideration in these modeling exercises. Just energy transitions imply that high-income fossil fuel producers (which are large historical emitters with highly diversified economies) would need to phase out their fossil fuel production significantly faster than global averages shown in models to allow more time for emerging economies to transition from their carbon intensive energy sector. Hence, we also look at disaggregated regional data to assess fairness in sharing mitigation efforts between countries.

JIA: 2022 was a significant year for energy. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the energy situation in Europe is disrupting the global energy landscape. It feels as though people have really come to accept that solar and wind can be and are cheaper than traditional fossil fuels. As someone who works in the space, who follows these things closely, what are some of your takeaways from this year and how things have changed—or maybe not changed?

OBVK: The past year has certainly been a pretty tumultuous year for the energy markets, with gas prices hitting record levels in the EU before coming down at the end of the year. The outset of the war in Ukraine triggered huge shortages of gas, on which Europe remains highly dependent. The conflict also created a situation where several large fossil fuel producers were eager to fill that gap and increase their production to supply the European market with liquified natural gas (LNG).

European heads of state have sought to sign gas deals in Africa, supporting new gas development and LNG infrastructure projects. The benefits of these deals are quite debatable, since developing any new oil or gas field typically takes about three to five years minimum. Alternative wind and solar projects are actually more much competitive financially, especially in the EU, and they could be deployed faster than the timelines required to develop new gas fields with relatively low-interest rates and capital costs.

In the meantime, however, the EU also significantly raised its renewables deployment target, and the bloc’s renewable electricity capacity is now projected to double by 2027. Additional efforts to improve energy efficiency by promoting the installation of heat pumps, better insulation, and electrification are also expected to alleviate the short-term gas supply crunch to phase out all Russian gas imports. Overall, I think the case that wind and solar are the best insurance to provide energy security became an increasingly dominant narrative in 2022. The consequences related to volatile fossil fuel markets and the dependence on foreign fossil resources also became obvious, forcing the EU to accelerate its energy transition.

JIA: Significant movement was also achieved at this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP27. How did this year’s edition compare to those of past years?

OBVK: First of all, the agreement to create a new loss and damage fund was a big step for the negotiation and a large victory for lower income countries worst hit by climate extremes. However, this remains a relatively minor achievement for addressing the wider equity concerns related to sustainable development in these countries. It’s important to recognize that funding loss and damage only addresses the symptom, not the cause, of global heating. It should also provide a startling reminder that extreme climate events have become so disruptive that mitigation and adaptation are no longer sufficient to alleviate the repercussions of the climate crisis.

Preventing global mean temperature rise above 1.5C requires ensuring a just transition away from fossil fuels. This shift towards renewable energy systems across the world demands that significantly more climate finance flows from developed countries toward developing and emerging economies. Accordingly, one of the major shortcomings from COP27 was its failure acknowledge the need to phase-out fossil fuels in the cover text. Even though more than 80 countries across all negotiating blocs called for the phasing out of all fossil fuel, this proposal was block by a handful of large fossil fuel producers.

Nevertheless, the increasing support to address fossil fuels in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process constituted a major advance from past COPs. The overwhelming evidence for the need to phase out all fossil fuels in the upcoming decades is no longer possible to ignore. Even the International Energy Agency, which is now publishing a 1.5-degree-aligned scenario in its World Energy Outlook reports, concluded that there were no room for any new oil and gas fields on the road to net-zero. Moreover, our recent research at IISD revealed that all major 1.5C scenarios published by the IPCC latest assessment report also support that conclusion when controlling for viable and sustainable amounts of carbon sequestrations.

However, countries such as Australia, Canada, Norway, the UK, and the U.S., all among the largest historical emitters and high-income countries with highly diversified economies, are still all planning to open oil and gas new fields. This is highly problematic for the negotiation in terms of both climate and equity perspectives. These countries are the best positioned globally to transition towards renewables and should be phasing out their fossil fuel production much faster than the global average. However, they have so far chosen to continue profiting from an unfair grab of the remaining carbon budget. This comes in clear contradiction with one of the Paris Agreement founding principles recognizing that countries have common but differentiated responsibility and should mitigate their emissions based on their respective capabilities.

JIA: As part of an organization that has been there for a while, would you say that the outcomes of COP27 fell short of, exceeded, or met expectations?

OBVK: The outcomes of COP27 were equivocally mixed: on one side, the creation of a loss and damage fund was a great victory and recognition that developing countries—the most affected by climate change, having contributed the least to it—will be able to receive compensation for the consequences of a warmer planet to which they cannot adapt. On the other side, while fossil fuels have generated more than 80% of all the greenhouse gases that are currently in the atmosphere, there is still no acknowledgement that they need to be phased in the cover text. This remains the elephant in the room, which needs to be addressed if we are to have any chances of limiting warming to any viable temperature level, let alone 1.5C or below 2C. 

JIA: Why hasn’t it been addressed? Is it a function of states coming in and not wanting to address it? Is there some other actor who’s also in the room applying a certain kind of pressure? To what or to whom do you ascribe that failure?

OBVK: There are lots of vested interests in securing oil and gas production, and most producing countries would like to be one selling the last barrel, even if they acknowledge that global production must decline. In light of the energy market crisis last year due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the energy security narrative also contributed to lower ambition on phase out timelines. The EU scrambling for new LNG import led countries such as the US and Norway to ramp up production, while high prices also made new exploration more attractive.

Moreover, COP27 had a record level of representatives from the oil and gas companies, with more than 600 lobbyists registered, which was a 25% increase from COP26. They orchestrated a big pushback against raising ambitions on phasing out production by pushing the energy security narrative and false solutions such as large-scale carbon capture and storage. Unfortunately, while oil and gas companies have been making record profits in 2022, they haven’t shown their willingness to reinvest their any significant parts of their earnings into the energy transition. This is why supply side policies are needed to ensure that we reign in fossil fuel companies expansion plans.

JIA: On a practical note: who invited representatives from the oil and gas companies? How do they show up and have a presence?

OBVK: The badges to COP can be acquired through various different channels. However, many representatives are actually invited as part of country delegations. Hence, they have party badges which also give them access to negotiations rooms. There are also various types of observer badges that can be acquired by business and industry representatives. Fossil fuel lobbyists also tend to wear multiple hats and might be working for other institutions as consultants or advisors. This enables them to distill their narratives and false solutions without being labelled as industry representatives. I believe that fossil fuel companies are getting anxious about the mounting pressure against their industry and are afraid that if they don’t have a seat at the table, they find themselves on the menu.

After all, their industry is responsible for the vast majority of anthropogenic carbon emissions, and unless we succeed in orchestrating a managed phase out of coal, oil, and gas, we have no chance in limiting warming to any conceivable levels. Accordingly, their survival depends on their success in changing narratives in their favor by forcing themselves into the center of discussions. They are actually quite disruptive in doing so, and they have effectively contributed to derail ambitious agreements and continue to push humanity ever closer to precipice of the climate breakdown.

JIA: In the negotiating room, was their presence felt? Or was it more that the representatives were there and the event is simply a large, complicated conference where everyone has a little bit of input?

OBVK: Overall, there is no doubt that they have some impact on the outcome of the negotiations. Just as an example, the Saudi oil ministry negotiate on behalf of the government at COPs, and Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the CEO of UAE’s national oil company, ADNOC, will preside over COP28 at the end of this year. Otherwise, their influence is mostly felt by their advocacy for technological fixes such as fossil carbon capture and storage, direct air capture, and hydrogen. They will elevate any solutions which enables the fossil fuel industry to remain in business for as long as possible despite those solutions’ known limitations and flaws. They tend to champion the argument that they can increasing the “efficiency” of their production by mitigating emissions from the extraction and production of the oil and gas they sell. In other words, reducing the carbon emissions needed to produce a barrel of oil. However, this only addresses about 15-20% of the sector’s emissions. More than 80% of emissions from the oil and gas sector results from the combustion of the stuff that’s dug out of the ground and burned for energy. These emissions fall into the so-called Scope 3 emissions category, and are generally excluded from fossil fuel companies’ carbon accounting.

These lobbyists are everywhere and are very tactful in concealing their true intentions. I actually came across a particularly skillful one myself which I first at a conference in Oxford, where she was promoting net-zero oil and gas projects. We crossed paths again in Egypt at a BloombergNEF event and eventually ended up having dinner together alongside a group of academics from around the world. I sat next to her at this dinner, and although her company was very pleasant, the conversation somehow always circled back to pragmatism and the difficult realities of phasing out fossil fuels and the need to compensate for this sector’s emissions. Anything non-disruptive to the industry was on the table, while she carefully adopted industry terms used by large producing states during the negotiation. Little did I know that she had been working for BP for more than 20 years. This is just one anecdotal way in which they highjack the conversations and distract policy- and decision-makers from talking about what is truly needed to implement the goals of the Paris Agreement.

JIA: What most people likely understand about COP27 is that there are the negotiations: there are people in a room trying to make decisions, to come to some kind of agreement. Yet, that’s become only a small part of the actual enterprise. What do some of these outside activities look like? And how do they either inform the negotiations or provide additional context around them?

OBVK: COPs have indeed become a massive undertaking, with more than 35,000 people attending last year at COP27 in Egypt. The venue is enormous, and most countries have their own pavilions where people gather for panel discussions, networking events and sometime free coffee. Many intergovernmental organizations, UN agencies, multilateral development banks, and some think tanks also have their own pavilions. There are also various negotiation rooms and larger conference halls for official UNFCCC side events. There are literally hundreds of events happening simultaneously at all times, and it can be quite overwhelming, especially when it can take up to 20 minutes to get from one side of the venue to the other—and that’s if you don’t get lost along the way.

Then there are the official plenary rooms, which are by far the largest and where all party delegations have assigned seats. This is where COP presidents chair the plenary sessions throughout the 2 weeks of the event. Hence, as you can expect, these are a big melting pot of all sorts of people and a fantastic opportunity to meet and learn from peers working on similar fields. It is also not rare to see heads of state or some ministers walking through the venues with their security details. It is quite hectic but also a really exciting and restless atmosphere, where everyone is always hungry for the latest updates.

JIA: Did IISD have its own pavilion? And what was the Institute’s engagement in these events?

OBVK: We didn’t have one this year, though we did send 15 to 20 people, which is a pretty sizable delegation for an NGO. We also had more than a dozen side events organized with partners. IISD is quite a large organization, so we’re active on various fronts of the negotiations and working on multiple thematic areas. We also strive to engage with all of our stakeholders and use this time of the year to meet with governments and sometimes even support them in their negotiations. Together with partners in civil society organizations, we held daily meetings to coordinate our efforts and try to steer the outcome of the negotiations, by providing research, data, and alternative wording for delegations to put forward and advocate for more ambitious outcomes in the final cover text. This is also an opportunity to promote some of our research we’ve done throughout the year and learn from fellow organizations working on similar topics. We really need to maximize our time while we are there, and most days extend late into the evenings with networking dinners, receptions, and various other events.

JIA: What does the stakeholder environment look like? Who were IISD’s partners at COP27?

OBVK: IISD collaborates with many different civil society organizations, intergovernmental organizations, ministries, and country delegations. We are all over the place with colleagues from all of our different programs. IISD’s energy program collaborated on site closely with the Global Gas and Oil Network, which assembles different civil society organizations, from Climate Action Network, WWF, and Oil Change International, to Greenpeace and Oxfam. We coordinate on a daily basis to assess the progress on the cover text for the negotiation and update each other on the key events of the day. We try to find what are the barriers for more ambitious outcomes and draft positions for delegations to consider. We also organize several side events with various partner organizations, hold meetings with stakeholders whom we aim to influence, and take the time to meet with our donors and better understand their priorities for the upcoming years.

JIA: Is there an agenda provided beforehand? Do you know what sort of side events are taking place at any given time and then can decide to attend or to send someone to attend?

OBVK: That’s basically how it works. All the official UNFCCC side events are scheduled well in advance. These are typically higher-level and where large announcements tend to be made by energy ministries or heads of states. Moreover, each country pavilion has its own agenda which can also be looked up in advance. One needs to be extremely well-prepared to navigate this very busy environment. For our team, we planned our daily schedule a couple of weeks before COP started to ensure that we had people covering every event where we needed to be while also scheduling meetings with partners we wanted engage with. It is essential to allocate human resources on the ground wisely since there are generally multiple relevant events happening simultaneously and everyone has busy days. Attending side-events out of curiosity and learning about new topics is actually a privilege reserved to more junior staff. The more senior people are at COP, the less they get to wander freely around the venue and the more they need to line up meetings and convene with stakeholders and donors throughout the day and night.

JIA: How many of these COP events have you now attended?

OBVK: Sharm El-Sheikh was my second COP, and I was also in Madrid for COP25 back when I was working with the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), Copenhagen Climate Center. For three years, I was responsible for organizing UNFCCC official side-events for the UNEP Emissions Gap Reports. Hence, I had very different roles during these two COPs. First, I was part of the UNEP delegation and had a smaller coordination role for big events. And then last year, I had a much larger role in organizing smaller events. As the lead author of a newly published IISD report, I got to organize side-events with partner CSO organizations and sat on panel discussions to present the findings of my research. Accordingly, I spent my time actively engaging with some of our key stakeholders and making sure that relevant people were aware of our research.

JIA: How was COP27 different, and is the process evolving throughout the years?

OBVK: One of the biggest agenda items discussed during COP27 was the issue of loss and damage. This was the first time this contentious issue was brought forward to the agenda after years of pressure from civil society organizations. This enabled us to address difficult equity issues regarding the overwhelming impacts of the climate crisis on developing countries which had not been fully addressed before. The creation of a fund for countries most affected by chronic and extreme climate events also constitutes an acknowledgement of historic responsibility and a recognition that climate justice implies that financial transfers towards the Global South need not be considered as charity but rather as compensation for a problem they did not create.

Overall, the architecture of the UNFCCC process has changed significantly over the past decade as well. Before the Paris Agreement came into force, the COP process was a much more top-down process, with the Kyoto Protocol imposing emission mitigation targets for countries. Then, the Paris Agreement enshrined a bottom-up process, where countries submit their own nationally determined contributions (NDC), which are then aggregated at the global level. The forecasted emissions reductions resulting from the NDCs are then compared with the required emissions pathways consistent with limiting global mean temperature rise to 1.5C or 2C. That’s the so-called “Emissions Gap,” which currently tells us that the full implementation of the NDCs are expected to lead to a 2.4-2.6° C temperature rise—policies already in place are expected to lead to a 2.8° C temperature rise by the end of the century.

Another important feature of the UNFCCC COP process is the Global Stocktake on the implementation of the Paris Agreement, which aims to assess the collective progress towards long-term objectives on mitigation, adaptation, and finance. Scheduled to happen every five years, it aims to raise the ambition of the NDCs and update our scientific understanding of what needs to be done to bridge the implementation gap. COP28 in 2023 will provide the first assessment of this periodic review of the Paris Agreement.

JIA: Much of the work that you do is on adaptation and mitigation, which is largely but not entirely falling upon these countries that are themselves not the largest emitters. While you’re at COP, are you interacting with some of these smaller countries that are mostly concerned about questions around mitigation or adaptation? Or are you largely working or interacting with the largest emitters—China, the U.S., and the EU? Or does IISD work with both?

OBVK: My team’s contribution and mandate at COP was to target the large historical emitters and fossil fuel producers because this is where we can make the biggest impact. About 80% of global annual GHG emissions come from the G20 countries, and they have the biggest historical responsibility but also the most capacity to decarbonize their economies. Accordingly, we have mostly focused our efforts on high-income fossil fuel producers who are still developing new oil and gas fields and impeding the global transition toward renewable energy systems.

We had an event at the Canada Pavilion, where I presented our latest research on energy and climate scenarios and showed that under Canada Energy Regulator current policy plans, oil and gas production would continue to rise until the 2040s, while its evolving policy scenario shows their production continuing to increase until the 2030s. This comes in clear contradiction with what all major 1.5C pathways indicate we must do. Moreover, other IISD colleagues worked with emerging economies to provide support on climate adaptation and help them develop more resilient cities and communities.

JIA: The most significant outcome of COP27 has been the decision to address loss and damage through the creation of a dedicated fund. You mentioned it earlier, but provide a brief overview of what exactly this is in principle and what was actually agreed upon at COP27.

OBVK: This was the biggest victory from COP27. It was already a success that this issue managed to be included on the official agenda, and the fact that all parties agreed to create a fund was a huge success for developing countries and for climate justice. However, it remains unclear how much funding will be provided to it, what will be the criteria for delivering the capital, and which countries will benefit from it and under what conditions. Hence, there remain a lot of unknowns and essential components still need to be defined before it can be celebrated.

Moreover, I think it is worth mentioning that while it had been agreed upon at COP 16 in Cancun, Mexico in 2010 that developed countries parties should deliver 100 billion dollars annually through the Green Climate Fund to developing countries for mitigation and adaptation by 2020, this fund still only disbursed around 85 billion last year. Accordingly, it will be important to maintain pressure on governments to make sure that the loss and damage fund truly provides additional capital for developing countries and is fully implemented on top of previous commitments.

JIA: How does this loss and damage fund intersect with the work that you’re doing on energy, either in terms of energy production or transition away from fossil fuels? What role does this mechanism play in that work?

OBVK: While the loss and damage fund will address the symptom of the climate emergency and compensate developing countries from some of the worst impact of extreme weather events, our work in the energy program attempts to mitigate the worst from these expected consequences. The faster we accelerate the energy transition and push governments and businesses to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions, the less loss and damage there will be. Hence, we work upstream trying to prevent dangerous climate change from occurring, while the loss and damage and climate adaptation happens downstream. Both are essential, and they need to be addressed simultaneously. It is important to acknowledge that there is already a significant amount of climate disruptions baked into the system which we won’t be able to mitigate.

JIA: Since the onset of COVID, there has been a real revolution in video-calling technology and remote video conferencing. How has that changed your work or how IISD interacts with some of these organizations?

OBVK: Certainly, that has significantly changed how we operate. My team, Sustainable Energy Supply, has been largely created post-COVID. Accordingly, all members of our team sit in different cities and our work is entirely done in a distributed fashion. I’m based in Montreal and have colleagues based in the UK, France, Amsterdam, Rome, and Geneva. The Energy Programme also has country offices in Indonesia, South Africa, and India, together with the main office in Canada. I meet together with my team once or twice a year depending on who’s attending which conferences.

That being said, I still think that there is great value in interacting and meeting with colleagues and stakeholders in person. The COP is certainly the biggest event of the year for us where we all gather together. Otherwise, the pandemic has also led most international climate events such as COPs to be livestreamed. I believe that this is a very positive outcome which contributes to democratizing the climate negotiations process. It supports equity in the negotiations by allowing countries that can’t afford to send large delegations to COPs to follow everything happening there.

JIA: Others who also attended suggested that there was a real privileging of in-person interaction and the face-to-face discussions that happen.

OBVK: I think that’s really the advantage of being at COP. I would say that the beauty of it is that you can all finally meet with colleagues, partner organizations, and your target audiences in person and fast track conversations and projects that were in the pipeline for months. These opportunities are a little rarer now that we all work in distributed fashion. Accordingly, we try to take full advantage of this when we can. There is undeniably so much more we can achieve in person. It is way more effective and engaging to connect with colleagues and stakeholders on a more personal level.

JIA: After this COP, from an energy perspective, what needs to happen? What are the next steps, either in the oncoming negotiations leading up to COP28 next year or the work that IISD does outside of these annual events?

OBVK: All major 1.5C energy scenarios are clear on the fact that there is enough oil and gas confined in the fields that are already producing, and the ones being developed, to consume the entire carbon budget allocated for the oil and gas sector. While there is already widespread agreement that coal needs to be phased out as fast as possible, people still debate whether gas should be used as a transition fuel. It cannot, and it is not a transition fuel. Alternative renewable energy sources are already more competitive and efficient. This means we need supply-side policies to prevent any new oil and gas developments, deploy wind and solar capacity, and electrify any process that can be deployed to avoid using fossil fuels as an energy source. However, there are some quite significant barriers to that. One of them lies in investment treaties, which are holding governments hostage by the possibility of being sued if they impose climate policies which prevent companies to profit from their licenses on oil and gas reserves.

Accordingly, these Investor-State Dispute Settlement treaties, protecting international or bilateral investments, gives foreign companies the right sue governments for billions of dollars to compensate for their lost future revenues. However, there are many more license reserves that the world can afford to consume to implement Paris-aligned energy policies. Several key countries such as Spain, France, the Netherlands, and others in the EU finally pulled out of the Energy Charter Treaty, precisely because they opposed these unfair provisions making their climate policies liable to lawsuits. But there remain dozens of such treaties still in place, and developing countries typically have a harder time fighting oil and gas companies. Going in to COP28, it will also be critical to have serious fossil fuel subsidy reforms. While G20 countries agreed several years ago to phase out these subsidies, the IEA just announced that 2022 had seen global fossil fuel subsidies double from the last year and reach an all-time high of USD 1 trillion. This is also happening against the backdrop of oil and gas companies making their highest profit in history. We need to stop throwing fuel on the fire.

JIA: What does engagement look like during the year when COP is not in session?

OBVK: This really depends on the political and climate agenda for any given year. However, we do try to publish research and reaction pieces on key events throughout the year in order to keep the pressure on governments and fossil fuel producers. We work together with civil society organizations and academics in order to develop new research and provide impactful knowledge to inform decision and policy makers. We also get involved in the UNFCCC process through the subsidiary bodies and the pre-COP event, which happens in Bonn every year during the summer. We organize webinars and work with ministries and governments and provide them with independent research and analysis.

JIA: As we speak, there is the other conference taking place, COP15: the biodiversity conference. It’s taking place in Montreal, where you are located, coincidently. Does IISD have a presence there as well?

OBVK: IISD is certainly involved in the proceedings of the convention for biodiversity. We have several side events scheduled, ranging from climate adaptation to the use of inclusive wealth as a measure of progress around sustainability. We are reporting on the negotiation through the “Earth Negotiations Bulletin.” IISD also assesses the impact of harmful environmental subsidies in the context of COP15. Colleagues on site are actively pushing for the “30x30” target to be adopted: this measure aims to have 30% of land habitat and 30% of marine habitat protected by 2030. We are also trying to send a signal at COP15 to push forward nature-based solutions, beneficial both for biodiversity but also for mitigation of climate change through sequestration, afforestation and reforestation, and conservation.

JIA: What are you thinking about going into COP28 next year? The host, the United Arab Emirates, is a large oil and natural gas producer. What is the actual work that will get done?

OBVK: As I said earlier, COP28 in 2023 will be held in the UAE, with the CEO of one of the largest national oil companies presiding over the negotiation. We expect that the fossil fuel lobby will have an even stronger presence at this COP than last year. It will therefore be key, throughout this year, to debunk the false narratives and solutions that they plan to put on the table in order to derail the negotiations and the ambition of COP28. What we are likely to see is fossil fuel companies advocating, through various channels, for decarbonizing the production of fossil fuels thought carbon capturing storage. Fossil companies are some of the largest advocates of bioenergy combined with carbon capturing storage (BECCS), which is the process of planting biomass and then harvesting and combusting it for energy production while the resulting emissions are captured and buried permanently into deep geological formations. However, both of these technologies are far from being feasible to sustain at large scale.

We already saw this type of greenwashing being promoted at COP27, and we need to be very careful and anticipate what is likely to occur at COP28 in order to adequately counter their false narrative. After more than 30 years of efforts to commercialize CCS, there are only 27 large-scale commercial CCS projects in operation worldwide. In total, these projects only capture about 42 megatons of CO2, or 0.1% of global emissions. Only five of these facilities (representing about 20% of the total carbon captured) are designed to deliver long-term storage of CO2, while all the others are used in enhanced oil recovery. This process is used by the fossil fuel industry to take some of the captured carbon and reinject it into oil and gas wells to increase the reservoir pressure so that they can extract even more fossil fuels.

JIA: There is a lot of bad news out there. What are you, personally, hopeful for, or what do you think is a potential opportunity in the coming months or years?

OBVK: One large policy overhaul which I believe would have the potential to significantly accelerate this transition is the Bridgetown Initiative. It aims at reforming the global financial architecture to change the way developed countries provide development finance to developing parties and could unleash trillions toward supporting countries to build clean energy system and climate-resilient economies. It would tackle multiple problems at once by channeling finance where capital costs are the highest and economies are more vulnerable to climate extremes, while also improving the equity in the allocation of development finance.

I work with scenarios that effectively mitigate global GHG emissions and lead to a stabilization of the earth’s temperature to a safe landing space for humanity almost on a daily basis. Seeing the countless different pathways limiting warming to 1.5C helps me to focus on solutions that remain technically feasible and to remain stubbornly optimistic that we can implement them. We also see that forecasts for the efficiency of wind and solar energy consistently underestimate their growth, while their costs have also dropped faster than anyone had projected year after year. Today, one in every seven new cars sold is electric, while this was only 1 in 70 just five years ago. Battery efficiency and their costs are also dropping fast enough to ensure that they can play the role they need to in the energy transition. Overall, the transition to a clean energy system has already become a dominant force which would carry on with simple market forces. However, the issue is that it’s just not going fast enough to respond to the geophysical boundaries of the earth system.